Thursday, November 09, 1995

Log

THERE was nothing too strange to report when on September 8th, 1966, James T. Kirk first began to, enter reports in that most famous of all logs, the Captain's log of the Starship Enterprise. It had, after all, been quite some time since the English word "log" had represented nothing more than a piece of wood.
Derived from the middle English logge (and unrelated to the Greek logos, which has seen much active service since Jacques Derrida et al became interested in logocentrism) the word first went to sea as an aid to navigation.

The original shipboard log was, almost startlingly, a piece of wood, attached to a rope and unwound behind the boat. As knots had be tied in the rope, it was possible to gauge the speed of the vessel from the number of "knots" that passed overboard in a given time. The results of this blissfully simple and direct calculation were then noted in a book, which logically enough became known as a log book.

Captain Kirk's first Star Trek entry marked, however, the passing into the mass media of the word's association with space age technology. Some years earlier, computers had come into the picture and a link between the word and technoculture had, begun in a manner charted in John A. Barry's Technobabble. The "electronic brains" of the 1940s and 1950s were operated by specialists, hidden away in backrooms. Anyone needing some numbers crunched had to lug great series of punch cards down the corridor to these gate-keepers of digital processing.

Soon, however, minicomputers with multiple terminals and keyboards became common place. Although this development meant that the processors could now be operated by less specialised personnel, access was still limited to prearranged periods of time. The time at which users booked to be on the computer, and the time they were due to be off would, of course, have to be logged centrally.

So, very much as the ancient mariners headed for the New World with the aid of their logs, so later data sailors were obliged to keep a careful eye on the log. The commonplace metaphorical use of the word "surf" is therefore merely an extension of an already existing - albeit submerged in language - link between accessing digital information and moving through a sea. (The Oxford English Dictionary mentions another association between the two words as early as 1967, when a guide to surfing explains that a "log" is a very heavy surfboard.)

As with all sea journeys, plain sailing is never certain. Anyone who has tried to contact their local online service during American Internet primetime will probably perceive the word "loam" very differently from, say, Gerry Adams. For these unhappy people, the word represents an irritating impediment to logging on.
The solution for this contemporary logjam is not, of course, to dynamite but to redial.

LOAD-DATE: November 9, 1995

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