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Thursday, October 5, 2023

Hello, World! It Is ‘I,’ the Internet



Remember when we used to write out “the Internet” with a capital “I”? Now it's all in lower case, as if the Internet could be any old “internet” at all. When did this change happen, and why didn't I notice it at the time? Also, is it possible that the decision (wait, who made it?) to start calling the Internet the internet reflects—or worse, imposes—a meaningful shift in how we think about technology?

>Dear [ 101 ] ,

I do remember the capital “I” Internet, as do most people, I think, albeit in that hazy, blinkered way that is typical of our amnesiac present. The convention now reads as dated, even archaic, like those allusions to Beauty, Truth, and Nature in Romantic poetry—as though we once endowed the web (formerly the Web) with all the grandeur of a Platonic form. I don’t think you’re alone in your confusion about when and how the change happened. History, even very recent history, is a casualty of our accelerated age. The newsfeed is forever disappearing into the void, like the Greek parable about forgetfulness in which a man endlessly braids a straw rope while a donkey, lurking behind him, eats the completed end.

It sounds as though you already have some familiarity with the Internet vs. internet debate. For those who are new to it, I should stress that the capitalization was not meant to signal transcendence, singularity, or a whiff of the absolute. Quite the opposite: It underscored that the Internet we used was just one particular iteration of the larger category of internets, just as our nation’s Constitution (which we capitalize, like all proper nouns) is just one of many national constitutions (which, as a generic noun, remains lowercased). The internet that we know and use today grew out of the Pentagon’s Arpanet network (aka, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) in the late 1960s, but throughout the '80s and '90s, it was just one of many instantiations of the Internet protocol suite used by educational and commercial networks. Eventually, Arpanet would come to be known as Internet. Once it evolved into the World Wide Web, it was appended with the definite article—the Internet—though the capital “I” served as an implicit reminder that it was just one example of the technology, an Internet among internets.

It is common for technologies to shift from proper nouns to generic ones as they become incorporated into the culture. Some forward-looking voices predicted, as early as the late-1990s, that the Internet would succumb to the same fate as television and radio, mediums that were similarly capitalized at first, until they became part of our everyday landscape. In 2004, WIRED.com—then distinct from the print periodical, WIRED magazine—switched to lower case. (When WIRED magazine’s parent company, Condé Nast, bought the website two years later, the standard capitalization was reimposed.) It’s telling that many of the earliest publications to make the switch to “internet” were magazines that originated online—proving the adage that fish, least of all, are aware of the water in which they swim.


One of the common arguments for decapitalization—that the capital “I” was too loud and intrusive—mirrored, in an interesting way, the aspirations of digital technologies themselves. Mark Weiser, the Xerox computer scientist who coined the term “ubiquitous computing,” spoke longingly of the day when computers would “vanish into the background,” weaving themselves “into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” As a growing number of sites and publications began switching to the more unassuming “internet,” it seemed like a tacit acknowledgement that these technologies had succeeded in becoming invisible, that we now moved in and out of cyberspace—a passage once marked, unmistakably, by the foghorn of the dial-up modem—in the same elegant, unthinking silence that accompanied our use of electricity or water. After the United Nations declared Internet access a fundamental human right in 2011, the lowercase internet became even more compelling (despite the fact that the report itself capitalized the word): The information highway had become just another public good that anyone could access, like air or city parks, not some imperious proper noun like Catholicism or the Democratic Party.

The decisive moment came in 2016, when the Associated Press announced that its Stylebook would switch to lower case. The Washington Post and The New York Times quickly followed, for fear of seeming out of step. (So did WIRED magazine and WIRED.com.) “We want our rules for spelling, punctuation and usage to be largely invisible,” said the Times. The new convention was, indeed, so invisible, so seamless, that many people, like you, [101], remained blissfully unaware of the change—or the outcry from those who fiercely opposed it.

