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The Word

A web-space with fast lanes? Why we still mix metaphors for the Internet

Net neutrality throws light onto an indescribable system

Globe Staff photoillustration

If you were skimming news articles about Net neutrality over the last few weeks, you could be forgiven for thinking the debate was over changes to interstate highway policy. Since May 15, when the FCC gave Internet service providers the right to make deals with content providers for faster service (pending a period of public comment, which lasts until Sept 10), The Wall Street Journal has cited the situation as involving “congested spots” and “moving through a tollgate.” A CNN anchor described a “fast lane” on the “information superhighway.” Few tried to explain the situation at all without mentioning cars, traffic, and tolls.

Net neutrality—or the principle that Internet service providers should serve up all websites with equal speed—is one of those technical, abstract issues, like health care reform or the budget, that nevertheless has serious implications for daily life. Getting people excited about it requires a good metaphor—and the trouble is, we still haven’t really settled on a good metaphor for the Web itself. Vast, complex, not exactly located anywhere, equally useful for calling your mom, reading the newspaper, playing games, or setting up a nefarious drug-smuggling ring, the Internet is tricky to conceptualize, even though almost 90 percent of adult Americans now use it. From Senator Ted Stevens’s famous “series of tubes” to “cyberspace,” our metaphors have generally been able to communicate either how the Web works or what we do there, but not both—and the persuasive but imperfect highway metaphor is no exception.

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From the Internet’s earliest days, it’s been difficult to discuss without comparing it to other things. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, computer scientists at the Pentagon’s DARPA wing, designed TCP/IP: the underlying protocols for the “inter-network,” the global network meant to connect all local networks. Even that technical term “network” is a metaphor, tying the concept to broadcasting, telecommunications, railroads and rivers and streets, the nervous and circulatory systems of the body, and woven networks like spider webs and cloth. Although we now rarely call the Internet a “network,” or even the “Net,” these implications have survived.

The World Wide Web—CERN scientist Tim Berners-Lee’s creation, a collection of linked hypertext pages—came along in the early 1990s, and emphasized the organic side of that network imagery. Today, the Web is still a primary shorthand for the system, and has spun off terms like “Web crawler” and “spider.” (Things could have gone very differently: Berners-Lee almost called it a “Mine of information” or “The Information Mine,” according to his website.) Meanwhile, the “pages” that made up the nodes of the Web triggered a set of literary associations, giving rise to still common terms like “browser” and “bookmark.”

As more and more people came online, using the Internet to play games and chat on bulletin boards, metaphors shifted from emphasizing the connections between servers to the existence of a virtual space—“cyberspace,” borrowed from the work of sci-fi writer William Gibson—where people could be liberated from their everyday lives. “Cyberspace” was also associated with the idea of a new social order that might be possible on this free and open “electronic frontier.” In 1996, Internet activist John Perry Barlow published a “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” addressed to the world’s governments: “We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty,” he wrote.

The metaphor of “cyberspace” stayed potent throughout the 1990s. But it was countered by a certain vice presidential effort to spread fiber-optic cables around the country. Al Gore has claimed he coined the term “information superhighway” in the 1970s; whether or not that’s true, he was certainly using it widely by the 1990s, convening a “Superhighway Summit” in 1994 where he made jokes about “road kill” and being “parked at the curb.” For Gore and other insiders—policy makers in Washington and investors in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street—the “highway” metaphor expressed both the Internet’s usefulness as a social resource and its function as government-controlled infrastructure.

Like “Web” and “Net,” the “highway” metaphor emphasized the structure of the system instead of what went on there. David P. Reed, an MIT computer scientist who made significant contributions to the development of TCP/IP, says, “There’s always been a tension between describing the Internet as the hardware that’s making it up...versus what I would call the application-oriented perspective.” “Superhighway” vs. “cyberspace” represented the ’90s incarnation of that tension: the tubes vs. what you do with them.

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As the highway metaphor expanded its reach, and the Web’s function tipped increasingly toward commercial uses, “cyberspace” shrank to a few wild and woolly corners. Once your Aunt Bertha’s on Facebook, it’s harder to envision the Internet as a Wild West of the mind.

Today, “cyberspace” has a retro ’90s coffee-shop feel. But many Net neutrality advocates were shaped by that more user-oriented, pioneering image of the Internet. Tim Wu, the Columbia law professor who wrote the original memo defining what he called “network neutrality” in 2002, told The New York Times earlier this year that he wrote that memo because “I thought of [the Internet] as a kind of perpetual frontier....And I wanted some principles that would keep it that way.”

Still, he and others settled on the highway metaphor to talk about Net neutrality because, he says, it triggers the irritation of watching a Mercedes cruise by while you’re stuck. It’s a persuasive image, framing a problem—what happens when you privilege some websites over others?—in terms of two things America loves: fairness and cars. “People hate traffic,” Wu told me. “But they also hate the idea of someone being able to avoid it while they’re stuck in it.” The metaphor has been widely adopted since it was first used, Wu says, on a Bill Moyers special back in 2006. Even Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen, a day before the FCC ruling, used it, defiantly, at a summit in New York: “Fast lane sounds bad...[but] I believe that whatever it is, it has been completely legal for 15 or 20 years.”

Still, not everyone loves it. As Reed said, “The problem with the highway metaphor...it sort of ignores the reason people are using highways.” What truly gets people excited about the Internet, and what might convince casual users to care about Net neutrality, isn’t just the tubes or the roads—it’s what happens along the way. We still don’t really have a good metaphor for that.

Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.
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