The Information Superhighway Metaphor:
Internet law decisions and commentary from a decade ago frequently speak of the Internet as the "Information Superhighway." My sense is that the metaphor is no longer in much use, and I wonder if wireless Internet access killed it. If Internet access is everywhere, there's no room for a highway: the sense of a bulky passageway doesn't work anymore. Or maybe the problem is that we no longer log on to the Internet using a dial-up modem? The noise made by dial-up modems did seem a little like ramping up onto something moving.
It is not any kind of highway and never was. It is a bowl of spaghetti of uncertain size, shape and composition. The sauce is variable. The only comment one can make with confidence is that the bowl is growing rapidly and unevenly.
5.28.2009 10:13pm
Chico's Bail Bonds (mail):
I never thought much of the metaphor.
5.28.2009 10:14pm
one of many:
I think it more to do with the fact that 10 years ago most of the users liked to project the image that was traveling through the intertube thingies was pure information instead of the dreck opinion and Nigerian scams that have become the popular idea of what is on the web. "Information" projects a high minded image. The reality was far different as a trip through the alt. usenet archives will show.
5.28.2009 10:19pm
A decade ago? I think it was out of use, at least among the cognescenti, well before then.
5.28.2009 10:21pm
Perhaps Information Superghetto is a better phrase.
5.28.2009 10:27pm
Pick one word from each set, and put a hyphen between:
5.28.2009 10:27pm
Art Eclectic:
When the Internet became mostly advertisements it stopped being about information and started being interactive television.
5.28.2009 10:29pm
The internet is not a big truck, but a series of tubes.
5.28.2009 10:38pm
That was always a dumb metaphor (except perhaps when used by awed AOL users right after that service first opened up the closed garden and let its subscribers out onto the Web, but that's another story).

Although that metaphor did spawn another, more accurate, saying that some of us unfortunate enough to be involved with early Internet legal issues on the public sector side - without benefit of pre-bubble-burst stock options - applied to ourselves: We often felt like the roadkill on the side of the Information Superhighway...
5.28.2009 10:39pm
My sense is that the Internet just isn't very much like a superhighway anymore (if indeed it ever was). A superhighway is one main artery of traffic that everyone has to follow; the most common social uses of the internet these days are applications like YouTube, Wikipedia, and Facebook, where everyone is literally connected to everyone else in a giant web. Centralization has become largely obsolete.
5.28.2009 10:41pm
Kevin R (mail):
There's a long passage in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, written in 1999, that disparages the metaphor.

(There are long passages in Cryptonomicon about a lot of things, of course.)
5.28.2009 10:55pm
geokstr (mail):
I think Gore has "information superhighway" and all permutations thereof trademarked, as its inventor.
5.28.2009 10:55pm
huskylaw (mail):
I second the 'superghetto' movement. But seriously, I'm pretty sure it has to do with the fact that it is decidedly non-linear and only seemed like it was when most were going to AOL to access it.
5.28.2009 11:23pm
Grobstein (mail) (www):
"Highway" seems like a particularly statist metaphor, and I am glad to see it go.

(The Stephenson passage that Kevin mentions is pretty wonderful, and contains amusing blather from pompous academics, e.g., "How many slums will we bulldoze to build the Information Superhighway?" Here is a link to the passage.)
5.28.2009 11:24pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):

I think Gore has "information superhighway" and all permutations thereof trademarked, as its inventor.

Heh, honestly I don't think I have ever heard anyone other than Al Gore refer to the internet as the "information superhighway." I always thought that it was a term that just never quite caught on the way it was supposed to.
5.28.2009 11:34pm :

Or maybe the problem is that we no longer log on to the Internet using a dial-up modem?

Apparently AOL still has 6 million dial-up customers. The mind boggles.
5.29.2009 12:02am
Wikipedia has a fairly detailed etymology of the uses of this term: Wikipedia: Information Superhighway
5.29.2009 12:06am
Prof. S. (mail):
I don't think the problem is what is on the web, but how people use the web. When it was the "information superhighway," you'd only go on the web to get specific information. That's because you were downloading it at 1.7kb/sec. You couldn't afford to do anything more than just get what was really important.

