July 17, 2006

Not a Slip of the Tongue

Today's New York Times contains an article about the widespread criticism of remarks that Alaska Senator Ted Stevens made in opposition to a bill that would enforce net neutrality. The article is entitled Senator's Slip of the Tongue Keeps on Truckin' Over the Web. That makes it sound like he made a speech production error and chose the wrong word or mangled his syntax. That isn't what happened.

Here is a somewhat compressed version of what Stevens said that has got so many people riled up. You can download an audio recording of the whole thing here.

I just the other day got, an internet was sent by my staff at 10 o'clock in the morning on Friday and I just got it yesterday. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the internet commercially... They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the internet. And again, the internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and its going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.

It's true that he puts things in a way that many people find funny, and saying "an internet" rather than "an email" might be a slip of the tongue, but that isn't the focus of the criticism. The criticism is about his lack of understanding of how computer networks work and in particular his almost certainly false belief that the reason it took five days for an email from his staff to reach him was because it was caught up in a traffic jam caused by heavy commercial traffic. (There's a hilarious mock forensic analysis of the email here.) Just search for "Ted Stevens" and terms like "internet", "truck", and "tube" and you'll get oodles of examples. Among the ones I've read are: this, this, this, and this. The very clear theme is that Stevens' speech shows that he doesn't understand what he is talking about, which is unfortunate since he is the Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Technology and as such has considerable influence on legislation affecting net neutrality and other telecommunication issues.

This might be another instance of linguification, but in this case I have to give the headline author the benefit of the doubt. The article does not give a clear explanation of what the controversy is about, so it may well be the fault of the reporter or the article editor that the author of the headline didn't have enough to go on to write an accurate headline.

Posted by Bill Poser at July 17, 2006 03:15 PM