We’ve long stopped referring to the Internet as “the information superhighway,” but there was a reason for the metaphor. Back in the 1990s, when the phrase gained popularity, it worked because a highway is fast, and online life offered access to information—and later shopping, services, and socialization—at previously unthinkable levels of speed and convenience.
The irony of “information superhighway” as a nickname for the Internet is that freeways are anything but fast and efficient, at least in America. On highways confusion and anxiety and anger reign, even as they simultaneously grant exactly the sense of speed and power they promised.
Not such a bad image for the Internet after all.
Freeways still have something to teach us about life online—in particular, how language influences how we think and act in relation to things. Southern Californians, for example, refer to their freeways with the definite article. For more than two-thousand miles, Interstate 10 is “I-10” or even just “the interstate” when no other road competes for that name. But in L.A., it’s “the 10”—along with its compatriots the 5, the 101, the 405, and so on. As Nathan Masters explained last year, this regional tic is the result of Southern Californians’ early embrace of the freeway. Like people and pets, freeways once enjoyed the charity of names—the Santa Monica Parkway, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, and so forth. The enormous, looming, thousand-miles-long concrete-and-asphalt mass that is an interstate is a remarkable enough engineering accomplishment to deserve a name, after all. Eventually these names shortened (“take the Santa Monica”), and the definite article stuck after highway route numbers became standardized (“take the 10”).