The Internet deserves its proper noun

doc036cThe NYTimes says the Mandarins of language are demoting the Internet to a common noun. It is to be just “internet” from now on. Reasons:

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.”

But we never called electricity “the Electricity.” And “the telephone” referred to a single thing of which there billions of individual examples.

What was it about “the Internet” that made us want to capitalize it in the first place? Is usage alone reason enough to stop respecting that?

Some of my tech friends say the “Internet” we’ve had for all these years is just one prototype: the first and best-known of many other possible ones.

All due respect, but: bah.

There is only one Internet just like there is only one Universe. There are other examples of neither.

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 have specialized mobile systems that provide variously open vs. sphinctered access (such as T-Mobile’s “binge” allowance for some content sources but not others), zero-rated not-quite-internets (such as Facebook’s Free Basics) and countries such as China, where many domains and uses are locked out.

Some questions…

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? Or would they have made sure that their parts only got along, at most, with partners’ parts? Would the first considerations by those operators not have been billing and tariffs agreed to by national regulators?

Hell, would the four of us have written The Cluetrain Manifesto? Would David Weinberger and I have written World of Ends or New Clues if the Internet had lacked upper-case qualities?

Would the world experience absent distance and cost across a The Giant Zero in its midst were it not for the Internet’s founding design, which left out billing proprietary routing on purpose?

Would we have anything resembling the Internet of today if designing and building 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 we do have)?

I think the answer to all of those would be no.

In The Compuserve of Things, Phil Windley begins, “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 many of us 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.

If you care at all about this, please dig‘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.)


  1. vanderleun’s avatar

    I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to my death your right to say “the Internet.”

  2. John Powell’s avatar

    Really interesting! I gotta admit, I agree, the Internet should have a proper noun.

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