Bryant Gumbel, 1994: "What is the Internet, anyway?"

The Today Show, 1994: Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric struggle to understand and explain the Internet and "that little mark with the 'a' and the ring around it." (Thanks, Rick Pescovitz!)


  1. Man, I know it was early and all, but still…1994. I was in 4th grade at the time and could have better described the internet than that, just from having watched my dad working on the family computer.

  2. Really?
    In 1994?
    I think I got what the internet was in about 81 or 82. THESE were the “journalists” we were relying on at the time?


    1. If you got what the internet was as early as ’81 or ’82, you must have been working in a high tech field at the time; because the internet, as we know it today, barely existed then:

      The first time I got access to the internet was around ’92 or ’93; and the only reason I was able to get access was that I was working in the defense industry at the time, and the company I worked for had its own server. I certainly didn’t have internet access at home; nor did anyone I knew – including my most tech-savvy friends and coworkers (most of them engineers and computer scientists). I’d heard of the internet before then, of course; but it was the sort of thing that only geeks talked about, not something that the average person would be familiar with. I’m not surprised at all that journalists wouldn’t have known much about the internet in 1994. It was still in its infancy back then; and was quite primitive – “stone knives and bearskins”, as Spock would have put it – compared to what we have today.

      1. it was the sort of thing that only geeks talked about, not something that the average person would be familiar with.

        When I got to college in the fall of 1990, I (and every student) was assigned an email address. This was a small liberal arts college, not a tech school.

        1. Yes; but college campuses are always more on the cutting edge than society at large. Universities were using the internet long before it became widely available in households. Still, the university I attended in the late ’80s didn’t have widespread internet access when I was there. I’m sure the folks in the science, engineering, and computer science departments must have had access to e-mail at least; but the few computers in the liberal arts buildings didn’t have internet access at all.

          I’ll bet if you had asked the average person on the street in 1994 what the internet was, he or she couldn’t have explained it any better than the folks in this video did.

          @endymion: Gumbel always struck me as an arrogant jerk. I can easily imagine him shaking his cane in the air and yelling, “Get off my lawn!”

          1. @sapere_aude: Re: college campuses, average person in 1994: Right on all counts. I was fortunate because I was on a college campus that was heavily wired, due to its ties with the local defense laboratory, so I had full access. Was there for the beginning of the Web too. (See aforementioned post.)

          2. I remember an older friend of mine who had just started a media studies course in the mid to late ’80s cursing about his lecturers insisting he and his classmates use email as much as possible, and to hand in course work by email.

      2. @sapere_aude: I got access back in ’89, when it was Usenet – gopher – email and shell prompts galore … It was fun back then, a text-only battlefield …

        I’m not surprised either (re: journalists in 1994) — it was an alien world to them. The beginning of the commercial Web in 94 was the earliest introduction of the Internet to the masses …

    2. The internet was only used by academics and rich kid nerds in the ’80s. It didn’t see wide, commercial use until the mid ’90s.

      Ugh. This is how history gets all jumbled up- and it hasn’t even been that long.

    3. 81 or 82? No way you are remembering that correctly (it happens to all of us as we age) as the Commodore 64 was cutting edge at that point and had very little educational information available on it to the public.

  3. my first experience with the internet would be watching friends get drawn into the time suck of mudding in 1993(?). Little did I know we ALL would be time sucking before too long

  4. What strikes me is not just how dated it all sounds, of course, but how contentious and sneering Gumbel is. There’s no sense of wonder or graciousness. He just sounds annoyed at these newfangled technofads that are about to make his life more complicated. Feels small-minded.

    1. Bryant Gumbel was a world-class tool then, and he remains one to this day. He has always been the sort who thinks he’s the smartest, coolest person in any room he’s in – evidently not!
      Katie Couric was cute, spunky and self-effacing when she first arrived on the Today Show set (despite the criminally atrocious hairstyle and wardrobe in this clip!). She has since devolved into just another bitter, humorless, and overpaid talking head.
      Was a time when NBC News was the best TV had to offer. Now it’s just another also-ran.

  5. Wow, I remember seeing this at the time and losing a little hope for my species. Not because they didn’t know what it was but because of the lazy way they attempted to explain it (especially when the graphic got @ wrong).

    And in ’94 I certainly needed a phone line to connect.

    1. @Anon: at least that eventually improved. To this day you can still hear the odd tv or radio commercial refer to “ backslash foo x y” …

  6. I first got online in November 1992 (at home) using Prodigy, and upgraded to AOL in early 94. My family wasn’t particularly tech savvy, but I’ve been an active net user since that day in 1992.

  7. Bryant Gumbel gave me my all-time favourite TV moment back in the day. He was covering the Carnivale in Rio, and was asked whether he found all the semi-naked women hard to deal with.

    Without thinking for even a second, he answered blithely, “It was tough at first, but after a while you get hardened to it…”

    I swear I could hear the cameraman choking.

