A few nights ago, the wife and I got some take-away food from the corner restaurant, Neklid (‘Turmoil’). I got my favorite dish: a steak cooked in pepper sauce with green beans wrapped in bacon and roast potatoes also cooked with bits of bacon. It’s like bowling a strike every time. Unfortunately, it also has a clearly-documented history of causing me to wake up in the middle of the night if I have it too late in the evening. This creates a sort of ongoing metaphysical dialogue where my 3am self is continually reminding my hungry, 7pm self not to order it, but the latter often manages to persuade himself that somehow the usual insomnia scenario isn’t going to apply this time. Long story short, I was up in the middle of the night. To complete the woeful vignette, you have to picture that I had also tweaked my neck while working long hours on The Book, so I was lying in bed with one of those dorky foam neck cushion things people take on airplanes, sleeplessly pondering my own gluttony.
For whatever reason, my mind wandered to the joke phrase ‘the interwebs’ that everyone started using at some point. When did it start? Was it inspired by George W. Bush’s bizarre formulation during the 2004 Presidential Debate when he mentioned ‘the internets‘? Or is it just another case of parallel evolution where a joke phrase began to emerge in the public consciousness at the same time that the same phrase emerged as a serious concept in the addled mind of our former president?
I always feel that the phrase ‘Information Superhighway’ has never really gotten its deserved share of mockery, in part because it’s always overlooked in favor of ‘interwebs’. It’s definitely my preferred ironic internet moniker, though, not least because it was originally intended seriously and was thought to sound cool. Along with ‘cybercafe’ and ‘educational CD-ROM’, it’s the disused phrase that perfectly summarizes the wide-eyed, mid-1990s utopian expectations of the internet, which – as we now know- has for better or for worse thoroughly insinuated itself into our lives as a comparatively banal, functional convenience.
Do a google image search for ‘information superhighway’ and you get an entertaining visual moodboard of all these clichéd 90s internet concepts: streaking circuitry, shopping carts, network cables and, of course, highway metaphors:
As visual messages, these have about as much going for them as animated unicorn gifs. What’s puzzling and disappointing is why the 90s visualizations of an internet-ty future didn’t result in anywhere near the same imaginative yield that came out of, for example, the early machine age or the early days of space travel. One can make the case that modern art as a whole- starting with cubism in the late 1910s- began as a collective visual attempt to reckon with the new sense of space and time that machines imposed on people. Subsequent design movements such as Futurism and Vorticism created an entire abstract visual language out of their self-professed fascination with new technology. Meanwhile, 1950s visualizations of Jetsons-style space colonization may seem fairly kitschy and silly to us now, but at least they involved considerable flights of fancy. By comparison, the visual language adopted to describe the early days of the web is all so literal, po-faced and lame by comparison. I suppose part of this is the fact that there was money to be made from the beginning in couching something abstract (‘internet’) in tangible terms (‘highway’) and thereby getting people comfortable with the idea of buying goods on it. And that there was a kind of corporate incursion on the internet from the very beginning. But, still, it’s hard to figure out how we could have gone so wrong with this from the start.