A Remembrance and Defense of Ted Stevens’ ‘Series of Tubes’

The most reviled phrase in the history of the Internet wasn’t so wacky after all.

BY Evan Dashevsky

Even if you don’t know its exact origin, you’ve certainly stumbled across the phrase “a series of tubes” at some point It’s a common Internet cute-ism that an out-of-touch person might use to describe the very Internet itself.

It’s also complete B.S.

For those who have forgotten — or for those who never knew — the term was unwittingly coined by the late U.S. Senator Ted Stevens 10 years ago. During a committee hearing, he argued against an amendment that would have prohibited ISPs from charging some companies higher fees according to the traffic they generated (the amendment in fact, did fail in a tie vote).

The remark quickly metastasized into the lingual embodiment of not only all-things anti-net-neutrality but also of all old people who are confused by technology. It also just happened to coincide with the ascension of Twitter, and probably because of its concise nature, the phrase has managed to remain one of that platform’s most resilient memes long after the original context has been lost. Witness these tweets:

Plumbers are working on the building pipes. Also this morning, the Internet keeps going down — perhaps it’s just a series of tubes after all?
— Garrett LeSage (@garrett) May 5, 2014
If the internet is a series of tubes — then check out this machine! http://t.co/nvbfu88r
— Pee-wee Herman (@peeweeherman) September 23, 2011

In its inception, the “series of tubes” comment was considered a particularly egregious error by net neutrality advocates. It was a public display of the frighteningly limited technological comprehension of the influential Senate Committee chairman (and, as it would happen, neutrality foe).

Why would a veteran politician like Stevens say such a dumb thing? Was he really that befuddled by technology? Did he really think the Internet was made of tubes? Was he having a senior moment?

To use Stevens’s own crotchety phrasing: No. And to be sure, Stevens’s remarks are neither eloquent nor fleshed out. But listen to a longer audio clip of the remarks, and you’ll clearly understand what he was getting at.

Though he doesn’t specifically name it, Stevens is describing the evolution of Netflix’s business model—particularly the company’s transition from being solely a DVD subscription service to being a (then only-rumored, but soon-to-be introduced) online-streaming service.

For the record, here’s Stevens’ audio the remarks in fuller context: “Tubes” comes in around the 2:14 mark (the person who uploaded the audio added their own “Heh” at the very last moment):

The evidently unprepared speech is occasionally meandering and generously peppered with false starts that trail off to nowhere (as unprepared speeches sometimes are). At one point he mistakenly uses the word “Internet” in place of “email.” And it probably wasn’t streaming video’s fault that it took several days for the Senator’s email to be delivered. Here’s a rough transcription, cleaned up for clarity, with key points highlighted by me in bold.

“There’s one company now that you can sign up [with] and get a movie delivered to your house. Daily. By delivery service […] This service is now going to go through the Internet. And what you do now is go to a place and order your movie, and guess what? You can order 10 of them delivered to you and the delivery charge is free, right?
“10 movies streaming across that Internet. And what happens to your own personal Internet? Just the other day an Internet was sent by my staff at 10:00 in the morning on Friday — I got it yesterday. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially.
“And here we have this one situation where enormous entities want to use the Internet for their purpose to save money for doing what they’re doing now. They use FedEx, they use delivery services, they use the mail. They deliver in other ways, but they want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet.
“And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on, it’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes. And if you don’t understand, those tubes can be filled, and if they’re filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material.”

Was this an artful articulation? Hardly. But it’s also far from some completely insane rambling divorced from reality as is its reputation.

Put aside your personal feelings on net neutrality for a moment. The fact of the matter is the Internet can indeed accurately be described as a series of tubes — metaphorically. The more data you attempt to put through an individual node (streaming movies, for example), the more congested it becomes. It’s not dissimilar to a plumbing pipe becoming clogged.

Furthermore, Stevens’s remarks are not only an accurate description of the state of Netflix’s evolving business but also turned out to be far more prescient than he probably intended. A report from Canadian networking equipment company Sandvine found that more than a third of all North American Internet is generated by Netflix alone during peak hours. And whether or not you agree with how ISPs deal with it, network congestion is a practical issue of concern.

An appeals court ruled that the FCC did not have the authority to issue its 2010 net neutrality rules. Subsequently, Netflix entered into agreements with ISPs (accompanied by a strange public back and forth) to speed up delivery of Netflix streams to customers of those ISPs. Netflix argues these fees are unfair and has called for stronger net neutrality rules that would make them obsolete. One can imagine a future without net neutrality rules whereby these peering fees will — for better or worse — be passed along to customers.

Even if he was ineloquent in his presentation, Stevens actually hit the reality right on the nose. Of course, that didn’t stop some from highlighting the comments of an octogenarian and making fun of it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s completely fair to mock public officials, regardless of their age. But in this particular case, the mocking was based less on what was actually there than on what critics wanted to believe was there.

Stevens’s comments initially received some attention on in the tech blogosphere and partisan press. His ungraceful statement from a committee hearing about a relatively obscure piece of legislation would have likely been dead and forgotten had it not been blasted into primetime by The Daily Show on July 12, 2006.

The edited clips are — as to be expected from a comedy show — not a fair representation of Stevens’s comments. When TDS used the power of editing to highlight “the Internet is not something that you just dump something on, it’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes,” it completely neglects the context of Netflix’s evolving business model.

A Google Trends report on the phrase “series of tubes” shows that searches for the phrase exploded in July after the Daily Show episode.

“A series of tubes” soon after became a genuine meme with all the expected trappings of such. A Topsy search shows how after appearing on TDS, the term became an early part of the Twitter echo chamber :

“At twttr, we know that the internet is a series of tubes and that’s why the logo looks the way it does.
— Biz Stone (@biz) July 14, 2006

The tubes meme has been fueled by politics, by ageism, by regionalism, and by the fact that it’s so easy to convey. But it’s also boring. It’s the “Al Gore invented the Internet” of the aughts.

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