Words on the Web

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Something posted here recently as a comment inspires me to share an experience I had in the early days of my connection with the Internet. I offer it as food for thought.

Actually, it wasn’t the Internet in those days; it was still known as ARPANET and it wasn’t open to the general public until three years later. At the time, access was restricted to military personnel and scientists at academic institutions and laboratories.

The year was 1985. I was writing a book about artificial intelligence. One of the AI scientists at MIT, who was helping me find papers to read and sources to interview, got me an ARPANET account through his lab. There was no web, only e-mail. I found the e-lists I needed and subscribed. E-mail lists in those days were pretty uninhibited, but we all used our real names and were thus more responsible for what we wrote on them.

In one message, a man used the F word as an adjective. I don’t remember the context, but I surely do remember what happened next.  Another man (almost everybody on ARPANET was male, and I was known in those days as Mickey Williamson — you can still find articles I wrote using that name — because women weren’t supposed to be thinking about computer things) wrote back to ask that people watch their language. He said he was blind and used word recognition software (still under development in AI labs) to hear his e-mail. When he listened to that particular message, his little girls were in the room. He wasn’t happy about having them hear that word and having to lie to them about its meaning.

People who know me know that my speech can be as salty as anyone’s. But the man’s message made me realize I don’t know who’s going to read my messages, or how they’re going to read them, or who will be with them when they do.

So I watch my language when I post to e-mail or on the Web. I don’t think it has hampered my ability to communicate.

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2 Responses to “Words on the Web”

  1. I started out on the ARPAnet in 1982 and have had similar experiences to your own.  I’ve also had to live with the fact that things I posted on USEnet at ages 17, 18, 19 are still available and searchable in 2008.  Something else I try to keep in mind — now that it’s a bit too late 😉

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