Now with faster service, you can get more and more faster and faster. People are inevitably sidetracked into everything else on the web.

If people had to be extremely efficient in their web surfing, they may still consider it a "information superhighway." Now, it's more like a "random stuff that catches my eye Sunday drive."
5.29.2009 12:19am
Yes, the Information Superhighway was always a bad metaphor used by people like Gore who, having invented the Internet, never bothered to use it. Today people are much more internet-literate, and understand how inapt the metaphor is.

Thank you by the way for the Cryptonomicon references. I need to read it again for the great rants if nothing else (coming to think of it, it's rants and little else!)
5.29.2009 12:28am
No, it wasn't wireless that killed it, for God's sake, it was ubiquity. This isn't hard. A superhighway is some amazingly unusually fast way to transport something, in this case information. The Internet seemed an unusually fast way to get information when most people were used to doing it by driving over the library and browsing the reference section, or sending a SASE to P.O. Box 666, Pueblo, CO and waiting three weeks for the pamphlet to arrive.

No more. Now we expect information to arrive with the click of a mouse. The Internet is the normal speed of information arrival so our frame of reference has shifted. We're less apt to describe Internet speed as "superhighway" than to describe going to the library to read a book as using the "Information Footpath."

If nothing else, just think about the evolving definition of the word "highway" itself. At one point, that just meant a paved road instead of a dirt track. Then it meant a divided road. Later still, it meant a limited-access divided road, and so on.

Well, that plus it was a pathetic and naive metaphor.
5.29.2009 12:53am
CRF (mail):
In the mid-90s my job was fiber optics and we were striking deals with telecom companies including both the new entrants and the incumbent telco's both in and out of their home markets. The Info Superhighway metaphor was still in frequent use especially among the legacy companies who envisioned the opportunity to make massive capital investments and later to collect monopoly rents.

As well, of course, it was used by government policy types. I always took it that the primary point of the "superhighway" term was to create an analogy to the Interstate Highway system. The attendant thinking was that the government would build out a giant fiber optic network for everyone to share. We can now say a silent prayer of thanks that the private sector got out ahead of the central planners. Can you imagine the government sanctioning MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, etc.?
5.29.2009 1:05am
DG (mail):
No one actually in the Internet architecture field (i.e. the design and operations folks) ever used this metaphor. It was considered a sign of completely cluelessness and was typically snickered about. Nothing to do with modems or wireless. Nothing to do with AOL or centralization or decentralization. The Internet was never centralized and AOL was never more than a fragment of the overall picture.

"Information Superhighway" is how you would explain the Internet to a politician or a lawyer - no offense. Its outlived its usefulness because most politicians and lawyers have now actually used the Internet and understand it without having to resort to metaphor.

As a technical aside, the "noise" made by the modem wasn't ramping it - it was negotiation and always downward. Modem protocols tried fastest speed first, and then went slower until both sides could talk with an acceptable error rate.

One other interesting "superhighway" tidbit is that it made people think, erroneously, that it was some kind of public utility or built by the government. While the very early Internet (the ARPANET) was indeed government funded, that has not been the case for many years and was not the case when the Superhighway metaphor was in common use. The government has less to do with the Internet's eventual success than many other organizations including Cisco, UUNet (now part of Verizon), Sprint, AT&T (various parts), AOL, Level3, Equinix, and many others.
5.29.2009 1:32am
secade (mail):
It escapes me how the concepts of "semantic web" and "modal logic" could evade impact on academic brains. When you understand those terms, you will comprehend the forthcoming necessity of abolishing the judiciary as a failed instrument of Liberal Democracy. The age of ersatz "philosopher kings" - or the tin-pot-gasbag-lawyers who have been elevated to wear tbe robes of self-annointed, pseudo wise, on the "bench" - who command monarchial prostration, will come to an end. Judicial actors have never been able to properly decide issues - which are the true salient of legal contests - because in their entirety, our robed savages lack the capacity to properly frame issues. Future justice is a wholesale project; paid goofs whose sandbox enterprise is polluted with elite status defense, cannot deliver anything but the piecemeal musings of a dissipate class. Skilled attornies and learned academics are being wasted in the current swamp of inertia where the scum floats to the top, and meaning and understanding are nothing but means of semantic gymnastics, exercised to no end other than to maintain a non-performing institution where pension-whores are employed by pimp-governments. And the minefields of delayed and defeated justice, will be tossed aside with the pension claims of those who deliver same in the corrupted cause of due process.

