Being is a Verb

The world for them is not a concourse of objects in space; it is a heterogenous series of independent acts. It is successive and temporal, not spatial. There are no nouns in Tlön’s conjectural Ursprache, from which the “present” languages and the dialects are derived: there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) with an adverbial value.

—“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940), Jorge Luis Borges

Some literary types credit Jorge Luis Borges—an Argentine writer and poet who died in 1986—with pre-figuring the internet in his fiction. In this context, the Library of Babel is most frequently mentioned among the stories of Borges. This is a tale of an infinite hexagonal library containing all possible books. Writers who like to feel smart have drawn parallels with Wikipedia, or the entire World Wide Web-slash-internet itself.

The story quoted above describes the invented language of the Southern Hemisphere of the notional world of Tlön, a language lacking nouns and reflecting a Berkeleian idealism. This idea threads through the conceptual structure of the internet. The companies with the most impact, those that alter reality and extend the vocabulary of human experience are those that coin new verbs.

For example, there is no word corresponding to the word “moon,” but there is a verb which in English would be “to moon” or “to moonate.” “The moon rose above the river is hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, or literally: ‘Upward behind the onstreaming it mooned.’

Arguably the greatest of these is Google. Google is synonymous with internet search. Search is currently indispensable to conducting business or doing just about anything online.

Google is one among many.

We tweet and Instagram and Flickr (much less than we used to). And Skype. And have our paper towels (Amazon) Primed to us. I’ll eBay stuff I don’t need anymore. Purchasers will PayPal me. I’ll Netflix some movies and Digg some news.

A heterogenous collection of acts.

Think of the monumental unease of Yahoo! For all their repeated asking of the billion-dollar question: Do you Yahoo!?

Only crickets or derision in response. No one Yahoos, even without the awkward punctuation. The company never defined a significantly innovative action synonymous with their name. The original Yahoo! directory had tremendous value, but although it was useful, it was just an old familiar thing—a directory—soon to be eclipsed by all the new things you could do using the listed links.

This has nothing to do with the inherent structure of the name. It is no more absurd nor less euphonious than Google. All of the above examples are nouns, most of them proper company names, that got verbed. It has everything to do with focus, or lack thereof. The meaning of Yahoo! is too diffuse to translate to action.

Has the web fostered the creation of new nouns? New things besides the thing itself whether you call it the web or the internet? Maybe Wikipedia counts, along with all the other wikis which could not exist without the internet. Possibly social networks if you consider the network of relationships as more than the sum of their photos and messages and access permissions. But most everything else is cast as an analog to a thing in the real-world. Since the internet is made of bits, not atoms—a notional parallel universe of information in motion—we can’t draw a picture of it without referring to an archaic earthly analog. Only ineffable actions can be apprehended and owned as native creations.

E-mailing is perfectly intelligible as an action, but an e-mail message requires a metaphorical representation, a little pixel envelope. Music is still music, even though we have untold new ways to distribute and experience it. “Friends” aren’t quite what they used to be, but no one is sure whether it’s for better or worse, and no one person or organization can take credit for that.

Twitter sort of invented “followers” but the important conceptual innovation was defining what it means “to follow.”

Fortunately, we have moved beyond the dark days of early website interfaces and hamfisted aspirational labeling as though calling your job listings “E-pportunities” would do anything more impressive than jack up your bounce rate. Save among the obtuse and those who prize whimsy above SEO, plain language labels have won the day.

New interface elements can be useful things that only exist online, but only to the extent that they disappear seamlessly into the thing you are trying to do. (Just as the doorknob must have been quite an innovation because it made for easier passing though.) And, as with labels, innovation in the non-verbal parts of an interface is frequently just another way to make things more confusing. (See: all iPad magazine apps.) The best most useful things are the most conventional.

The branded expansion of our everyday ontology, the invention of new nouns, remains in the purview of the physical world. Segways, iPads, TiVos, and Garmins.

Online, we live in a latter-day colony of Tlön where nothing exists but doing makes it so and the verbs you coin are the coin of the realm.

2 comments so far

  1. I love that you have written an anti-jargon site around a Borges story. He has been one of my favorite writers since I was young.

    ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ was always just a bit too weird for me, but its a great tale and your point about a noun-less Internet culture of disembodied action is intriguing.

    PS You can use akismet.com to stop spam links like the prohormone comment above.

  2. Valya Golev

    I think there is a simple explanation.

    We geeks like to see Web as a World, a very odd world on its own. But it’s not. It’s merely a tool, a level, a plug. An object made to simplify our actions. So it’s not so strange that it helps us with more actions (or better actions, as ‘google’ is an enhanced search, and eBay is an enhanced trading), not creations.

    (I’ve had difficulties in trying to pick English words, sorry if I sound odd)

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