Greetings. Today is the last MMC of the semester; next Monday is Memorial Day! Our last message includes this pearl from Geoff Nunberg. Enjoy! -- Virtual Rialto Have you seen these new IBM ads? I mean the ones with the global village theme, about how technology makes Americans of us all. There are the two French gaffers walking along the Seine and talking about disk drives while accordions play in the background. The subtitles have one of them saying, "My hard drive's maxed out," and the other responds with something that's translated as "Bummer." Or there's the clutch of Czech nuns talking about operating systems as the mother superior says, "I'm dying to surf the Internet." Right; they wish they all could be California girls. The Romans used to refer to the Mediterranean as Mare Nostrum, and Americans tend to think of the electronic world in the same way. At least when we talk about the net we invoke all the stock American heroes of the wide open spaces. You're a net surfer, you're a cowboy on the electronic frontier. You're standing on the bridge of your own private Enterprise about to boldly go where no one has ever gone before. Or you're a cyber-Kerouac cruising the information highway with the top down and the virtual wind in your hair. The thing of it is that when you get on the net it really doesn't feel much like any of these. Well, maybe it's a little like surfing, but not like on the covers of the Beach Boys albums. It's like the kind of surfing I do, standing chest deep in the ocean clutching my boogie board and trying to peer over the waves coming in until one of them crashes over me, rolls me under and around, then deposits me on the beach a couple of dozen yards away spitting out water, with no idea of where I am or how I got there. The metaphors for the net are all wrong. There's nothing less like the ocean, the cosmos, or the highway. There are no vistas here, no expanses stretching out endlessly ahead of you. And there is no frontier, no place to go out there that someone else hasn't been before. The net has nothing to do with the wide-open spaces of the New World, and everything to do with the cramped, crooked cities of the old. It's urban, close, interior. Forget about cyberspace; this is cyberville, cyberstadt, cyber-ciudad. You want a good metaphor for the internet, go to Venice in February. You thread your way down foggy streets and over bridges till you lose all sense of compass direction, and then all of a sudden you break into some glorious piazza. The rusty gate on the alley over there might open into a lush garden, and behind that might be a palazzo with long enfilades of rooms and galleries, but you can't see anything from the street. It's a place you get to know as an accumulation of paths and hidden passages, the way a woodsman knows the forest. A Venetian friend told me once that she knows no more pathetic sight than watching one of her neighbors trying to give some help to a tourist who holds out a map and asks how to get to the San Rocco. We Venetians have no idea how to read a map of our city, she said, all we know is how to get from A to B without getting our feet wet. That's perfect for the Internet: the virtual Rialto. Except that Venice is too permanent -- you come back after 50 years and everything's right where it was when you left. Whereas on the internet addresses and connections change daily. Maybe we want to think of it as the Venice that Italo Calvino might have invented as one of his imaginary cities, a fantastic place where houses move overnight from one quarter to another, where bridges disappear and canals reroute themselves with no warning. Maybe it's like the Moroccan soukh in one of those IBM ads, a warren of stalls that open and close unaccountably. Or maybe the model isn't an old-world city at all, but one of those shantytowns that spring up overnight on the outskirts of latin American cities -- the barriadas of Lima, the favelas of Rio. The one sure thing is that it's nothing like Wyoming or the coast of Southern California. It isn't even much like a Houston shopping mall, with its long sight lines and its standardized chain-store interface. It's a more exotic locale for us than for the rest of the world, and we may wind up being the ones who feel like tourists there. ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and Xerox PARC. He is the editor of the Usage Notes for the American Heritage Dictionary, and often makes comments (like the one above) about language on National Public Radio.