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Almost all of use have heard of Ted Stevens trying to describe the Internet with the analogy that it is a series of tubes (mp3). I believe that it likely that some tech person somewhere tried to describe the Internet to him and this was the best analogy they could come up with.

What analogy would you use to describe the Internet, and issues related to bandwidth, latency, etc, to your grandmother or someone else with no IT experience.


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My 2¢: "series of tubes" in and of itself isn't a horrible analogy. However, it came in the midst of differentiating that from a truck, calling an email message "an internet", and describing how router queuing delayed his message by days. This is all pretty typical grandpa-type understanding. However, he was the chairman of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which, among other things, regulates the Internet, and using this argument to speak against net neutrality. –  wfaulk Oct 1 '09 at 16:58
@Wfaulk, exactly. The Series of Tubes isn't terrible. It's how he extrapolated on that, egregiously, which made the whole analogy silly. He twisted the analogy until it fit his purpose. –  Chris S Feb 16 '11 at 20:30

8 Answers 8

up vote 11 down vote accepted

People laugh at Ted Stevens, but "a series of tubes" isn't the stupidest way of describing the Internet I've heard. For someone with no IT experience, I might try using an (offline) social network, and the way it passes around gossip, as a rather poor substitute. The easiest way is to just say "it's all very complicated" in a mysterious voice, and if the person persists in asking, break out the jumbo whiteboard and start drawing internetwork diagrams until their eyes glaze over and they go and annoy someone else.


Post office may be a decent analogy -- after all they do route packets around to various addresses. Then, you can have an example of building a model out of parts that come in multiple packets, and that you need them all to arrive (and be re-sent if needed) in order to assemble them.


Series of tubes is a good analogy, but it's not complete.

Really I feel that any person able to function in society should be able to understand this:

Computers use electricity to do mathematical operations, and store and transmit information. This information can be represented as numbers, words, images, audio, video. For children, use this opportunity to show a record to demonstrate how audio relates to vibrations, and movie film, to show how video is a series of still images.

Computers use electricity to do math. They can do this extremely fast. Everything that a computer does is based on a series of mathematical operations. A computer is able to do so much math so fast that it can perform extremely complex feats using simple math as a building block. To a computer, it is not very important whether the math represents words, audio, or video.

These electrical signals can be sent over great distances, like a telephone or telegraph. Use a battery, wire, and a lightbulb/LED to show a telegraph, and a laser pointer and fiber optic cables to show light being used to send the data. Show a cellphone and FM radio and explain briefly that radio waves can be used as well.

Two computers can send information between each other in this manner. In fact many computers can be connected to each other, to send information between each other over great distances. This is the Internet. Instead of this battery, wire, and lightbulb, we have millions of computers interconnected with countless wires. This interconnectivity gets very complicated, but to the computers involved, they are simply repeating simple math very quickly.

When you look at a web page on the Internet, whoever wrote the words you see did it on a computer that turned it into numbers. Whoever took the pictures you see did it with a camera that turned it into numbers. Whoever recorded the sounds you hear did it with a microphone that turned it into numbers. It was sent to you through a series of computers, transferring the numbers using electricity, light, or radio waves. For your computer to show it to you, it used the numbers to turn it back into light on your monitor. (Optionally explain speakers, it's a bit of a tangent but you can involve the telephone and some history).

This should make sense to anyone. You can elaborate by drawing a simplified diagram of routers and hosts, and also explaining storage with the record as a starting point. The routing of packets is easy to explain - each computer has a numerical address. For any address, each router knows what direction it is in.

The real issue is that most people don't want to understand. They don't want to spend a few minutes of their day learning something. The education system in the developed world is designed to remove people's will to learn. It's not that people can't understand such simple concepts. You simply can't convince them to listen. For people who are willing to listen, it's easy to help them understand. My experience is that this means very young children, and old people who have a technical background. This is similar to the problem of people who refuse to read what's on their computer screen. Software meant for end users that does not work based on reading the screen and answering the questions is broken. There's a lot of broken software out there. But also, a lot of people simply refuse to read the screen.

"The real issue is that most people don't want to understand. They don't want to spend a few minutes of their day learning something. The education system in the developed world is designed to remove people's will to learn. It's not that people can't understand such simple concepts. You simply can't convince them to listen." +1 for pointing out the (at times) painfully obvious –  Avery Payne Jul 22 '09 at 6:53
+1 they they simply brush it off by saying "i am not interested". but they simply fail to see that learning is not about whether you are interested or not. It's a fundamental human ability to improve ourselves, and an ability that many people do not use. –  Jake May 5 '12 at 9:20

Waterslides. Or just slides. Interslides.

Thousands of people, zipping around in the interslides. With their arms up. Grinning :D

I realise this is basically just tubes + water + people but still –  xkcd150 May 2 '09 at 4:54
Futurama!!!!! WOOT!!! –  Pure.Krome May 2 '09 at 11:11

I just use cars, homes, businesses, and objects.

"So, Grandma, if you need a newspaper, what do you do?"

"I get in my car, drive to the store, buy the newspaper, and drive home."

"The internet is a little like that. Say I want to read the news. My computer gets on the internet, goes to the news website, gets the newspaper, and displays it on my computer screen. The news website is like a store, and the internet is all the stores, homes, and roads inbetween."



The phrase that used to be tossed around all the time still has some validity: The Information Superhighway.


Remember kids... never ever type "Google" into Google!


I told my mother this when I try to teach her how to use the internet and email

The internet is like a very big city with many shops set up along its streets. The internet browser is a special vehicle that automatically drives you around as long as you give it a correct address. Now we want to send an email to uncle, so we need to get to the post office. We set the address in the vehicle, type www.gmail.com and hit enter! Then here we are at the front door of our post office... etc.


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