The New York Times says we are losing Internet as a proper noun:
Thomas Kent, The A.P.’s standards editor, said the change mirrored the way the word was used in dictionaries, newspapers, tech publications and everyday life.
In our view, it’s become wholly generic, like ‘electricity or the ‘telephone,’ ” he said. “It was never trademarked. It’s not based on any proper noun. The best reason for capitalizing it in the past may have been that the word was new. But at one point, I’ve heard, ‘phonograph’ was capitalized.”
Yet we never called electricity “the Electricity.” And “the telephone” referred to a single thing of which there billions of individual examples.
So let’s stop and think about this: what was it about “the Internet” that made us want to capitalize it in the first place?
Is it right to stop respecting that?
Would we enjoy a common network by any name today if the Internet had been lower-case from the start?
Would makers or operators of any of the parts that comprise the Internet’s whole feel any fealty to what at least ought to be the common properties of that whole? Would the first considerations by those operators not have been billing and tariffs agreed to by national regulators?
Would we have anything resembling the Internet of today if making it had been left up to phone and cable companies? Or to governments (even respecting the roles government activities did play in creating the Net)?
I think the answer to all of those would be no.
The technical reason for a lower-case “internet” I most respect says that the “Internet” we’ve had for all these years is just one prototype: just the first and best-known of many other possible ones.
But I still don’t buy it. The Internet is like the Universe. There is just one of it. There are no other examples.
Formalizing the lower-case “internet,” for whatever reason, dismisses what’s transcendent and singular about the Internet we have: a whole that is more, and other, than a sum of parts.
I know it looks like the Net is devolving into many separate systems, isolated and silo’d to some degree. We see that with messaging, for example: hundreds of different ones, most of them incompatible, on purpose. We see it in specialized mobile systems that provide variously open vs. sphinctered access (such as T-Mobile’s “binge” allowance for some content sources but not others), in zero-rated not-quite-internets (such as Facebook’s Free Basics) and in countries such as China, where many domains and uses are locked out.
And maybe we will never have an agreement about what’s proper or formal about “the Internet.” (Arguments about “neutrality” clearly suggest that.)
And maybe it’s enough that the world has come to at least experience assumption of absent or minimized distance and cost across what I call The Giant Zero: a horse of perception that will never go back in the pre-Internet barn.
But the upper-case Internet is not bathwater, and by throwing it out we also toss a baby it sustains: freedom itself.
In The Compuserve of Things, Phil Windley writes, “On the Net today we face a choice between freedom and captivity, independence and dependence. How we build the Internet of Things has far-reaching consequences for the humans who will use — or be used by — it. Will we push forward, connecting things using forests of silos that are reminiscent the online services of the 1980’s, or will we learn the lessons of the Internet and build a true Internet of Things?”
Would he, or anybody, ask such questions, or aspire to such purposes, were it not for the respect we pay to the upper-cased-ness of “the Internet?”
How does demoting Internet from proper to common noun not risk (or perhaps even assure) its continued devolution to a collection of closed and isolated parts that lack properties (e.g. openness and commonality) possessed only by the whole?
I don’t know. But I think these kinds of questions are important to ask, now that the keepers of usage standards have demoted what the Net’s creators made — and ignore why they made it.
Originally published at blogs.harvard.edu on May 31, 2016.
If you care at all about this, please dig Archive.org‘s Locking the Web Open: A Call for a Distributed Web, Brewster Kahle’s post by the same title, covering more ground, and the Decentralized Web Summit, taking place on June 8–9. I’ll be there in spirit. (Alas, I have other commitments on the East Coast.)