Metaphor of the Month! Netscape Moment

Netscape Web Browser LogoThis semester, faculty scramble at an unaccustomed pace to set policies for the use of generative artificial intelligence. Our assignments will never again be the same.

We cloistered academics are having a “Netscape moment.” As the Wikipedia page on the Netscape browser notes, the term became a metaphor for public awareness that accompanies “the dawn of a new industry.” I could not find a first use of the phrase. If you know, please share it in comments.

The shock of this new AI technology, in particular its rapid appearance in our professional lives, calls to mind an instant in 1993 (or was it 4? Tempus fugit) when I spent two weeks at Michigan Tech University, learning how to teach in networked classrooms. One event in particular remains in my brain: seeing a weather pattern from a NOAA satellite move across the screen of a computer, the video feed part of a new application, a “browser” called Mosaic.

In ten seconds, I recognized that everything we do online, personally and professionally,  would change. If only I had invested in the firm; I thought of all the applications that we now have–banking, reserving flights, watching television, buying things we probably do not need.  I recalled my grandfather’s story of how, as a child, he first saw a motorcar in Southeastern Turkey. He would always say to me “I knew that the world had changed forever.”

Mosaic yielded to Netscape, and for many first-time Internet users, that browser spurred an “aha” moment like my own.  From a 2021 story at LinkedIn, we see how usage works for our metaphor, as the writer claims that “cryptocurrency is having its ‘Netscape moment.’ Banks have now been approved by the office of the controller of currency to be custodians of cryptocurrencies.” Thus when our policies and outlook change fast because of a new technology’s adoption–in this case, cryptocurrency–our metaphor comes into play.

You can bet that IPOs for AI firms will be enormously popular. Some will crash. They may crash as hard as Crypto, an innovation I absolutely will not touch.

Other innovations thrive. That’s Silicon Valley history.

If you have useful words or metaphors, by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image source: Wikipedia

Word of the Week! Affordance

Screenshot of iconsThis word perplexed me when I first encountered it, during some discussion of software. I recall the statement “what are the affordances of this particular application?” I disliked the word instantly, yet now find myself using it, as I draft an article about the affordances of peer tutoring by humans, as compared to the help provided by generative AI.

For a word I find ugly, affordance sure came in handy. To get at the root of our word, even the OED will not quite do. Wikipedia, however, with its crowd-sourced wisdom and peer-editing offers just the affordance we need. According to Psychologist James L. Gibson, who coined the term, affordance involves many factors beyond “usefulness.” His definitions cited in the Wikipedia entry involve how a particular environment benefits an animal. When applied to software, which most animals do not use, we see how graphical-user interfaces offer affordances that older command-line interfaces do not.

UNIX users can come lay a beating on me any time they wish to try.

We can dive into the signified/signifier rabbit hole here, but consider how the smart-phone’s icon of an envelope connotes e-mail, whereas a phone headset connotes a voice call.  The affordances of icon-based systems seem rather obvious; we recognize something immediately, saving us time as compared to looking up that command in a book. Older readers will recall post-it notes all around their desktop monitors with arcane tricks for DOS or other command-line programs.

Coda: industrial design is also all about affordance. Look at everyday items in your home or office and note their affordances. I can heat water in a ceramic cup or my teapot. I suppose I could drink from either, yet each offers different affordances.

If you have useful words or metaphors, by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Screen-shot by the author

Word of the Week! Lachrymose

Crying face emojiAdmit it: as summer wanes and the realities of more work loom ahead, many students and faculty alike feel lachrymose. We want the restful pace of summer, if not its sweltering heat, to continue forever. We get misty-eyed as the leaves turn but we are too damned busy to sit down under a tree and let them cover us, like some Peanuts character.

Oh the tears we cry. I learned the word lacrimas when in Spain. I then began to use its cousin in English, from time to time. The origin is Latin, like so many words that elevate the register of formal prose. From The Online Etymology Dictionary, we have this: from Latin lacrimosus “tearful, sorrowful, weeping,” also “causing tears, lamentable,” from lacrimalacryma “a tear.” First usage given dates to the 1660s, from my favorite epoch, the Age of Enlightenment. Imagine a time when thinkers sought to relieve us of many tears by promising us a better future, one based on Reason and freedom from superstitions. I get lachrymose longing for such a time in our current age of unreason.

When talking about sorrow, I apply a wine-taster’s test. I tend to prefer the “mouthfeel” of lugubrious, adding to its sound its appearance in one or two favorite novels. That word connotes something dismal as well as tearful, a funeral dirge perhaps. It’s not an exact synonym. I’ll feature it as a future WOTW later.

When I was a rather sadistic and cynical undergrad, every year in late July or early August I’d invoke Jim Morrison’s lugubrious voice, in the Doors’ song “Summer’s Almost Gone.”  It provided surefire and tearful torments for my friends and roommates. The video below comes from Rhino Records, so it’s unlikely to vanish from YouTube over copyright infringement. Irony of ironies: the little commercials we endure before videos were all about productivity software! Now THAT is lachrymose.

While writing this post, Neil Young’s lachrymose classic “Old Man” followed the Doors. I seem to have a tearful playlist on YouTube.

Okay, some advice from this old man: look at your life and get back to work, slackers! As my old man might have said, “Tears won’t buy you no groceries, boy!”

Dry your eyes and send me useful words or metaphors, by e-mailing jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Boo-hoo-hoo emoji courtesy of Creatzilla.