While most people are quick to write off Senator Ted Stevens' comment as testament to the inability of doddering old fuddy-duddies to understand the technological advances we see as commonplace, Senator Stevens' metaphor is far more apt than people give him credit.
The internet is a series of tubes. Great metaphor. Not just in an infrastructural sense but also in a deeper, metaphorical sense of which I only became aware recently while reading "Mousepads, Shoe Leather, and Hope," a wonderful book written/compiled/fostered/nurtured by Zephyr Teachout that examines the role of the internet - and effectively social media - on the Howard Dean for president campaign of 2002 and 2004.
The internet is a series of tubes for the very simple reason that it moves something from one place to another. In the case of the internet, what is being moved happens to be data and the carrier is distributing electric pulses. In this very primitive sense, the Senator was right on.
In a deeper sense, he is even more correct and his metaphor holds even more water (pun intended).
The internet is a series of tubes because it provides the infrastructure to connect two complementary but disparate things: haves and have-nots.
The example about which Teachout's revelation came was in the case of a website being used to connect people in dire need of legal counsel with lawyers who wished to help needy members of the community.
Crowdsourcing is another great example of this. Many children dream of becoming astronauts. Unfortunately, most of these children become astro-nots and grow up to have everyday jobs like you and me (unless there are astronauts that read my blog about whom I am unaware). A crowdsourcing program at the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Center provides a venue for us wannabe astronaut types to contribute to man's understanding of the cosmos.
The enthusiastic people eager to contribute their time and energy to science was there. As was the need of scientists for enthusiastic, eager, and not necessarily PhD-posessing assistance. The internet provided the tubes or pipes to transmit the resources of an enthusiastic work force to the exact place those resources would be best taken advantage of.
This is why social media is such an amazing medium. Instead of being reliant on our geographic surroundings, the mass media, and those people with whom we come into direct contact for the appropriate tubes into which to channel our passions, we can go out and find them online - or create them ourselves.
Ning is a great example of this, as are Facebook groups and I'm sure many other outlets.