What is an internet teapot?

Adriaan Odendaal
May 22, 2020 · 5 min read

by Adriaan Odendaal & Karla Zavala

It’s likely that you’ve encountered your fair share of HTTP 404: Not Found errors after opening yet another new tab in your browser. Instead of that article, image, or downloadable you needed in your life, you land on a bare webpage usually containing an on-brand joke that tries to assuage your frustration with the unexpectedly missing information. The 404 page of the Internet Movie Database shouts: “Where’s the webpage, Lebowski? Where’s the webpage?” or a number of other internet protocol parodies of movie quotes.

Due to the prevalence of broken links, URL typos, or deprecated websites, the 404 status has become the most ubiquitous internet error message due to its fundamental network functionality. Nonetheless, there are of course other error messages that internet protocols can generate. Maybe you’ve seen 408: Request Timeout, or 403: Forbidden. Maybe, you’ve even been lucky enough to see:

418: I’m a teapot

Hypertext Coffee Pot Control Protocol (HTCPCP)

404: Not Found and other error messages are standard Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) response codes. These codes are issued by servers in response to a user browser’s request for information or content, allowing networked computers and servers to communicate in a standardized way which allows your webpage to load (or not load). Most of these codes are never seen by the user (for example every single time a webpage successfully loads from a server there is a 200: OK status communicated in the background). They are primarily meant for efficient machine-to-machine communication and for technician diagnostics. Likewise, 418: I’m a teapot is also an error status given in response to a user request from a server. Though its a status given in response to the user computer attempting to brew coffee on a teapot via the internet. As the Internet Engineering Task Force (IEFT), open standards organization which develops and promotes internet standards, wrote in a 1998 memo:

Any attempt to brew coffee with a teapot should result in the error code “418 I’m a teapot”. The resulting entity body MAY be short and stout.

418 is a completely legitimate error status code, and you will find it on many sites as an internet easter egg. Yet it was first proposed as part of an early internet April Fools’ joke by the IEFT as part of their parody proposal for a Hyper Text Coffee Pot Control Protocol (HTCPCP) that would purportedly have been built on top of HTTP. This proposed protocol was created to control, monitor, and diagnose coffee pots connected to the internet and is filled with beautifully nonsensical statements such as:

7. Security Considerations:

Unmoderated access to unprotected coffee pots from Internet users might lead to several kinds of “denial of coffee service” attacks. The improper use of filtration devices might admit trojan grounds. Filtration is not a good virus protection method.

It’s worth the time to read the full HTCPCP proposal.

418: digital technology as shaped by culture (and vice versa)

Though a somewhat intricate joke, HTCPCP and its emblematic 418 error shows something more than just engineers’ sense of humour. Because 418: I’m a Teapot existence as an actual implemented error status it becomes a self-reflexive example of the inherent materiality of digital technology. The idea that digital technology contains within its bits and algorithms the traces of human culture, social norms, values, flaws, failures, and also the spark of humour and imagination. Amidst the ‘pure’ technological functionalism of 308 Permanent Redirect and 408 Request Timeout there exists the nonsensical 418.

The idea of digital materialism is most ardently espoused by Software Studies pioneer Lev Manovich who coined the term ‘cultural software’, writing that software is cultural “in a sense that it is directly used by hundreds of millions of people and that it carries ‘atoms’ of culture” (2013). Nowhere is this as aesthetically apparent as in so-called ‘skeumorphic’ design of software: “a design function that is no longer functional in itself but that refers back to a feature that was functional at an earlier time”(Katherine Hayles’ cited in Taylor, 2010, p.8). It is a technique that gives users the familiarity of tangible objects in digital spaces, though there is no formal relation between the underlying algorithm and the referenced object itself. (When you click on a scissor to cut text, there are no actual scissors involved). Likewise the cybernetic coffee of HTCPC and the accompanying tea, creates an absurdist skeuomorphism with statements such as:

Coffee pots heat water using electronic mechanisms, so there is no fire. Thus, no firewalls are necessary.

There is perhaps also something to say for the veneration of coffee within the coding community, the fuel of late-nights in front of glaring computer screens. Tea, as its hot beverage counterpart, perhaps bears more symbolic traces of a wider culture with it. The teapot is a cultural artifact with a long and complex history connected to the trade of tea. The act of drinking tea is a deeply rooted communal ritual throughout the ancient and modern cultures.

The underlying idea of digital materialism is that software both shapes — and is shaped by — culture. Just as 418 includes not only the traces of literary humour, but also of coffee and tea as cultural products, so too has the technically specific 404 error infiltrated both online and offline culture as a meme.

The internet teapot as manifesto

We believe that each website needs a 418 page (not to mention that the 418 error should remain an included standard, as argued by the Save Error Code 418 petition). 418: I’m a teapot is more than just a easter-egg, however. It is a reminder that the more we think of digital technology and culture as inherently intertangled, the more critically and creatively we can design our technological futures. There need to be more symbolic internet teapots, implemented in earnest. Because the insistence that digital technology is the sole prerogative of technicians, and is therefore wholly technical in nature, exemplifies the misguidedly positivistic mindset that has led to many of the pervasive technological problems facing contemporary society.

It is for this reason that we’ve taken the internet teapot as the sigil — and consequent namesake — of our small research & design studio. To us, it symbolizes an alternative approach to digital technology as humanistic technologists, taking the cultural and social dimensions of new media and emerging technologies into account when conceptualizing creative projects or developing product prototypes. It’s a totem to prompt us into thinking how our technologically percolated present and the future can be shaped to be more human, more conscientious, and more sustainable, instead of merely more algorithmically efficient.

Manovich, L. (2001). The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Taylor, D. (2010). Save As … Knowledge and Transmission in the Age of Digital Technologies. Imagining America’s 2010 Convergence Zones: Public Cultures and Translocal Practices, 2–24.

You can find the internet teapot | design & research studio’s 418 page here

internet teapot

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