We’ve long stopped referring to the Internet as “the information superhighway,” but there was a reason for the metaphor. Back in the 1990s, when the phrase gained popularity, it worked because a highway is fast, and online life offered access to information—and later shopping, services, and socialization—at previously unthinkable levels of speed and convenience.
The irony of “information superhighway” as a nickname for the Internet is that freeways are anything but fast and efficient, at least in America. On highways confusion and anxiety and anger reign, even as they simultaneously grant exactly the sense of speed and power they promised.
Not such a bad image for the Internet after all.
Freeways still have something to teach us about life online—in particular, how language influences how we think and act in relation to things. Southern Californians, for example, refer to their freeways with the definite article. For more than two-thousand miles, Interstate 10 is “I-10” or even just “the interstate” when no other road competes for that name. But in L.A., it’s “the 10”—along with its compatriots the 5, the 101, the 405, and so on. As Nathan Masters explained last year, this regional tic is the result of Southern Californians’ early embrace of the freeway. Like people and pets, freeways once enjoyed the charity of names—the Santa Monica Parkway, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, and so forth. The enormous, looming, thousand-miles-long concrete-and-asphalt mass that is an interstate is a remarkable enough engineering accomplishment to deserve a name, after all. Eventually these names shortened (“take the Santa Monica”), and the definite article stuck after highway route numbers became standardized (“take the 10”).
I’ve always thought of the Southern Californian, definite article-bearing freeway as an honorific. A way to venerate the awesome grandeur of the freeway. It’s like saying Mr. 405 or Dr. 101 or Ms. 10 or Captain 710. You use an honorific to acknowledge esteem, power, accomplishment, or position. It confers respect and deference. And such is the posture necessary to manage the knot of freeways that bind the Southland. Best to stay on their good side. “Pardon me, Mr. 405, might I trouble you to convey me through Sepulveda Pass?”
Strange evolution often explains why language changes. Back on the highway formerly called information, a similar grammatical change is taking place. Effective today, the Associated Press updated its style guide, recommending that the term “Internet” cease to be capitalized. A bevvy of media organizations have followed suit, among them the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and even The Atlantic. The Times also decamped from the outmoded term “Net,” thank goodness. The similarly embarrassing phrase “World Wide Web,” capitalized or not, has largely fallen out of favor unceremoniously, as has the prefix “cyber-.” Along with information superhighway, these monikers feel nostalgic at best.
Outdated though it might be, the metaphor of Internet as highway helps explain why we it made sense to capitalize the term. A highway is a thing, for certain, but it is also a system—a system of routes and connections that work together to allow traversal of a large and complex physical expanse. “Information superhighway” underscored the infrastructure of the Internet more than the activities that infrastructure made possible. The series of tubes, if you will, rather than the hashtag-content that traverses it.
And it was the sense of knowing the Internet was a large and complex network that led us to capitalize its name in the first place. Lowercased, the term “internet” just referred to any network of interconnected computers. That might include the workstations in an office configured to use a file server, the PCs wired together in a dorm room to play computer games, or the nodes of a building surveillance and security system.
“Internet” arose to distinguish between diverse, non-interoperable networks like these, and networks that connected to ARPANET, the Internet’s precursor, which used packet-switching via the Internet protocol suite model (TCP/IP). By the end of the 1990s, TCP/IP networking was everywhere, and a decade later just about every network was also a part of the capital-I Internet. Local, small-scale internets fell out of favor as the Internet swelled to take over their function. We were left with a distinction without a difference: the Internet as a global network of local networks, versus local internets as a part of the global network of the Internet. Given this scenario, lowercasing proponents argue, it no longer makes sense to distinguish the two.
Lowercasing supporters commonly note that earlier media devices or equipment with officially-branded or eponymous names—phonograph, radio—are not considered proper nouns that warrant capitalization. Nor are generic names for apparatuses or infrastructures like “telephone” or “electric grid.” A reasonable argument, even if the gripe is typographical more than philosophical. But all such arguments involve the reasons why “Internet” should be rendered as “internet” for aesthetic purposes, ignoring the rhetorical and cultural implications of such a change.
For one part, “internet” finally consummates the marriage between local and global networks. In a previous era, if you wanted the functionality of a smart home—light switches and propane tanks and the like—you would have created a closed, local network operable by devices or automation within that physical environment. Likewise, if you wanted a local or remote data backup or storage solution for your business, it wouldn’t have been serviced by a series of Internet-connected services in the Cloud (another, newer term that current convention often capitalizes for more or less the same reasons we once capitalized Internet).
Ironically, such a situation might recommend capitalization more than ever. Like “Los Angeles,” the name “Internet” would seem to suggest a concrete, singular place—a proper noun thanks to having congealed all those nameless, faceless internetworks into a single, nameable one. But just the opposite has happened. Today, any network of computational devices always uses the Internet as its plumbing, and that very fact has become unremarkable. Undeserving of a proper name. There is no escaping Big Internet, and thus “internet” it was destined to become, the ultimate Kleenex-grade eponym for Silicon Valley and its ilk.
But for another part, lowercase-i internet life eliminates the implicit deference that the initial cap once conferred, no matter if that reverence arises from esteem, awe, terror, or disgust. It’s typographically ugly, historically curious, and logically inconsistent, but nevertheless “Internet” carries an air of loftiness and nobility. The big network of networks that lives everywhere and nowhere, thus deserving a proper name. The magician-god that has what you want and delivers it two days hence. The poltergeist that twitches between the phone in your pocket and the brain in your head. These roles almost demand personification.
That’s the same drive that compels Angelenos to delineate their freeways. In L.A., the freeway was there before you are, and it will be there after. Sometimes literally. In East L.A., I-10 westbound traffic is forced to exit. After an unholy, four-mile braid of interchange, drivers merge back onto I-10, where four lanes of traffic already await them. A shrug, and then travelers continue westward toward the city, the ocean, and destiny’s end.
Places are real when they persist without concern for you. The contemporary Internet still feels that way. And yet, when asked about the capital-I Internet as a proper place, the AP standards editor Thomas Kent told the Times, “I don’t think most people see it that way anymore.” And he’s got a point; The Internet is not a place you can go—or escape. Kent continued, “For younger people, it’s always been there; it’s like water.”
Like using the definite article to address freeways, Capital-I Internet was an attempt to stay on the good side of a planet of people interconnected through interconnected machines. It served its purpose for a time, its magic always just brighter than its threat, such that we followed that light toward one another in ways previously unimaginable. It transformed the computer, still a tool of cubicle-convicts and basement-dorks just two decades ago, into a tool that everyone wanted to use—perhaps too much, even.
Now it’s just the internet. And like kleenex and googling, like asphalt and automobiles, it disappears into the background, wholly ordinary. Of course, that won’t stop it from continuing to spill its magic, nor its torment either. But now when it does, we won’t record those deeds by name, with that incongruous, lanky letterform rising to cap-height on screen or on newsprint (which, among its many tricks, the Internet largely vanished). No longer will it pop up just when you thought you’d left it, like the 10 at the portal to Los Angeles, whispering that it never really left, reminding you that it is not tamed but still wild. In the Internet’s place, meet the internet: murmuring in the background, always there but never seen.