  8. I used to run an Atari ST bulletin board in Ontario in 1986 or so, and then got solid access at York University in 1990. So by the time this was shown (it’s adorable, btw), I was teaching corporate end-user courses called things like “Introduction to The Information Superhighway” (and, a little later, “Basic Search Engine Techniques”). You’d be surprised how little people knew. I would typically start the class with a description of a “network” of computers as two or more machines able to talk to one another, and then explain that the internet was a “network of networks”… You could practically see the smoke coming out their ears. And these were employees at places like Nortel and Bell. Sadly, I’ll never make that much money again, because most kids graduate from grade 2 with this information now.

  9. Are you trying to tell me that before things existed, they didn’t? That’s so funny! Mind = blown.

  10. I’m not sure there’s a good excuse for journalists to take this tone–and I really hate the “act like how you think the people you’re speaking to are acting” style of journalism–but Internet wasn’t exactly the norm in 1994.

    Maybe this comes from growing up in small town Midwest, but our public library didn’t even have Internet access until 1995. And then, it was behind three locked doors and nobody who worked at the library full-time knew how to use it.

    I wasn’t online with any regularity until late in 1998, and I didn’t have a home computer until I got one for high school graduation.

    In conclusion: Bryant Gumbel sucks, but you didn’t have to be a total idiot to be confused by the Internet in 1994.

  11. To be precise: I’m pretty sure he said, “What is Internet, anyway?” Which is even better.

  12. re: commercial at…the fact that these 2 talking heads were ignorant of a symbol that had been on every keyboard since the beginning, and on every itemized invoice (5 widgets @ $1.55ea) shows how totally out of touch with the real world these people are:-P

  13. I was a latecomer to the internet: 1988

    By 1992 I’d already retired from being the biggest warez distributor on the internet and told some dude in Finland I needed a finished version of unix and didn’t have time to help him with his project.

    Then there’s the dumb stuff I did.

  14. My first experiences in computing and Inter-networking began when my employer plopped a *huge* DEC Terminal on my particle board and Formica desk and connected it to PDP system.

    After a two-week crash course for “our new electronic office wonder” and a steep learning curve, I started having fun with commands, options, arguments and shell scripts.

    My first social-networking began with dialing local into bulletin board systems on my boss’s Apple ][ computer during my late-night shifts as a part-time “underground” radio DJ.

    Today, I still do a lot of computing, Inter- and social-networking in a command-line environment. My favorite BBS – SDF – is now a public access Unix system.

  15. I think my situation represents more or less the norm for most colleges and universities from 1989-1993. No internet, and no email addresses when I arrived. From 1990-1993, geeks were using VAX accounts, which I found amazing when someone explained to me how you could ‘chat’ with someone on the other side of the world, on a split screen, without paying AT&T an arbitrary cost per minute (though we probably were indirectly, through tuition costs). Finally email accounts arrived… in 1994, after I graduated. I heard an inspiring interview with Mitch Kapor in fall of 1993, just before I left the country to do volunteer work in an isolated village in Guatemala, so I was excited about what was on the horizon.

    When I returned in 1995, everything had definitely changed.

  16. I was a regular BBS user from about 1981, until 1997 when I finally shut off my BBS system due to low activity from everyone using the Internet. I’d been on text-only 2400bps Internet access from about 1993. Sweet Archie!

    I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Internet for giving me a career without having to learn anything or go to school. Because of people like Gumbel, and everyone else who knew zero about it, it was easy for those of us who also knew nothing really technical but knew what the Internet was to get jobs or start ISPs – because even that little knowledge was light years ahead of everyone else and there was desperate demand for it.

    Now I’m a high paid executive in the industry with more than 15 years of experience, and I’m a college dropout.

    I wonder if anyone has figured out the tipping point to mainstream acceptability. The web isn’t enough, and even as late as 1997 the Internet was still somewhat unknown, although it had started it’s slide into everyone’s lives. What made this nerd domain popular?

    1. “What made this nerd domain popular?”

      My guess: increasing computer power, which dad brought us the windowed OSes, combined with the ability to use computers as music play-back systems.

      Computers = home entertainment, was the first big realization: the second was its power as a method for people to communicate with each other, more, faster, cheaper.

      Computers = communication, was thus the second big realization.

      Finally, by logic, people clued in to the fact that home entertainment = communication

      Here’s a song about the latter:

      PS note the antique computer gear in that video.

    2. I have always personally acquainted the popularity explosion of the internet with Napster. Seriously. I distinctly remember that year of school for me. I started out the school year being a nerd because I was big into computers and on the net all the time, but by the end of the year, EVERYONE was online and talking about Napster and how awesome it was. Everyone was talking with each other using AIM. I knew then that the internet wasn’t a secret nerd club anymore.

      For what it’s worth, my family started using Prodigy somewhere around 92-93 on our 2400 baud modem.

  17. It’s clear that this takes place in the very, very early days of widespread Internet adoption, because the Today show gave people an e-mail address to contact.

