Monday, December 29, 2008

Are we still on the information superhighway?

Some words and phrases are just plain dated. They were the cat's pajamas back in the day, but now only a square would think they were hep. For all practical purposes they've dropped off the face of the earth into a silent abyss, only to be dragged out when we feel like watching 80s videos, pointing and laughing (*). Which brings me back to the title.

What was the "information superhighway"? As usual, Wikipedia has the relevant citation:
"One of the technologies Vice President Al Gore (**) is pushing is the information superhighway, which will link everyone at home or office to everything else—movies and television shows, shopping services, electronic mail and huge collections of data."
So that happened. Not only that, the analogy to the original superhighways (i.e., the U.S. Interstate system) seems apt. Both are "enabling technologies", valuable not so much for what they do, but for the other technologies and trends they make possible. So why does the term sound so completely dated?

I'd guess there are a couple of reasons. One is that "information superhighway" was never a real geek term. It was a way of explaining the geek stuff to congresspeople who largely didn't care greatly about the technology. They cared about what supporting said technology could bring to their constituents. The interstate system was widely regarded as a Good Thing, so if you could convince people this "internet" stuff was the modern version of that Good Thing you were ahead of the game.

That was probably helpful in congress, but it gave off the impression that only suits and pointy-haired bosses talked about "superhighways". Real geeks talked about networks, client-server architectures, not-so-client-server architectures, RISC vs. CISC and whatever else happened to be floating around at the time. If you wanted to be cool in the dot-com days, you wanted to talk like a geek.

Another reason, perhaps less obvious, is that we don't call superhighways "superhighways" anymore. They're just highways. What's super about them, anyway?

These days, if you're parked on the 405 during rush hour -- that is, pretty much any time -- they don't look so super. But consider what came before them. For example, to get from LA to the San Joaquin valley, you had little choice but to take the "Ridge Route" over the Tejon summit. These days, you've got eight lanes of I-5, traversable at speeds (ahem) well in excess of whatever's posted. Before that, well here are some excerpts from a description on
Perhaps the most hazardous section [...] was the Grapevine Grade between Fort Tejon and the base of Grapevine Creek [...]. The original Ridge Route highway built in 1915 was an absolute deathtrap. This section had 119 sharp turns, two with a radius as small as 80' (a 10 MPH hairpin turn - the turning radius of an average car is 40') and when totaled caused the traveler to drive the equivalent of 12 full circles [My inner math major compels me to infer "six one way and six the other" -- DH]. As a testament to the hazards presented by this road, one turn was even labeled "Deadman's Curve." By 1934 the extension of the US 99 Ridge Route Alternate [...] offered a substantial improvement in safety and ease of driving. For one, the number of turns was reduced to 23 and the number of complete circles a driver would have to make was reduced to 1½. [...]. Perhaps the biggest improvement was the widening of the road from 20' to 30' with three 10' lanes. The addition of suicide lanes enabled motorists to pass slow trucks and allowed traffic to move more quickly as backups behind the slow vehicles became minimized.
Yep. "Suicide lanes" were an improvement. Granted, by the time I-5 came around in 1960, there had been further improvements, including an expressway that was partially incorporated into the interstate. Nonetheless, all of the above fun and excitement would have been well known to drivers at the time, and eight relatively straight and level lanes, none designated "suicide," would have warranted the "super" tag.

Similarly, if you compare grainy YouTube video, the occasional annoying wait and spam-a-go-go to dialup access to a BBS (***), the difference is night and day. But one soon forgets the night.

(*) As you might guess from my profile, I caught those 80s videos the first time around. Thought they were infinitely bitchin'.

(**) It's hard to pull out a quote like that without dragging up the "Al Gore claims he invented the internet" controversy. I'll defer to Wikipedia on that, too.

(***) Nothing against BBSs. Like many geeks of a certain age, I spent a fair bit of time on one (thanks Keith!). I hear now you can use the internet to type short text messages to people who can type back at you ... you can even download timesink games and ...

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