John Turturro Introduces America to the World Wide Web in 1999: Watch A Beginner’s Guide To The Internet

There are only two kinds of sto­ry, holds a quote often attrib­uted to Leo Tol­stoy: a man goes on a jour­ney, or a stranger comes to town. When it set about pro­duc­ing A Begin­ner’s Guide to the Inter­net, a “com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice video” geared to view­ers unfa­mil­iar with the World Wide Web, inter­net por­tal com­pa­ny Lycos went with the lat­ter. That stranger, a his­to­ry teacher and aspir­ing come­di­an named Sam Levin, comes to a town named Tick Neck, Penn­syl­va­nia, his car hav­ing bro­ken down ear­ly in a cross-coun­try dri­ve to a gig in Las Vegas. In order to update his manager/sister on the sit­u­a­tion, he stops into the rur­al ham­let’s only din­er and orders “cof­fee, half reg­u­lar and half decaf — and the tele­phone book.”

Sam does­n’t make a call; instead he unplugs the din­er’s phone, con­nects the line to his com­put­er, looks up his inter­net ser­vice provider’s local num­ber, and (after the req­ui­site modem sounds) gets on the infor­ma­tion super­high­way. Today we know few activ­i­ties as mun­dane as going online at a cof­fee shop, but the towns­peo­ple, inno­cent even of e‑mail, are trans­fixed. Sam shows a cou­ple of kids how to search for infor­ma­tion on haunt­ed hous­es and col­lege schol­ar­ships, and soon the stu­dents become the teach­ers, demon­strat­ing online games to friends, chat rooms to a cranky old-timer (“I don’t like this word net­work at all. Net­work of what? Spies, prob­a­bly”) and even state gov­ern­ment feed­back forms to the may­or of Tick Neck (who describes her­self as “not much with a key­board”).

Though at times it feels like the 1950s, the year was 1999, per­haps the last moment before Amer­i­ca’s com­plete inter­net sat­u­ra­tion — before social media, before stream­ing video, before blogs, before almost every­thing pop­u­lar online today. “The video for Inter­net ‘new­bies’ star­ring John Tur­tur­ro was made avail­able for free rental on the com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice shelf of over 4,000 Block­buster Video stores, West Coast Video stores, pub­lic school libraries and class­rooms across the Unit­ed States,” says a con­tem­po­rary arti­cle at “The pro­duc­tion was fund­ed by Lycos who has insti­tut­ed a cam­paign to bet­ter edu­cate the pub­lic about the World Wide Web.”

Those of us on the Web in the 1990s will remem­ber Lycos, which ran one of the pop­u­lar search engines before the age of Google. Launched in 1994 as a research project at Carnegie Mel­lon Uni­ver­si­ty in Pitts­burgh (which might explain A Begin­ner’s Guide to the Inter­net’s set­ting), Lycos was in 1999 the most vis­it­ed online des­ti­na­tion in the world, and the next year Span­ish telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­ny Tele­fóni­ca acquired it for a cool $12.5 bil­lion. Tur­tur­ro, not to be out­done, had in 1998 ascend­ed to a high lev­el of the coun­ter­cul­tur­al zeit­geist with his role in the Coen broth­ers’ The Big Lebows­ki, the pur­ple-clad bowler Jesus Quin­tana — very much not a stranger any­one would want going online with their kids, but Tur­tur­ro has always had a for­mi­da­ble range.

His­to­ry has­n’t record­ed how many new­bies A Begin­ner’s Guide to the Inter­net helped to start surf­ing the Web, but the video remains a fas­ci­nat­ing arti­fact of atti­tudes to the inter­net dur­ing its first peri­od of enor­mous growth. “My fam­i­ly does­n’t own a com­put­er,” the young boy tells Sam, “and my dad does­n’t like ’em. He says facts are facts.” (That last sen­tence, innocu­ous at the time, does take on a new res­o­nance today.) The boy’s teenage sis­ter excit­ed­ly describes the inter­net as “like going to the library, depart­ment store, and post office, all at the same time.” Enter­ing his cred­it card num­ber to buy an auto-repair man­u­al for the skep­ti­cal mechan­ic, Sam says (with a strange defen­sive­ness) that “it’s com­plete­ly pri­vate. I’ve done it before and it’s not a prob­lem.” As with any stranger of leg­end who comes to town, Sam leaves Tick Neck a changed place — though not near­ly as much as the Tick Necks of the world have since been changed by the inter­net itself.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Send an E‑mail: A 1984 British Tele­vi­sion Broad­cast Explains This “Sim­ple” Process

From the Annals of Opti­mism: The News­pa­per Indus­try in 1981 Imag­ines its Dig­i­tal Future

In 1999, David Bowie Pre­dicts the Good and Bad of the Inter­net

What’s the Inter­net? That’s So 1994…

John Tur­tur­ro Reads Ita­lo Calvino’s Fairy Tale, “The False Grand­moth­er,” in a Short Ani­mat­ed Film

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • RG says:

    No the turn­ing point of Amer­i­ca’s inter­net sat­u­ra­tion was the intro­duc­tion of the iPhone in Jan­u­ary of 2007. It’s par­tic­u­lar­ly notice­able watch­ing shows of that era; The Wire and Dex­ter for exam­ple both span that time­frame and the episodes before the iPhone shows up look like it’s 50 ancient times.

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