Can’t get there from here: A New Language

  1. Go West, Young Men!
  2. Can’t get there
  3. Worms, Bugs, and Viruses

“What is spoken is never, and in no language, what is said.”--Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, and Thought

Netiquette. Net.gods, net.personalities, and net.books.

Every revolution in thought brings about a similar revolution in language. What would a person two hundred years ago think about such terms as “penis envy”, “anal retentive”, and “rush hour”? In the computer world today we talk about “hypermedia” and “hard drives”, electronic mail, remote files, clients, servers, local and wide area networks. We have “netiquette” and “netizens”, from net etiquette, and net citizens or net denizens. We have shareware and freeware, and postcardware and beerware, to describe different ways of profiting off of writing software (and, increasingly, of writing electronic books).

We have stolen the words “file” and “folder” and brought them from paper to light, and we have made “network” something both concrete and amorphous. On the other hand, we still talk like our grandparents. We still use phrases like “electronic publishing”, and “information highway”, which, to our children, “will probably sound as peculiar as ‘horseless carriage’.” (?)

Language and culture play off each other. The Eskimos have multiple words for snow because snow is an important part of their life. Yet they talk about snow all the time because they can. How does the language of the infobahn effect life on the infobahn? We build new words because we have to, but once we have them, they are there to be used.

“Freeware” and “shareware” epitomize both the individuality of the infobahn and the responsibility individuals feel for the larger electronic community. Wares are things that merchants sell. Freeware is electronic product that merchants on the infobahn sell for nothing. In the real world, on the rare occasions when someone wants to release a work ‘into the world’ for nothing, they can release it into the public domain. Freeware developed because individuals wanted to release a product--usually computer software--into the infobahn for everyone’s use, but they also wanted to retain responsibility for the item; that is, they feel a responsibility to make sure that this product--which they’ve given to everyone for nothing--remains a useful product, and does what its users want. The author maintains copyright on the work and, in theory, retains control over the distribution of the work because of this. The concept of freeware, to my knowledge, has never been tested in court. But why should it have to be?

The freeware concept is spreading beyond computer software. Electronic magazines are often distributed for free, with copyright (hopefully) attached. The Neo-Anarchists Guide to Everything Else that I founded and then edited for a year, was distributed in this manner. Its sole protection were the words:

The copyrights of each article are held by the original authors.

This compilation is © 1992 Jerry Stratton

Distribute freely, at no cost to the user or profit for yourself.

The NAGEE is probably the most popular thing I’ve done on the infobahn.

Shareware is so ridiculously unprofitable that it rarely makes anyone rich, but the concept continues to live, in strength, at least a decade after it was introduced. When a creator distributes their work as shareware, what they do is put it up for everyone on the net to grab, along with a notice

Try this out for n days. If you like it, send us $x.xx. If you don’t like it, don’t send us money; just erase the work from your computer. Go ahead and share copies with your friends. If they like it, they can send me some money. If they don’t, well, they should erase it from their computer as well.

Shareware requires a lot of trust in you: that if you like the software, or the book, or the artwork, you’re going to send in the money. People who create shareware works probably don’t expect full compliance; in today’s age, that would be ludicrous. But they’re expecting some compliance, which is probably a bit ludicrous right there.

But not so ludicrous that I don’t pay for my shareware.

The very idea that there is something out there called “freeware” and “shareware” means that freeware and shareware will be produced. From freeware and shareware we also get terms like postcardware, in which the creator is asking you to send a postcard--mostly so they have some idea who’s using their creation. And beerware, in which the creator asks for a six pack, but this is fortunately rare, and possibly illegal. Neat idea, though.

Files and folders are terms from computers, not from the infobahn, but they do affect how the infobahn works. When you go out and look for free information, or for shareware and freeware, you’ll find them in files, and these files are stored in folders.

A “netizen” is a citizen of the net. This affects how individuals feel towards their greater community: the people who use this term are not merely logging on, grabbing the files they want, and leaving; they’re part of a community of citizens. They feel the blow when the net is attacked; they rise to defend the net as an entity when it is under political attack, much as you or I would rise to defend our neighborhood. And just as you still consider your neighbor your neighbor even though he dumps his leaves in your yard, many netizens identify with their debating opponents on the net as still part of the ‘in’ternet community when those opponents have to deal with the outside world. (Outernet?) The idea of a ‘netizen’ is a new one for the Internet. Isolated bulletin board systems didn’t have this term, and, except for those bulletin board users who are friends in real life as well, don’t have the same sense of community. If you get mad at someone on a BBS, you leave and find another BBS.

If you get mad at someone on the Internet... where else is there to go?

  1. Peter Lyman, the Librarian of the University of California-Berkeley, New York Times 29 Aprx 96 B1)
  2. I absolutely refuse to coin the term ‘outernet’ for the real world. But if anyone starts using it, you heard it here first, hm?
  1. Go West, Young Men!
  2. Can’t get there
  3. Worms, Bugs, and Viruses