A series of tubes that won’t go away

I got the title for my Internet-themed column from ex-Senator Ted Stevens’ comments on net neutrality. In 2006, Stevens mixed up the words “Internet” and “e-mail,” and then gave an incorrect account of how e-mail traffic works, saying that “[the Internet is] not a big truck — it’s a series of tubes.”

It seemed at the time like nothing more than a humorous insight into how little the people in charge of Internet regulation actually knew about the web, but it had a larger implication — the marginalization of the Internet and online culture in general.

At the time that Stevens made those remarks, social media had not yet broken into Tweet-mania, ownership of Internet-enabled phones was limited to Wall Street’s finest and many people still did not recognize the power of the Internet. As a fan of the Internet and Internet culture, this left me a little jaded.

Since I started writing this column, I’ve seen the Internet go from being perceived as a passing trend to being recognized as a major part of life. Whereas a few years ago being tech-savvy was considered geeky and looked down on, now it is a skill everyone either has or is gaining through everyday life. Why the change, and what does this mean for us?

Part of this shift is simply because of the technological boom of the last few years. Laptops became sleeker and more convenient. Smart phones suddenly gave the Internet an ultra-portable system.

Facebook and Twitter exploded in popularity, getting people, who normally would not use the Internet to connect with others, to go online. Add in the rise of media sites like YouTube and Hulu and the Internet suddenly became unavoidable.

The boom made the Internet so mainstream that it is now ingrained in everyday life.

There is a great quote from the television show Leverage: “Age of the geek, baby.” And the way online resources are being used today, it certainly applies.

People use e-mail more than snail mail — it is quick, easy and there is less chance of paper cuts. In business, the Internet has streamlined communication, organization and productivity.

More and more companies are using its resources as part of their business models, and some of the largest companies in the last decade are ones that work within the field, such as Google and Amazon.

Even politics have been shaped by the Internet, and politicians now embrace it as a means to success. President Obama’s campaign was a turning point for online political activism, allowing a localized center to organize rallies, raise money and communicate on a national level with ease. Now it is the model for every 21st century campaign, with every candidate focusing heavily on their online division.

The Internet, as the old saying goes, has made the world smaller. We are interconnected at a level unheard of in recent times. A simple video posted online can spread instantly and create a new meme or create a global protest against some act of brutality.

Recently, the Internet became a tool for a task that would have been unheard of a few years ago — running a country. Stranded in New York by the ash cloud covering Europe, Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg was able to electronically govern his nation through his iPad. While he might not have been physically interacting with his staff, he still had full access and communication with them — all through the Internet.

This rise of Internet legitimacy puts us in an interesting spot. We are a part of a generation that grew up at the same time as the Internet. All of the big trends that have emerged happened as we came into adulthood and the next generation will already have these in place.

Whether this is a good or bad thing is up in the air, but they will be a whole new kind of technological user, with different habits and understandings of the Internet.

It is clear now that the web isn’t some fad or passing trend. It is tied to business, communication and our daily lives. The Internet is already an institution, and it is here to stay. It’s more than a series of tubes, Ted Stevens, it’s our lives.

Nicholas Slayton is a freshman majoring in print journalism. His column “A Series of Tubes” ran Thursdays.