    Not a web page or site. An e-mail address. “Hey America! Let’s see what you can do to our MTA!”

    I was on the Big-I very early thanks to working for a DARPA-funded lab. Watching stuff like this in ’94 made me think, “Here they come, and they’re gonna bring a ton of spam with them.” Little did I know how bad it would get when AOL shoved their parachute-challenged users out the jump door over Techistan.

  18. Not surprised that somebody in 1994 had no clue, but I’d expect that journalists would at that time at least have heard of the concept of email and how to read an email address out loud. Also surprised by the complete lack of interest or wonder in the voices of the anchors – what the hell?

    Personally I got my first email address in 1990 – universities regularly gave out free email addresses if you were able to telnet into their open(!) servers, no matter who or where you are. I was an Electrical Engineering student in Munich at that time, and I can guarantee you that less than 20% of the students around me had more than a vague notion of what the Internet is.

  19. Gee I keep messing up my sentences…to clarify: the first windowed OS from Microsoft – Windows 3, IIRC, sometime in the early 1990s – really made computers much easier to use for us masses.

    Nothing against dear old dad, but I had meant to say “had”, in my above comment.

  20. in 1994 I was in high school and all our computers could do was run a disc version of an encyclopedia. A friend of mine was in college and used some inter college chat thing that resembled the DOS operating system. I had no idea what the internet was. So yeah 1994 was early for most of us.

  21. “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” — William Gibson

  22. I remember reading the Cuckoo’s Egg by Cliff Stoll back in 1990-91 wishing I had a computer so I could access the Internet. Started Grad school in the Fall of 1993, when I got my first email address, and could use UNIX and Lynx go navigate the Internet, and use Gopher and such. Then this amazing new program called Mosaic came out. Wow, you could actually see images from NASA’s Hubble telescope without having to use FTP to download the images. Then Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 smashed into Jupiter. Remember having to deal with WinSock configuations, and hearing the buzzes and beeps of the 14.4 modem? Ahh, fun times.

  23. Yeah, ’93 –ish for me, using Prodigy and CompuServ. It was about the same time America Online was sending out those millions upon millions of CDs of their software. You couldn’t open your mailbox or a magazine without getting one of those free discs. We immediately signed up for the service but quickly realized that you didn’t need AOL to access the net. But, as the web grew, so did the frustrations of 2400 bps modems! Seems like more years ago than it is.
    Kinda reminds me of mobile phone acceptance. Everybody thinks they had one by 1990, but few did until years later. Only weirdos were carrying those 12 pound Motorolas.

  24. The school I attended had a computer lab in 1984 (the year I graduated). I thought about pursuing computer programming as a career back then, but (honestly) said to myself “eh, it’s too late: there are plenty of computer techs already.”

    18 year olds know everything…

  25. Ah the obligatory “old fuddy duddy’s comprehension of new fangled tech” bit … never seen that used by an “news” organization before … drivel!

  26. I can understand being mystified by the Internet in 1994; I don’t remember when I first heard of it, but I got my first PC in early 1996, mainly so I could get online. What I don’t get is their unfamiliarity with the @ symbol. It’s not like that was a new thing created especially for e-mail.

  27. the @ symbol blows his mind? Being a kid in the early eighties I noticed on grocery reciepts that if you bought multiples of the same item they’d list it as 3 @ $x.xx and the subtotal..

    It must be nice to know you’ve never had to pay for your own crap.

  28. I was logging onto compuserve back in ’86 from the Uk. The internet as ‘you’ (kids today) know it with online shopping, video streaming, et al does date from around the late 90’s but, like 3D cinema, is much older than you imagine.

    ….and were we watching an early version of fox news? Presenters seemed just as half witted.

  29. I got my first computer in 1997, having surfed the web at work occasionally for a couple of years before that. I always regarded myself as pretty much at the rear of the pack.

  30. What is frightening is that these same people are just as ignorant about what they are explaining now. They don’t have a clue about what they are talking about, but that fact doesn’t stop them from talking.

  31. I remember working for a large 3-letter computer company that wasn’t IBM back in the early 1990s, presenting to IT managers about the future of TCP/IP for communications, and saying that an email address was going to soon become more important for businesses than a fax number. (At the time, fax numbers were as important as email addresses are today.) At one such presentation, the IT manager stood up and declared, “I just spent a lot of time and money installing an SNA network throughout my enterprise, and I’ll be damned if anyone suggests converting to TCP/IP. It will NEVER HAPPEN in my lifetime.”

    So I wonder where that guy is now… LOL

  32. When I was in college (78-82) my girlfriend’s dad was a computer science prof at Iowa State. I was really fascinated by all the talk about packet-switching, ARPANET, etc. I asked him a zillion questions and he was really cool about it. I think I got the idea that there would (or might) someday be a global network. As I recall, Compuserve, AOL and Prodigy all started up in the late 70s or early 80s.

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