Baltimore Sun columnist John McIntyre may have been exaggerating a bit when he compared the capitalization dispute to 16th-century debates about the Real Presence in the Eucharist, but I completely believe the journalism professor who described the 2016 American Copy Editors Society’s conference as a “tempest” and a “brouhaha.” Those in favor of retaining the upper case insisted, as they had for years, that the Internet was a unique kind of technology. We refer to the telephone and the radio as generic nouns because we encounter many telephones and many radios in everyday life. But when we refer to the internet, we are almost always referring to a specific entity—the global network that sprang from Arpanet—not the prototype itself. As former WIRED editor Marcus Wohlsen put it, quite emphatically, “There is only one Internet! There is only one Web!”

In hindsight, it seems to me that these comparisons to other technologies only confused the issue. The case for the minuscule internet makes more sense when you stop comparing it to television and radio and consider another analogy: the sun. Astronomers typically capitalize the word to distinguish it from the billions of other suns that exist in our galaxy. The rest of us, however, don’t capitalize the word because what other sun would we be referring to? We know, of course, that there are other suns, but they remain so far beyond our ordinary frame of reference that we call them “stars.” This is essentially what happened to the internet: As other iterations faded into the distant galaxies of history, the internet—our internet—became so brilliant and consuming, it was difficult to envision what might exist, both spatially and temporally, beyond its reach.


Perhaps this is more history than you wanted, but I think it’s important to remember these discussions, and the reasoning behind them. Former WIRED copy chief Tony Long was ahead of the curve when he declared, in 2004, that when it came to the internet and the web, “there is no earthly reason to capitalize … Actually, there never was.” The notion that there is not only no reason, but no history behind the way we, as a culture, speak and write about this technology has now become common wisdom—part of the dominant mythology of a digital age that is continually swallowing up the past.

Something that is often missed in this debate is that switching to lower case is also a way to naturalize a word. As the philosophy and law professor Kwame Anthony Appiah pointed out recently in The Atlantic, lowercase words do not merely signal generality but “natural kinds.” Proper nouns tend to be concepts and entities that have significance to human culture—names of cities, people, historical ages—whereas natural elements like plutonium or water remain lowercased. Appiah was making a case for the capitalization of race—he argues that both Black and White should be capitalized, as a way to underscore that these categories are socially and historically constructed.

It’s all too easy today to think of the internet as a force of nature, as inexorable as the wind, as invisible as the air that we breath. And yet naturalizing technologies leads not only to invisibility but to erasure: of history, of ideology, of the many roads not taken. To answer your question, [101], about whether this seemingly innocuous formality might change the way we see technology itself, I would answer with a resounding yes. The capital Internet, in its insistence on specificity, contained within it the memory of alternatives. It evoked, for those who cared to understand, the spirit of possibility that was characteristic of the early days of the web, before it solidified into the commercialized, mass-surveillance machine we use today. It was a reminder that other visions of this technology have existed in the past—and perhaps that they still might come into fruition in the future. As Emily Brewster, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, noted in 2015, the capital Internet implied that “someone could find another way to connect us all to cat videos and personality quizzes, and then we’d have an Internet alternative.”


The truth is that an alternative is already in the works. China has drawn up blueprints for its own internet, a top-down designed global network with more censorship and political control, which some experts fear will allow state-owned service providers to monitor and surveil every device connected to it. The writer and Harvard professor Shoshanna Zuboff has called the plan “frightening,” though she acknowledges that the current internet, “a market-led capitalist version based on surveillance,” is also deeply flawed. She argues that Europe and North America need to unite and construct a new, more democratic, and more transparent internet framework that will offer a third way between these two possibilities. “We need a western web that will offer the kind of vision of a digital future that is compatible with democracy,” she said earlier this year. “This is the work of the next decade.”

What might this new model might look like, in practice? The truth is, I don’t know. The more digital technologies succeed in becoming invisible, the more difficult it is to imagine concrete architectures that might radically change how we experience them. But I would like to believe that there is, somewhere beyond our own digital galaxy, other visions of the internet yet to be discovered—perhaps even one (dare we imagine it?) that does not consist of cat videos and personality quizzes. While we cannot force the culture to reclaim the grammatical conventions it has abandoned, it is possible to retain this spirit of possibility in one’s mental life. In his 1996 manifesto “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” John Perry Barlow called the internet “the new home of Mind,” a term he capitalized, as though to identify it as a parallel frontier, one whose only boundaries are the limits of thought, language, and imagination.

Yours faithfully,


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