F&*#ing Internet, how does it work?

For the next 60 years or so—basically, until everyone roughly my age has died off—former Alaskan senator Ted Stevens will be widely remembered (and mocked) for once describing the Internet as "a series of tubes".

But here's the thing. It's easy to make fun of Ted Stevens. It's harder (much harder) to explain quickly and at a relatively simple level—for lay people with no tech background—what actually happens when they call up a web page.

That's why Greg Boustead and the nice folks at the World Science Festival put together this short video, explaining the basics of the Internet, specifically the basics of packet switching. The video should help the average person understand the Internet just a little better and it has been run by several experts for accuracy, Boustead says.

I have to admit that when I had to screen it for "father of the Internet" Vint Cerf, who invented this process, I was more than a little nervous, certain he would pick it apart. When he replied with "This is so good - can I please use it to explain the concept of packets at public lectures," needless to say, I was over the moon.

So, the Internet. It's not a big truck. It's not a series of tubes. It's more like a bus full of tourists.

Video Link


  1. We shouldn’t make fun of Ted Stevens for saying that the Internet is a series of tubes. That’s actually not such a terrible analogy (in fact, when getting a faster connection, it’s not uncommon to hear techs talk about a “bigger pipe”).

    We should be making fun of Ted Stevens because of this:

    “I just the other day got… an Internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday. I got it yesterday [Tuesday]. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially.”

    1. Actually a pneumatic tube system is not that bad a metaphor. They have capsules (= packets) and modern ones have switches and routing.  The main difference between capsules and packets is that capsule routing is global rather than dynamic with each packet containing its own address, and that most capsule “messages” consist of a single capsule rather than a big message being arbitrarily being broken into hundreds of packets.

      The main problem with this tube metaphor is that the general public no longer has exposure to such tube systems. They were common in places like department stores existing when Ted Stevens was much younger.

      1. No, pneumatic tubes are point-to-point.  You can’t just drop a capsule into the tube that goes from your office to the shipping dock and expect it to show up at the kitchen, where you wanted it to go.

        That, and the video wasn’t quite precise enough.  The router in Telehouse North doesn’t know that the destination IP is in Los Angeles.  It has almost no idea where it is. 

        But it know that that IP is somewhere West, so it sends it along the undersea cable. 

        Likewise for the receiving router in NYC.  It just knows that it’s somewhere West and/or South and sends it along.  Rinse, repeat.  Eventually, the packet ends up at a router that knows who has that (range of) IP addresses and sends it there.

        A better analogy is the road system.  Not superhighways, the whole road system: dirt roads, streets, boulevards, highways, etc.

        1. No, pneumatic tubes are point-to-point.

          Did you look at the vid I attached of a modern tube system that DOES have a switching system?

          I’m sure many of the older tube system were hub-and-spoke which meant that operators at the hub could help a capsule go between any terminals.

          1.  No, I didn’t.  My apologies.

            Yet, that tube system is centrally controlled.  Still not like the Internet.

          2. that tube system is centrally controlled.  Still not like the Internet.

            PaulR – do you always reply without paying any attention ?  Above I wrote:

            capsule routing is global rather than dynamic with each packet containing its own address

          3. I had this conversation several times per day for fifteen years:
            “Tube Room!”
            “I need tubes to 14!”
            “I’m out.  I’ll have to call around and have the other floors send back their empties.”

            Tube hoarding is a terrible thing.

          4. @Antinous_Moderator:disqus Tube hoarding is a terrible thing.

            Thank you for taking me to a place I’ve never been before, please allow me to reciprocate:

            For a few years, I deposited company money in a high-security vault in the back of a bank, very few customers even knew it existed.

            Past armed guards and inside the security door, across a long, empty hallway and beyond yet another security door, there was a small unventilated room, one wall had assault-rifle-proof glass with bank employees on the other side, and a safety slot with time-delay doors to move cash and papers back and forth.  No chairs, if you wanted to sit, you did so on the floor.

            We were a small group of clients with large deposits, some perennially hung over, and weirdly, all rules were left behind those security doors.  Everyone smoked like crazy in that tiny enclosed space, and the bank employees actually passed along chilled 40-ounce beers with watercooler paper cups.
            It was always too early in the morning for me, so I declined every time, now I kind of regret not seizing those bizarre moments. Kind of.

    2. It was funny to me because he did not appear to be using an analogy or metaphor, but seemed to mean it quite literally.

      1.  Even literally, it is true. Every wire is surrounded by a tube of insulation. Every optical fiber is a tube for light, a high-refractive index tube around a lower index core. Communications channels are  literally tubes at the physical level.

        1.  The actual quote, “I know what a metaphor is. “It’s a thought with another thought’s hat on.”hit tip to the writer who wrote that.

  2. i’ve never understood why suggesting the internet was like a ‘series of tubes’ was so terrible.  Geeks had referred to an internet connection as a ‘pipe’ for years before that.

    1. Well it brings with it the idea of liquids, and being able to run out at the source. A server does never run out of data to send, ever.

  3. Envelope my foot. Postcard is more appropriate as any device from the sender to the receiver (and there is a whole lot of them) can read the full content of the message sent! It would only be a envelope if the connection was done via HTTPS or other encrypted means.

  4. Btw, this video shows yet another example of the pervasiveness of a certain company’s products in media production…

  5. There are two follow-up videos I think would be useful. At the beginning of the video, the transition from website URL to website IP address was kind of glossed over and that look-up (along with some description of what can go wrong) would make a good second video.

    On a related topic, the discussion of what can go wrong for the communication process in general (what happens if one of the packets doesn’t make it in time, what happens if someone tries to tamper with or fails to pass on a packet, etc.) could also make a good, informative video.

  6. Tubes is so wrong because the reality is really long pieces of glass joined at the ends with bits of copper.

  7. Got it, thanks.  So to access a US website, I should post a self-addressed envelope to 60 Hudson Street.

  8. See http://www.wdrmaus.de/sachgeschichten/sachgeschichten/sachgeschichte.php5?id=84 , still one of the best simple (for pre-school children) explanation.

  9. Umm other than completely ignoring TCP it wasn’t too bad. In fact the people on that giant bus are told to told to go in groups and if a group doesn’t send back an acknowledgement that they have arrived at their destination the remaining groups aren’t allowed to go.

  10. not sure why it is unlisted … “This video is unlisted. Only those with the link can see it”

  11. The envelope metaphor for packets makes a whole lot more sense than the “working model of the Internet” at the National Museum of Science in Odaiba, Tokyo, which uses ball-bearings and springs to explain packets.  The Japanese model isn’t wrong, exactly.  It’s just very strange to look at.

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