I’m losing my battle to keep the initial capital “I” in “the Internet.” I’m starting see references to “the internet” everywhere; the latest to fall seems to be The Economist (see headline from July 30: “An internet with Chinese characteristics” – I’m quite certain that it was “the Internet” up until quite recently).
It actually matters. I had a footnote in the first chapter of my “Jefferson’s Moose” book about why I was keeping it as “the Internet,” and the more I think about it, the more I think it matters — for our understanding of the Internet and its role in the world, which is surely something we need to understand.
Suppose we live someplace that only has one bookstore. You write to me: “I’m going to the bookstore; let’s meet there.” I understand what you mean — after all, there’s only one bookstore.
Now, suppose we live in a place with lots of bookstores. Now if you write “I’m going to the bookstore; let’s meet there,” I have no idea what you mean.
Finally, suppose we live in a place with lots of bookstores, but — it being a college town — it has one that is often referred to as “the Bookstore.” You know, the Bookstore. If you write “I’m going to the Bookstore,” I know where to meet you — it’s a way of designating one bookstore out of many.
There are a hundred million internets — or 82 million, or 461 million, or who knows how many. Ranging from little teeny-tiny ones (like the one that connects my home network to my service provider’s network) to big ones (the LAN in my law school building to the University network), to one really, really gigantic one. It would be nice to have a proper noun for that one, because we need to talk about it separately from all the others; it has many, many characteristics that distinguish it from all the others. The Bookstore.
[Update: A bunch of commenters suggest that because the smaller networks (e.g. home network, Univ. network, etc.) are known as "intranets," the problem I'm describing goes away.
But here's the thing: call my law school network whatever you want. An "intranet." When you connect it to the University network, you've created an internet. It's an "internet" - an inter-network - because it has the critical feature of the things we call "internets" -- it connects one network (or "intranet") (law school) to another (University). It may use TCP/IP to govern "inter-net" transmission, or it may use some other protocols.
So I'll repeat what I said. We have hundreds of millions of internets. There's one that's of particular interest. What we call it is a proper noun, whether that's "the Internet" or "Ellen" or what have you.]
Or suppose, with all the millions and millions of trees in the world, there was one that was 411 miles tall. Wow! Referring to that one as “the tree” doesn’t work — we’ll get confused when we read someone who writes “I was walking by the tree in my yard this morning,” or “I was lounging in the shade of the tree one afternoon when all of a sudden . . .” Omitting the initial capital will distract us from asking important questions: how did this tree — “the Tree” — get to be so damned tall? What distinguishes it from all the other trees out there? Could we grow another one if it died? How likely is it that some other tree would grow to be as large as the Tree? and . . .]