I was talking to a friend of mine recently, as I often do. I've always felt that communication is the foundation of any good relationship. This particular discussion was on the subject of buying computers, which is why I mention it here. You know I like to keep these things relevant.
My friend has an oldish computer, 1994 vintage, if I'm not wildly mistaken. In enterprise computing, that's two lifecycles and the thing ought to be in a skip somewhere. For the humble home computer, it's a reasonable innings. What's more, it still works perfectly well. My friend's computing needs haven't changed much since 1994, and the old grey box is, for the most part, keeping up with her requirements. (By the way, it coped with the Y2K transition splendidly, without any remedial action having been taken. Sigh).
But - and this is a big but - the Internet beckons. Believe it or not, my friend is one of the few carbon-based life forms remaining who has not yet surfed. And no, her name is not Charlie. She has seen extensive media hype about the Internet and its promise (especially of home shopping), and has finally decided to take the plunge.
"What," she said to me, "would I have to do to get that computer on the Net?" As I said, it's an oldie but a goodie. No modem, 16MB of RAM, 500MB hard drive, hasn't had an OS upgrade since about 1997.
"Oh, a fair bit," I replied, calculating carefully. I reason that RAM is an absolute necessity, and a bigger (or at least a second) hard drive. Fingers crossed that the old processor would be able to run a more recent OS, which would be needed for running at least a 4.0 browser - why give her the Net and then not let her see it all? Oh yes, and she'll need a modem.
I figure, all up, she'd be about $600 or so out of pocket to get the thing online. Not bad, really. But false economy if it doesn't hold up. What if, for instance, the experience is so slow on her old processor that she gives the idea away after a few slow surfs? If the tide doesn't deliver a few good waves early on, she might just pack up and be gone. Real gone. Stompie-wompie.
I suggested that about $1500 or so (give or take) would buy her a brand spanking new machine, with a tonne of RAM, cavernous hard drive, and a blisteringly fast processor. And a modem even.
"Why do I need all that power?" She asked me naively. I explained that, unfortunately, even though the Internet should be very simple and straightforward, zealous Web designers had stuffed it up with bumf and plug-ins so that you need as much power to run a modern Web browser as NASA uses.
"Oh, I don't want to browse the Web," she said, with nary a trace of sarcasm, "I just want to get on the Net". I have to admit here that I was thrown somewhat. Was my friend a closet geek who really wanted to telnet and ftp her way around? Or perhaps she only wants e-mail and perhaps Napster?
Not likely. The confusion arose from the world "browse". My friend does not want to "browse", as one does in a shop, loitering about listening to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass while deciding not to actually purchase any of the knick-knacks on the sale bins. My friend has particular places she wants to go on the Web, and she wants to get there and get out - no "browsing" involved. It got me wondering.
The word "browse", according to the OED (on which I rely for this sort of stuff) dates to 16th century French, in which broust meant "young shoots or leaves". "Brousing" meant trimming these young shoots, and the word carried over to cattle and sheep, wandering around eating young shoots and leaves. In effect, "browsing" is the same as "grazing".
There are, of course, many people out there for whom this is an apt description of their Web activities. Wandering about, traversing the vast paddocks of the Web, consuming the young shoots and leaving their own, less savoury deposits behind. But it's not what I do, and it's not what my friend intends to do.
The Internet industry, which has been so good at producing words for every occasion, has let the side down on this one. All the words for using the Web are idle, pointless ones like "browse" and "surf". There is, to my knowledge, no word that implies actual, productive use of the Web without wastage of time.
That says a lot.
Matthew JC. Powell visits four Web sites every day without fail. Tell him which ones on firstname.lastname@example.org