Now, what intellectual tools and technological innovations could we possibly use for objective and impartial fact-finding, 24-7-365?
5.29.2009 4:38am
Bill Twist:
Kevin R:

There's a long passage in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, written in 1999, that disparages the metaphor.

(There are long passages in Cryptonomicon about a lot of things, of course.)

Many of those long passages related to both u-boats and to SIGINT, are wrong.
5.29.2009 9:21am
That Wiki comports with my rememberances..."information superhighway" was essentially a pre-WWW formulation that persisted but briefly into the web age.
5.29.2009 9:49am
Mark (mail):
All the riders on the superhighway have slowed down to look at the porn billboards cluttering the shoulder of the road. The flyers selling misc. drugs have fluttered into the road and are blocking the drivers' view.

Besides, everyone knows that superhighways are never finished. Construction blocks traffic forever. Drive through North Carolina......
5.29.2009 9:55am
The original uses of "information superhighway" were a good metaphor, as they were referring to the backbone and not every server, or bit of content. As the clueless adopted the term, they misapplied it and ruined it.
5.29.2009 9:57am
Rob O (mail):
Relegated to the dustbin of history.

But see
5.29.2009 10:01am
Cecil Moon (mail):
In rural America, we have two options: dial up or satellite.

Both more closely resemble a very muddy road which is constantly uphill.
5.29.2009 10:05am
George Smith:
Ask al-Gore.
5.29.2009 10:08am
U.Va. Grad:
There's a long passage in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, written in 1999, that disparages the metaphor.

(There are long passages in Cryptonomicon about a lot of things, of course.)

My personal favorite is the discussion of why physics professors teach laws of physics to their classes that appear to make the existence of dust devils impossible.
5.29.2009 10:19am
ColumEx (mail) (www):
It's tubes!
5.29.2009 10:19am
Will Cate (mail):
More like 15 years ago, doncha think? I say this because while recently cleaning out some old junk I found a Wall Street Journal "special section" from 1994: "The Information Superhighway" which I had marked SAVE.

Much of what was predicted content-wise has come to pass, but in ways of distribution that are mostly different from what the writers' envisioned.

I like the "bowl of spaghetti" analogy commenter made above.
5.29.2009 10:21am
Tatterdemalian (mail):
It technically is still an Information Superhighway, it's just the fact that people have finally started to understand that information itself isn't always a wonderful thing. There is false information that ends up on the superhighway, as well as true information, and a just plain enormous amount of opinion, entertainment, and attention whoring masquerading as entertainment, which is also technically information but largely useless for research, except as evidence that person X did Y at timestamp Z.

Information is a lot like democracy in this respect. Technically the Palestinian Authority is a democracy, as were the German Weimar Republic and Robespierre's France. People see what the US has done with democracy (tempered with republicanism and oligarchy) and think, "All democracy is great!" The truth is, democracy is power, and if the people forming the democracy are not great, the democracy they create will magnify their vices more than their virtues.
5.29.2009 10:34am
Martin_J (mail):
Well, I'm apparently in disagreement with most of the comments. I think that "information superhighway" was, and still is, an excellent metaphor for the Internet. Wireless connectivity has encompassed (via the metaphor) cities, towns and rural areas. Roads and highways provide a means of conveyance. They can be used by pedestrians, by family cars, by commercial vehicles and even some bicycles. It doesn't require a license to get on a road or highway; the license applies to the vehicle used. Moreover, one must remember that a highway is a rather agnostic place with respect to moral, ethical or legal behavior. It is generally only sporadically policed, so it's only when the police car is in sight that everyone obeys the speed limit and uses their turn indicators when changing langes. On the highway, one sometimes meets good samaritans, but one also encounters serial killers. Homes are found along the roads and highways, some in "nice neighborhoods" while others are in the slums. The roads and highways take us to businesses of all types. We don't don't check whether one is driving to church or to the red-light district. One doesn't inherently trust the things encountered along the highway. Roadkill doesn't make for a good meal. Highways are very nice if populated only by folks out for a Sunday afternoon drive. They get less pleasant when the big trucks use up the available lane space. And, they become places of concern when the predators take to the road. Wide open vistas are quite nice, but when they're cluttered up by billboards, the view becomes a lot harder to see. Streets and highways are more readily traveled when one has a good map (e.g. Google, both literally and metaphorically) and acquiring a semantic guide (e.g. GPS unit) makes the trip a lot easier. Interstate highways are nice because they're free to use; but, it seems hard to keep them maintained. Toll roads (turnpikes) seem to offer superior service if you can afford to travel on them.

