Snarky won’t save the Internet

Senator Ted Stevens might be the most important person in the world right now when it comes to the future of the Internet.

If you haven’t heard what he said, you can read the comments here or listen to them here. Suffice it to say, they suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Internet works.

There was a great analysis of the committee’s debate on net neutrality on MyDD. It confirmed for me the need to report on these markups the way we used to report on protests through Indymedia.

Unfortunately, as the chance recording of Stevens’s comments have circulated, the analysis of the Senate debate has narrowed to self-satisfied derision.

You can see a sampling of the snarkfest below (after the jump) or read a chronology of “Mr. Stevens’ wild ride through a ‘seriesof tubes’” which identifies a backlash to which I am apparently a latecomer. (I was on vacation!)

Whatever Ted Stevens says, dumb or smart, wrong or right, he still holds the fate of the Internet in his hands. You may be right about how the Internet works, you may be clever, and you may be funny, but that isn’t enough to save the Internet.

(This is what we tried to get at with the 2006 Allied Media Conference, whose theme expressed the idea “being right is not enough.”)

This trend reminds me of how people used to laugh at how stupid George Bush is, at his missteps and malopropisms. Then he took us to war, stole a second election, mortgaged the national economy, and navigated the free world to the brink of WWIII. Who’s laughing now?

Of course, humor can also be used to get people’s attention, to educate, or to make a dent in the tyrant’s armor. But that’s not what I see happening here.

An idiot can be ignored, laughed off. There’s a word for this, thanks to GWB: misunderestimating. That’s what the “series of tubes” meme tells people.

So 463 blog is right to ask about the Stevens jokes, “Who is the joke on?” But I disagree that “The goal is to get policymakers to understand why technology matters — not necessarily how it works. How many congress folks can explain clearly how oil is refined, what makes a spark plug spark, or what the perfect soil conditions are for corn?”

If it was your job to write laws that determined what kind of soil people could plant corn in, then I absolutely would expect you to know what the perfect soil conditions were for corn. In theory, this is the point of having committees.

Educating legislators is fine, but Stevens isn’t making bad policy because he doesn’t understand the technology. He’s making bad policy because he’s making the policy that the industry wants. So let’s get back to the business of motivating the users of the Internet to understand it and to exercise their ownership of the networks.

How do you use a moment like the one offered by the “series of tubes” line to educate and motivate?

This blogger at least gets into the meat of the bill, pointing out that – like his famous work on the $223 million “bridge to nowhere”Stevens is just trying to get more money for his constituents: an expanded Universal Service Fund that would put $500 million towards building broadband in rural areas like Stevens’s Alaska. Though some of this money will get spent in Alaska, the real beneficiaries will be the phone companies who will get to sell (closed) Internet service over the subsidized infrastructure.

(I bet Stevens would give Wyden net neutrality if Wyden would give him ANWR drilling, but let’s not go there.)

Another tactic might be to riff on the “tubes” meme, now that it is so out there in people’s imaginations. Post ideas below if you’ve got them.

(Sorry if I’m being a killjoy. This is a tough time to be getting back to work.)

A small sampling of the snarkfest:



  1. SnarkyInternet said

    And you think that respectful online discourse will save the internet or that the internet needs saving from the likes of Stevens?

    That’s so Frank Capra of you.

  2. Josh Marcus & Hannah Sassaman said

    Unfortunately, political debates are usually not reasoned, logical debates, because we most people hold positions because of irrational but nonetheless powerful associations that people believe or understand between symbols in the wide sea of cultural symbols. For example, presidental debates are often won because of precisely this kind of successful humorous jab at another candidate. By painting Stephens as “out of touch” and “old fashioned” and “rediculous”, it associates those opposed to Net Neutrality with symbols that are perceived as negative — especially in the light of “forward looking” and “progress”-laden symbols like the internet and communication technology.

    So it gives people an irrational, but nonetheless correct, sense that the opponents of net neutrality aren’t the defenders of technology or progress. Once those people are primed by humor around the net neutrality debate, and kinship with the creators and other consumers of that humor, they are more ready to actively hear how they can get involved in the fight to save net neutrality from an effective advocate.

    So it’s a bit of chicken-and-the-egg. Did the catapulting of net neutrality onto the international stage of debate create an environment where Ted Steven’s lack of understanding could be seen as something so funny? I think so. Without the definition of net neutrality rising up to something more like common parlance (not that the concept has penetrated nearly far enough into the general consciousness yet), we couldn’t have all been in on Jon Stewart’s joke, or the “internet is a series of tubes” meme humor. Maybe it’s a sign that the organizing around net neutrality has been successful!

  3. […] I’ve gotten a lot of comments, most of them off-line and in-person, about my post, “Snarky won’t save the Internet.” […]

RSS feed for comments on this post

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: