Internet Time Machine

How to Internet

A guided tour through the past, present, and future of logging on

Jenny Odell
Human Parts
Published in
19 min readDec 20, 2016

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Photo: Stella Dauer via flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

This story is part of the Internet Time Machine, a collection about life online in the 2010s.

AtAt my job teaching college students, I’m occasionally mistaken for one. I’ve found that a good way to make students take me seriously on the first day is to mention that I remember a time before the internet.

Of course that’s not true given a precise interpretation of what the internet actually is. But I’m certainly old enough to remember PSA-like videos coaxing the casual newbie into the exciting, if intimidating, world of cyberspace. Such videos often begin the same way, with a middle-aged man voicing all of the hypothetical questions you must be having: “But what exactly is the internet?” “How much will it cost?” “Will I be any good at it?”

Thanks to enterprising individuals like Andy Baio and sites like Everything Is Terrible, some of these early videos and TV shows have been extracted from VHS tapes and are now available on YouTube.

Warning: one can get pretty nostalgic watching these videos, in which the internet is imagined as a neat, useful thing — not yet an omnipresent force with unfathomable effects on our economy and sociality.

You’ll be cruisin’ the information superhighway in no time

As is often the case when we’re grasping for explanations of the truly new, the narrators of these videos compare the internet to an older structure: the highway system. Some of the opening sequences of these videos show literal highways or 3D visualizations of an “information superhighway.” In one, a friendly narrator steps out into a room full of highway signs; in another, a laptop itself speeds down the highway toward a sign reading, “World Wide Web: Next Exit.” I’ve collected some of those here:

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Jenny Odell
Human Parts

artist and author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Melville House) // www.jennyodell.com