Seems like a pretty reasonable metaphor to me.
5.29.2009 10:39am
Norman Conquest:
There are long passages in Cryptonomicon about a lot of things, of course.

Probably the shortest and best review ever written about that shaggy dog of a book.
5.29.2009 10:39am
plutosdad (mail):
LOTS of people use dialup, especially businesses. The last company I was at was a nationwide retail chain, and maybe half of the stores still were on dialup. I imagine plenty of people can't afford cable or dsl but have a computer and their kids might dial in for homework. My current company can be described as a federation of many smaller companies, and lots of them are on dialup too. Businesses aren't going to upgrade to something they don't need just so their employees can surf more efficiently. :)

Dialup is always going to be around, as long as we still have computer towers in the home that need to connect and it's cheaper than going through your phone.
5.29.2009 10:57am
plutosdad (mail):
"than going through your phone" i meant CELL phone. heh :) Funny I didn't even think to call it that, to me now "phone" means cell and "land line phone" is the old fashioned model.
5.29.2009 10:59am
Mark in Colorado:
Many of those long passages related to both u-boats and to SIGINT, are wrong.

Maybe, but that long passage related to Captain Crunch is right on.
5.29.2009 11:04am
Cro (mail):
No more President Clinton. He drove that metaphor into the ground.

On Crytonomicon, I know far too much about WW2 for that book to work for me. If it had been a lighter WW2 book, I might have been able to suspend my disbelief. The problem was that it was such a heavy book with so many details that I knew to be wrong. I couldn't suspend disbelief. The use of totally fictional locations should have helped cushion the book from reality, but for me it did the opposite.

If a story is a dream for the reader, then the author shouldn't wake them up. The constant barrage of false detail woke me up.
5.29.2009 11:22am
Ended up in the lockbox after we crossed the bridge to the future.
5.29.2009 12:31pm

Ended up in the lockbox after we crossed the bridge to the future.

I thought we burned that bridge ...
5.29.2009 1:07pm
Another David (mail):
I just figured the Internet became so omnipresent that it no longer needs a metaphor.
5.29.2009 2:24pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
What Aultimer said. It wasn't all that long ago that there was a backbone and UUCP connections, and the increasing bandwidth, both onto my screen and across the country, were exciting.

I'm a SW engineer. I can do higher-layer TCP/IP. I asked an EE/CS type who is into networks and protocols in a big way how it worked, where could I walk along the road and see the telephone poles holding the wires that my information was traveling on, and he said "I don't really know. They [his ISP] lease it from the phone company. The phone company already is very good at moving data across the country."
5.29.2009 4:07pm
Stephen Goldstein (mail):
FWIW, I think Information Superhighway WAS a terrific metaphor.

Spend a lot of time helping clients understand technology and business problems and use a lot of metaphors to aid their understanding. In one situation, a client remarked "that is an imperfect metaphor;" I replied, "aren't they all?"

Point is that in the '90s, as AOL, Prodigy and others were selling there services and many asked "what is this thing." Information Superhighway was a helpful concept. Nothing to do with dial-up or modem speeds but with familiarity.

Now "internet technologies" have evolved -- SO FAR and in SO MANY directions. And people are more savvy so its time to move on.

BTW, for a charitable fund raising silent auction, probably 15 years ago, I offered Information Superhighway "Driving Lessons" -- had quite a few takers.
5.29.2009 5:22pm
Robbins Mitchell (mail):
The only person I EVER heard use that phrase was anAL GOREtentive.
5.30.2009 2:59am

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