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December 29, 2002
Who Owns the Internet? You and i Do
By JOHN SCHWARTZ
SOMETHING will be missing when Joseph Turow's book about families and the
Internet is published by M.I.T. Press next spring: The capital I that
usually begins the word "Internet."
Mr. Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the
University of Pennsylvania, studies how people use online technology and how
that affects their lives. He has begun a small crusade to de-capitalize
Internet ? and, by extension, to acknowledge a deep shift in the way that we
think about the online world.
"I think what it means is it's part of the everyday universe," he said.
Capitalization irked him because, he said, it seemed to imply that reaching
into the vast, interconnected ether was a brand-name experience.
"The capitalization of things seems to place an inordinate, almost private
emphasis on something," he said, turning it into a Kleenex or a Frigidaire.
"The Internet, at least philosophically, should not be owned by anyone," he
said, calling it "part of the neural universe of life."
But, he said, dropping the big I would sent a deeper message to the world:
The revolution is over, and the Net won. It's part of everyone's life, and
as common as air and water (neither of which starts with a capital).
Some elements of the online world have already made the transition. Internet
often appears with a lowercase I on the Internet itself ? but then, spelling
online is dreadful, u kno.
Although most everybody still capitalizes World Wide Web, words like
"website," and the online journals known as weblogs (or, simply, blogs) are
increasingly lowercase. Of course, the Internet's capital I is virtually
engraved in stone, since Microsoft Word automatically capitalizes the
lowercase "i" unless a user overrides its settings.
For Mr. Turow, the first step in his campaign was persuading his book editor
to enlist. She compromised, dropping to lowercase in newly written parts and
retaining the capital in older articles reproduced in the book.
Then he nudged Steven Jones, a communications professor at the University of
Illinois at Chicago and president of the Association of Internet
Researchers. Mr. Jones was cool to the idea, until he looked at copies of
Scientific American from the late 19th century, and noticed that words for
new technologies, like Phonograph, were often uppercased.
Today, Mr. Jones is a crusader himself.
"I think the moment is right," he said, to treat the Internet "the way we
refer to television, radio and the telephone."
He shared his view with a few hundred close friends last month at a meeting
of the National Communication Association, an educators' group. "I just
noticed everybody's attention kind of snapped forward," he said.
"I'm used to having people say nice things," he said. "We're scholars, not
wrestlers. But this time I was struck by the number of people who were
saying the equivalent of, `Right on!' "
DICTIONARY editors, though, have dismissed Mr. Turow politely but firmly.
Dictionaries do not generally see themselves as making the rules, said Jesse
Sheidlower, who runs the American offices of the Oxford English Dictionary.
"What dictionaries do is reflect what's out there," he said. He and his
fellow dictionary editors would think seriously about such changes after
newspapers make them, he added.
That could take a while. Allan M. Siegal, a co-author of The New York Times
Manual of Style and Usage and an assistant managing editor at the newspaper,
said that "there is some virtue in the theory" that Internet is becoming a
generic term, "and it would not be surprising to see the lowercase usage
eclipse the uppercase within a few years."
He said, however, that the newspaper was unlikely to make any change that
was not supported by authoritative dictionaries.
Time to ask Robert Kahn, who is as responsible as anyone for the creation of
the Internet, having helped plan the original network that preceded it and
having created, with Vinton Cerf, the language of computer networks, known
as TCP/IP, that allowed the vast knitting-together of systems that gave
birth to the modern medium.
He cares deeply about the name, having led a fight for years to ensure that
its use is not restricted or abused by the corporation that received the
trademark in 1989.
A settlement was reached two years ago with the company now known as Concord
EFS. The company agreed that it would not dun people who used the word,
which meant that "Internet" now belongs to everybody, Mr. Kahn said.
"We defended the right of people to use the word `Internet' for what we
think of as the Internet," he said.
THAT was the important fight, according to Mr. Kahn. "Whether you use a cap
I or little I" hardly matters, he said.
Which leads us back to a profound question for Mr. Turow: Don't you have
anything better to do?
"That's a really interesting question," he said. "I was an English major.
I'm very sensitive to the nuances of words, and I'm very concerned about the
nuances, the feel that words have within the society."
Fair enough; Perhaps the next big thing, after all, will be small. At least
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