Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A Geezer History of the Internet

When I was starting out in the publishing business, the Internet did not exist. Literally. If you wanted to research something like 'residential electrical codes in Georgia' the process involved going to a big public library, finding a yellow-pages phone book from Atlanta, copying down the names of electrical contractors in the city, then making a series of cold calls until you found a talkative fellow willing to speak with you. Then you added his name to a Rolodex as a expert source you could call in the future when you needed information.

It was not until about 1989 that the Internet entered business usage for me. I remember installing the first 1200 baud modem in my computer—a IBM 286 PC with a whopping 40 megs of hard-drive space. This was the pre-Windows days where computers used a DOS-base interface. The modem would crackle, then beep, and then I could connect to university data-bases, where I could easily access technical information like span charts for wooden framing members in residential decks. It seemed quite magical at the time, and I knew then that this thing would have big potential.

But the sheer speed of that revolution surprised even the most forward-thinking people. Within a few years, Windows operating systems had become part-and-parcel of all PC's, and shortly thereafter a fairly usable graphic interface was added to basic Internet operating programs, and we were off to the races. "Internet" became "World-Wide-Web". And within barely 15 years, it became a primary method of most of the world's communication, and a main platform for commerce and entertainment.

If the speed with which the technology of information transmittal was prodigious, it was no more prodigious than the speed with with language itself changed. It was as though users, intoxicated with how fast e-mails could zip through cyberspace to one another, also felt compelled to compose those messages with increasing speed. A variety of written language shortcuts appeared. At first, it was simply the normalization of certain abbreviations of language. I remember an editor who worked for me who had gone through college with the graphic-based Internet already solidly in place, who did not realize that "thru" was a somewhat informal and, in most business usage, slightly improper shortening of "through."  This kind of thing was pretty common among young adults in the early time the Internet had become widespread. For awhile, I tolerated this among young editors, believing as I did that language should be allowed to evolve. I was savvy enough to understand that linguistic drift was a normal part of language evolution—we are still in process, for example, of seeing irregular verbs like "dive" and "leap" making their historical transition from the past-tense of "dove" and "leapt" to a more regular "dived" and "leaped." I began to put my foot down, though, when another editor in a position paper started a sentence with "U can B sure that investment in marketing, 2,  will translate to greater $ in gross book sales."

Soon we began to see emoticons give way to other such linguistic shortcuts. Very quickly there appeared emoticons—the usage of combined letters and punctuation to represent emotional states.  :) as a smiley face; :( as a frowning face, etc.

Then came the use of emoji language—all those little variations of yellow smiley faces and other graphic symbols to represent emotional statements. One editor, after bemoaning that doing good work in publishing proved to harder than she expected, decided to pursue instead a career in selling cosmetics. In her written resignation letter, she ended with a frowning yellow face with a tear running down its cheek.

Recently, as the NY Times reported yesterday, the coming wave of shorcuts in on-line communication is GIF.  Those old timers among us will remember a day when GIF (the acronym stands for Graphic Interchange Format) was the principle format for transmitting and viewing static, still photos and other images on the internet. If you found that an editor, especially a young male, had a stash of GIF files on his computer directory, you could be pretty sure he was downloading nude girlie pictures on company time.

Today, though, GIF  is used for small looping video action clips, which are pasted into web postings and even emails to serve as ultra-emoji's.  They are often small funny segments of movie or tv clips, and are again used to convey various emotional messages from the composer of the message.

There is a tendency among some Geezers to bemoan this rapid change in the sanctity of written language, to wail and gnash their teeth at what feels like corruption of a noble art form. These Geezers aren't all that difference from the 7th grade grammar teacher who wailed about the fact that infinitives were being routinely split before her very eyes.  Such complaints are utterly useless. The language, culture, the human species itself will change as it will change. You can't fight evolution. A good deal more peace of mind will be yours if you simply practice observation and description rather than try to prescribe adherence to some kind of quality status quo, or seek to return to some kind of golden, classic era. It ain't gonna happen.

Besides, change being what it is, all things come around again.  In a center for linguistic study at Oxford University in England, researchers are discovering that a certain group among the precocious young adults is beginning to uncover, and probably will eventually popularize, a concept they find revolutionary. They are learning that there is another means of communication that sacrifices speed of dialogue for a precision and level of artistic expression that is achievable no other way.

They are called words.

One young man interviewed put it thusly:  "Me and my mates, we started finding that if you spell out words fully, and learn lots of new words, you can put them together in really interesting ways that are quite stylistic. There's almost no limit to what you can say if you know a lot of words, and experiment with how to put them together in sentences.

"And even more than that," he says excitedly in the filmed interview. "You can also put those sentence together in different ways to form incredible paragraphs, and even whole books.

Another young woman from Liverpool said "My last few boyfriends used to end letters with little red hearts.  That was very nice, and I loved it.   But my new boyfriend ended his last letter by saying he woke up thinking about me, fell asleep thinking about me, and that he was constantly seeing my face whenever he saw a pretty girl on the streets.

"It must have taken him many seconds to put that idea together and write it. Bu who knew that actual words were so great? she said with a sigh. "


  1. You are an elucidator and a representative of an idea that writing makes the mind more keen. I agree that some of us old boys and girls should stop trying to stop evolution. Communication tools continue to evolve. But there is a great joy in reading of the Oxford study. I think some of the young song writers today are dancing with a better muse as well.

    I'm still trying to figure how I feel about Flash Literature. At the very least it is a studied and economic use of those magic tools-words. Sometimes though, more is better.

  2. Words may come back again, or not. For my part, it will be you and I observing an historical shift in linguistics, and you may change it all as you wish when I die.

  3. I grew up in the pre-internet days, 2. The only difference was that when I was in junior and senior high, I was an active amateur radio operator who couldn't afford a transmitter for voice so I got very comfortable using CW (morse code) and all those short cuts that are used today in text messages were alive then (along with a few more). I still find myself using Q symbols as shorthand when taking notes.