5 Quotes that Everyone Makes Fun of, but Which Actually Contain Profound Insights


Ridiculous and insightful are not mutually exclusive properties

I’ve wrapped a quasi-dense essay in a BuzzFeed-worthy headline. Forgive me.

5. – “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” – Punch Magazine, 1899, wrongly attributed to Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office.

What a fool, right? Though this quote originated in a humor magazine, it paints a great picture of what many were thinking/still think at any moment following major industrial progress – “what else can be done?” – and lampooning it. Someone who felt that way in 1899 wouldn’t have seen much of the automobile, airplane, or computer, not even the Internet (or the much more important washing machine). Seems like he was way off…

…but at the same time, someone alive at the turn of the 20th century would have been familiar with many items that remain mainstays of everyday life even today, whether they were created during the 19th century or far, far earlier, and which have not been disrupted. Let’s see: indoor plumbing, electric lighting, refrigeration, beer, shoes, silverware, restaurants, chairs.

Some of those are millennia old – when will someone “disrupt” shoes in a way that would make them unrecognizable to a citizen of the Roman Empire?

Despite the presumed technological progress of the 20th and 21st centuries, someone from the 19th century wouldn’t be out of place at all listening to a classical orchestra, which still relies on age-old instruments such as the piano and the violin.

And 19th century people had already seen the telegraph (check out the gorgeous opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West – yes, a film, I know, something cowboys would have been mostly unfamiliar with despite the existence of cameras), which was essentially a proto-Internet – phone service and Internet service can almost be looked at as iterations on telegraphy, although their improvements are still no match for how much the telegraph improved upon communications mechanisms like the Pony Express.

So yes, the quote is off a bit – it’s hyperbolic, as humor tends to be, but it makes a good case for much of what really matters having been invented long ago and seldom matched for the changes it caused.

4. – “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.” – U.S. president Barack Obama

This one’s amazing because it upsets conventional wisdom on two fronts, by 1) harpooning the notion that anything in human affairs is an unstoppable force unshaped by the interests and politics of specific persons; 2) applying that logic specifically to the Internet/”the Internet” (more on this below).

John F. Kennedy once stated that “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” Actually, it’s more like: “everything has a thousand fathers and nothing is generated spontaneously or birthed virginally (well, except for…forget it).” As romantic as the notion is that everyone is self-made, it just doesn’t square with the sheer amount of different forces at work on us every day, many of them completely unknown to us (see the next item in this list). Luck matters – but it’s hard to accept this in part because the idea of an unjust/random world is too upsetting even for heartless billionaires to entertain, plus the most influential voices are naturally inclined to downplay the notion of luck-driven reality – in part because of their own positions, and how they want to regard them as fully merited.

And it’s not just luck. For example, a world without government regulation and centralized currency would be unbearable – a Bitcoin dystopia. In the U.S. it’s impossible to do anything without benefiting (and/or being stung by) government influence – even matters as simple as setting up electricity, water supplies, and road access are subject to regulation (and for good reason!). The idea of someone blazing a trail through day to day affairs, untouched by the concurrent and previous actions of others, is a fantasy.

The zinger about the Internet is even better. If the National Science Foundation hadn’t handed over infrastructure investment to the private sector, and if cable companies had been regulated like telephone operators, “the Internet” (scare marks explained below) would look a lot different. It wasn’t some unstoppable force (i.e., “God”), but a manmade creation contingent about human decisions.

3. – “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” – former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

Rumsfeld won the Foot in Mouth Award from something called the Plain English Campaign for this remark. I don’t what they were getting at – the remark is repetitive, but it makes sense. There are some things that we do not even realize that we’re unaware of, sure – I didn’t know that “enterprise channel partners” were even a thing before my first real job. But what’s overlooked is that this huge blind spot in our knowledge is often papered-over by arrogance – sort of like what the first quote above would be getting at, were it serious.

Economist Ha-Joon Chang cited this statement as enormously important for understanding the current difficulties that many economies have had digging themselves out from the late 2000s recession. Basically, they are making policy in part believing that they know every possible factor that contributes to the success or failure of an economy. Yet economies are vast things, shaped by millions of people and by laws, regulations, and actions that are far beyond the control of the state in question – isn’t it possible, even likely, that central bankers and politicians have no idea about some of the forces that buoy and depress economic performance?

2. – “The Internet is a series of tubes.” – late U.S. Senator Ted Stevens

Before he died in a plane crash in 2010, Alaska senator Ted Stevens was best known for funneling pork to his home state and wearing Hulk ties while screaming at other elderly men and women. This 2006 gem was gold for John Stewart et al and anyone seeking confirmation that old people/government officials/anyone outside Silicon Valley misunderstands what “the Internet” is all about.

