The Internet: It’s, it’s a series of tubes!

As I entered the restaurant, I wasn’t surprised by what I saw playing on the TV behind the bar. It was Friday night and I had stopped in to grab a quick bite to eat. By that point, the riots in Cairo had been raging for hours. President Mubarak had just announced the firing of his cabinet, presumably as a concession to the Egyptian population who were demanding his resignation. As talking heads pontificated next to images of anarchy, a massive CNN banner announced: “Breaking News: This revolution will be tweeted.”

But let’s back up for a minute. Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane—to the wonderful year of nineteen hundred and ninety-four. We all remember 1994, right? After all, it wasn’t too incredibly long ago. I was eight; President Clinton was in the White House; Sir Mix-A-Lot was still riding high on “Baby Got Back.” And Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel of The Today Show were wondering aloud, just what the hell is the Internet?

 

(Above video broken; alternately accessible at this url: http://www.wimp.com/todayshow/ )

A series of tubes

As humorous as this video is, I find it astonishing. It reveals just how far we’ve come as a society in 17 years—from a place of confusion and innocent naiveté over this thing called the Internet, to one that’s cognizant of its transcendent potential as a communication medium. Revolutions are no longer televised, but “tweeted” from the front lines, live and unfiltered, by individuals rather than by news corporations. Pretty cool, right? I mean, TV’s just so passé.

Without a doubt, this kind of impact constitutes transcendent change. And it matters little whether headlines like “This revolution will be tweeted” tend to vulgarize the issue or not. What matters is that mainstream media heavyweights like CNN view technologies like Twitter for what they are: revolutionary tools, yes, but also tools of revolution.

In 1994, would we have imagined a world in which a country could be thrown into such abject, disjointing turmoil as Egypt, and yet still possess hope for cohesion if only its Internet access were retained? Probably not. This sort of development has been a side effect of the Internet’s exciting unpredictability, an aspect that has proven to be one of its greatest promises.

It’s little surprise, then, that when the Egyptian government moved this weekend to shut down its citizens’ Internet access, the rest of the world took immediate notice. The symbolic Lose Weight Exercise of such a decision couldn’t be understated; things, undoubtedly, had just gotten significantly worse. When Al Jazeera’s Cairo offices were raided and shut down, it wasn’t free speech alone that was being assailed, but free communication—a freedom whose importance to democratic conduct is now equally as indispensable as the freedoms of press, speech or assembly.

But I digress. Time for more video.

 

‘What is Internet?’

Here, we laugh at the late former Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) for the same reason we laughed at Katie and Bryant: He clearly knows very little about the Internet. The poignancy of these videos’ juxtaposition, though, lies in the fact that Ted, in 2006, knew vastly more about the Internet than Katie and Bryant did back in ’94. Yet, we still laugh at him. Why? Because in the intervening years something profound happened: The criteria for ignorance shifted. The novices of 1994 became buffoonish by today’s standards; what would have then seemed sagacious today seems neophytic.

It’s in this way that these videos, taken together, so effectively illustrate the common knowledge gap between 1994 and the present (or by contemplative extension, between today’s present and tomorrow’s future, toward which we’re presently hurtling). We watch the videos; the people in them don’t really understand what the Internet is; they talk about it confusedly and awkwardly; it’s funny; we, the present-day audience, laugh and think, “Haha. They’re so dumb. Who doesn’t know what the Internet is? LOL.”

But in another 17 years, as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, we’ll be looking back on today and saying the same thing.

So, does such an illustration help us to arrive at anything even slightly resembling an answer to Mr. Gumbel’s earnestly posed question? I believe that it does. Perhaps the best way to answer the question is to simply say that the Internet represents potential—potential that is unknown, untapped and dispersed over time. To say less would be unfair, but to say more would run the risk of bombast. The internet represents political potential. It represents economic, communicative and technological potential. Its potential, like all potentials, is unclear. Its potential is non-linear, and both virtual and tangible.

Without a doubt, though, its potential is real. We see hints of it every day: From funny YouTube clips illuminating complex issues, to clandestine tweets informing world events.

Josh Hubanks

Josh is a former student in the Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT) M.A. program at Georgetown University. A native of Seattle, Josh graduated with honors from the University of Washington in 2009. He holds a B.A. in Communication with concentrations in politics and rhetoric, and is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. At CCT, Josh is interested in studying the emerging intersection between politics, rhetoric and social media. In his spare time, he enjoys sleeping, eating and watching totally radical movies. Follow Josh on Twitter at @jhubanks