Whither ‘Information Superhighway’

Eugene Volokh (yes, him again) wonders whatever happened to the metaphor “Information Superhighway” in describing the Internet.

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.

A surprisingly good answer comes from commenter Splunge (that is to say, I’m surprised to find useful information coming from someone with such a silly pseudonym; I know nothing of the general qualify of his answers):

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.”

I never did write away for one of those Pueblo pamphlets. But those commercials were classic:

Amusingly, the Federal Citizen Information Center — still located in Pueblo, Colorado — has a website now.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Furhead says:

    I thought the term was simply superceded by the now-classic “series of tubes”.

  2. Michael says:

    Another point that supports Splunge’s conclusion is that we now use a modifier to distinguish the US Postal Service mail, and increasingly less so to distinguish Electronic mail. Even the age old adage “look it up”, which used to refer to using an Encyclopedia, now simply means to ask Google.

    To paraphrase Slunge, The Internet is the Norm. Everything else needs a distinguishing name.