But all that hay that comedians and techies made out of this comment is a product of confusing the Internet with “the Internet” – the former is the literal telecommunications infrastructure that makes network services possible, while the latter is a nebulous ideological term synonymous with the persons, corporations and foundations that contribute to its most notable traits.

It should be obvious that the parties and interests behind the Internet and “the Internet” are not the same – on one side, you’ve got Verizon, Deutsch Telekom, Comcast, and other corporations that make service physically possible. On the other, you’ve got Google, Facebook, Tencent et al, who are mostly interested in providing service on top of that infrastructure.

When someone talks about “using the Internet” or “because of the Internet __” they’re almost always referring to the latter group, and their reference is often propped-up with language about openness and communication. Such rhetoric can’t be as easily applied to the telecoms whose pipes/tubes (yes) underpin these services – it won’t do to say that Verizon promotes “openness,” when it’s most interested in providing services that benefit its bottom line. And that’s ok!

The distinction between Internet/”Internet” is rarely made except when political issues come to the fore, which makes sense since absolutely everything is about politics in the end. Take today’s net neutrality ruling in the U.S., which has many in the tech press up in arms about the end of equal treatment for all content providers.

Under the new arrangement, it could be possible for telecoms to give faster lanes to the highest bidder, or degrade traffic for services that compete with its own. By managing the Internet, these telecoms could “ruin” (or “Balkanize,” in the popular terminology) “the Internet.” In other words, they could possibly make it such that the current traits we attribute to “the Internet” would change, which would be an almost purely ideological/cosmetic change with very little of interest on the technological front.

“Balkanizing” “the Internet” is presumed to be bad without exception, but it’s not clear why – something something openness something something something progress. Essentially, it’s being argued that upsetting the status quo and potentially letting different companies and even countries manage their telecommunications infrastructure according to different interest is evil. This rings of desperation, and it wouldn’t make sense without the vast political and ideological capital that the term “the Internet” has built up, a sort of meta-infrastructure that no other communicative medium has accrued.

I mean, the same certainly doesn’t hold for telephony. No one fears the implications of “the Telephony” being “Balkanized,” although it already is, with tons of different standards in countries such as China, and things seem to be working out ok. By pleading for the preservation of “the Internet,” major Web companies are asking for something akin to clearance to drive on all roads, everywhere. But this doesn’t really work out historically, does it? The same TV content isn’t beamed to every station equally under an agreement to preserve “the Television,” and, well, if something as significant as national boundaries can still exist and be meaningful (and they are – just look at the current Japan/China row), wouldn’t one just assume that “the Internet” is not truly global and is instead architected and run by countries with specific national interests and attributes?

The fact that providers are worried about the Internet’s infrastructure demonstrates that “the Internet’s” traits aren’t set in stone, God-given, or immutable. Rather, they’re the product of specific business deals, technological decisions, and regulatory action, any of which could change and set “the Internet” off on an entirely different course because, well, it is meta-infrastructure and not actual physical infrastructure. It IS a bunch of tubes at heart, and those tubes matter, since it’s hard to pin down exactly what exists on top of them.

1. – “I invented the Internet” – attributed (spuriously) to Al Gore and a fabrication, although it may be a very, very loose rephrase of related remarks

I left this one for last since I needed the setup from the previous one. Well, Al, which is it? The Internet or “the Internet?”

He could probably make a strong case for either, actually. Government research and regulation was key to shaping telecommunications infrastructure in the 1980s and 1990s, and Gore was a member of Congress at that time.

On a meta level (for “the Internet”) – well, since “the Internet” is a cultural phenomenon, it’s plausible for any single person to say that he “invented” it in a some way, either by opting for streaming music over physical purchases, switching from Outlook to Gmail, or becoming active on Reddit. Culture is forged by these small actions done en masse. In light of the surprising insight of “You didn’t build that,” in fact, just about anyone can lay claim to inventing (or maybe “contributing” is a more palatable term for most observers) significant cultural artifacts.

Invention has been romanticized to hell, as if it were something that happened in the isolation of a lab or study, and the consequences of this romanticization is the awful patent system. Ideas aren’t exclusive property, and many discoveries have been made simultaneously by unrelated parties. No one individual “invented” anything without some influence, some contribution from someone else. But the myth lives on so that everyone can clutch his pearls and make a scene when someone else claims he did (Gore) or didn’t (Obama) invent/build something.

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