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4/11/2003
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On The Horizon: The Next Small Thing? No, In A Word

The names we give to things do matter, as reflection and guide

When you send an E-mail to a friend, go shopping online for books or CDs, check your favorite Weblogs, or search for articles and information about 14th-century Spanish lute music, are you doing it on "the Internet" or "the internet"?

There is, at the moment, a small Internet decapitalization crusade under way--at least so says the New York Times, which ran a story a few months ago about Joseph Turow, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, whose upcoming book about families and the Internet, The Wired Homestead (MIT Press, 2003), downgrades the initial I from capital to lower-case. Capitalization, Turow says, implies product branding and private ownership--think Kleenex or Frigidaire, while the global network is "part of the neural universe of life and should not be owned by anyone." Doing away with that initial capital will also capture a "deep shift in the way that we think about the online world"; the global network has become "a part of the everyday universe, as common as air and water (neither of which starts with a capital)." Radio, television, telephone, internet; the "revolution is over, and the Net has won."

It's all a bit silly, of course. It's just a word, after all; the global telecommunications network that we call the Internet would function precisely the same way no matter what we called it. A rose, as Shakespeare said, by any other name would smell as sweet.

But it's only a bit silly. The names we give things do matter, Shakespeare notwithstanding. They reflect how we think about things, and sometimes they guide our thinking about those things in particular directions.

We'll grant professor Turow his premise: The global network, whatever we call it, is part of the everyday world. But so are the Milky Way, and the Sun, and the Pacific Ocean, and the Grand Canyon.

We think there are some very good reasons to keep those initial caps and to keep referring to this global internetwork as the Internet. We sometimes forget that there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of networks out there, large and small. Many are themselves internetworks, networks that link not just individual computers but individual computer networks. One of those internets, the TCP/IP internet, grew faster and is now bigger than any of the others.

The initial capital reminds us this is but one internet among many, that we might want to compare this internet with others, that we might want to understand what it was about this one that made it grow so big, so fast, that made it "as common as air and water."

Moreover, Turow's proposal somehow strikes us as a kind of small-think--the revolution is over. No more big thinking, no more New New Thing--that was then, this is now, that was Boom, this is Post-Boom. We like to think that the revolution has just begun. Somewhere out there in a garage in Palo Alto or Bangalore, or in some industrial park in Reston or Rio de Janeiro, the next great idea is being hatched. We're pretty sure of that. It will change this Internet, the one we have today, into something quite different. We're pretty sure of that, too. So in our book, "the Internet" it is and shall remain.

David Post is a Temple University law professor and senior fellow at the National Center for Technology and Law at the George Mason University School of Law. Reach him at postd@erols.com. Bradford C. Brown is chairman of the National Center for Technology and Law at the George Mason University School of Law. Reach him at bbrown2@gmu.edu.

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