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.