MS Word: every time I type about the internet, you want me to capitalize it. You think it is the Interent, a proper noun, a proper name that delineates a singular knowable entity in the world. The Ohio State University, The Internet. As if what I cal the interent is an unofficial form of the Internet, just as every tissue became a kleenex and every copy became a xerox. Or, perhaps, nobody has revisted your lexicon since the days of people saying ‘On Internet, you can be yourself’— back when Internet was an apparatus in and of itself, and not an assemblage.
But today, MS Word, you are mistaken when you try to capitalize the word. The internet is no longer the proper noun place (like Kansas) that it was before. Why the switch? Well, if I had to guess at something, I would say Internet was capitalized early on because it was a mystery to enough people that to say someone was on Internet was just as descript as saying someone was on MS Word. As more people plugged in and logged on, Interent became less and less a mystery and more and more vague. Interent became a plce that required more description: I am on Email, or Chat, etc. And then, remarkably, internet left Internet, and infected all of the other computer programs with a longing to be internet-ual. Internet stopped being a program, and started being something else.
In the past, someone would say “I’m on Internet,” and we would have a distinct notion of what someone was doing and could imagine their actions; today, we are always on internet to the point where the word is empty and stands as a very vague description. When asking a child what they are doing on the computer, we become suspicious when they say “I’m on the internet,” and follow up with “doing what?”
But now that we know why it is no longer Internet, we have to ask what ‘the internet’ means when we say it today. As Dominique Boyer has argued in his Hegellian reworking of Marshall McLuhan, phrases like ‘the internet’ serve as linguistic glosses, the kind of placeholder in language that allows communication and knowledge to move forward where gaps emerge in our experiential knowledge of the forces at work in the world out there. As he says about the media,
On the one hand, it simply wouldn’t be worth the trouble to define further this sence of immense social power and pressure of mass communication that many of us share. On the other hand, a serious pause to acknowledge the complexity and pervasiveness of mass communication is enough to make anyone panicky… Yet, failing to acknowledge that decision (to gloss) is where mischief arises. Because it is then all too possible to behave as though our glosses really do represent the truth of the world “out there” rather than the result of necessary efforts to simplify and domesticate it.
‘The internet’ is in essence like Kant’s sublime: it describes the moment we have reached the edge of the knowable, but paradoxically tells us nothing about the unknowable itself. As Boyer goes on to point out, there is no telling how big the internet is—how much content it carries, how many users exist, how much content is repeated, and how much is unique. We can not know the internet, and to speak of Internet today strikes one as doubly naive of both a linguistic shift and a conceptual awareness.
So, MS Word, leave me alone. Stop it with the annoying green wavy line- I am using the internet and there is no Internet. The thing—a thing which we have no way of actually knowing, just a knowing that it is there— is not a proper noun in any stretch of the content, or of the imagination. ‘The internet’ is a gloss, and my lower case spelling of it is a social awareness (although probably in most cases not a cultural consciousness) of its expansive unknowability and non-existence.