text > ETA (fiction)

“Google buys “E:” the alphabet deal complete!” announced the headlines. The Wall Street Journal displayed this piece of news yesterday at the very top of their main page, over an optimistic yellow background surrounded by various economic and financial indexes that spoke a mysterious language of numbers and symbols. The journal talked about the benefits of privatization of the alphabet, bringing sound evidence from Chile and Slovakia – two countries that have been at the forefront of (their own) alphabetic privatization. In spite of the fact that the new theory was elaborated by two Nobel prize economists from the University of Chicago, Congress and the president still hesitated, waiting for more evidence from home and abroad. When the commissioned Reason Foundation submitted their long-awaited analysis, suggesting that the privatization of the alphabet might boost the sluggish economy and perhaps even usher us into a new era of market relations, the administration gave the green light. The Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) then decided to immediately address an urgent request made by the Xerox Corporation. For some time Xerox had been making noise about their intention to patent the multiplication sign “X,” which, they claimed, was crucial to their xerography technique. In their media campaign the company had declared that even in their logo, they had never used “X” – the twenty-fourth letter of the English alphabet (as everybody had thought) – but “X” as the multiplication sign. Backed by a team of renowned ivy leagued grammarians and a NYC-based PR firm the company made it clear that the property rights over this sign were as important to them as was the toner for their copiers; “it is,” they claimed, “not only Xerox’s Alfa and Omega (the first and the last sign of our logo) but the very symbol of the company’s commercial success and survival.” The PTO provided the requested patent protection and when Xerox released their new “Terms and Conditions” agreement with the buyers of their equipment, the new users realized that the company charged an additional “service fee” for the “X,” without making it clear how to distinguish a multiplication sign from the letter [eks]. The new law had stretched beyond the realm of the mathematical symbols and into the very sanctum of the ABCs. A precedent was thus set.

When the next day Xerox’s shares went up by an incredible 11.57% causing the Dow Jones Industrial Average to add 0.31 percent at mid-session, the Forbes’ top ranked companies rushed to buy the remaining twenty-five letters. While Xerox’s CEO was spread all over the News “for breaking the ice and the ground” and “for laying down the path” the representatives of other companies began to build their own cases. Unlike Xerox, which was worried about its name, Apple’s executives seemed to be primarily concerned with protecting their products when they made public their intention to purchase the lowercase “i.” Apple deployed thousands of PR officers who spoke in one voice about the company’s need to guard its popular series of i-Products (the iPod, iPhone, iBook, iTunes, iMac, iWeb,) from “thieves” and “terrorists” who manufactured cheap Chinese replicas in Mexico. They declared, like Xerox, that their i-Products had been inspired not so much by the English letter “i” but by the Greek sign “ι” (iota) whose meaning of “an extremely small amount” translated into the company’s successful marketing of a range of minimalist and compact gadgets. To prove that the “i-Product” was in danger, the company’s lawyers and grammarians fished through the dictionary and brought to the surface such old words as “i-athel,” “i-be,” “i-bedde,” “i-beot,” “i-bere,” “i-bid,” “i-borenesse,” “i-bringe,” power-pointing out that most of these words had carried a † to their place of execution – the Oxford English Dictionary. “If these words had had, in that dark age, an owner who had treated them as valuable assets preventing them from wandering aimlessly in the communal realm, we would still be using them today,” concluded the Apple team. Following this sound argument, Steve Jobs (Apple’s CEO) decided to declare as his intellectual property any living word hyphenated with a lowercase “i” (be it in English or in any other language); so now, for instance, a Russian cannot write or say i-matryoshka (even if he or she spells it in Cyrillic – "i-матрёшка") without special permissions, of which more later. As the Apple’s campaign over the privatization of the lowercase “i” expanded so did its top shareholders’ appetite. The next step was the declaration that Mr. Jobs delivered through the mouths of his PR representatives: “today, when most of consumers’ use of language is carried over through our revolutionary operation systems (Mac OS LX “Lynx”) which run most of the communication technologies on the market, we need to have the strength to recognize the entire alphabet as the property of Apple.” There was some truth in this statement, for after Apple had swallowed Microsoft, more than two decades earlier, they had become the sole provider of software on the market. Apple fought hard, lobbying high and low for a good resolution that would let them have the remaining twenty-five letters (“eks” excluded) but unfortunately the e-Supreme Court was not convinced by the argument. I say unfortunately because it would have been easier today to pay only one bill at the end of the month, instead of twenty-six.

While Apple was left with the lowercase “I,” Eli Lilly & Co – the company that was known to the public for its most successful product Fluoxetine hydrochloride (Prozac) – purchased the uppercase “I”. Today the legendary capsule has been replaced by much more efficient pharmaceutical gadgets capable of increasing serotonin in our brains at unprecedented, even excessive levels. What in the dark ages had been known as feeling, suffering, and compassion, and had been believed to constitute our “humanity,” today is a matter of levels, quantities and amounts of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. But let’s stay focused. The rationale behind Lilly’s argument was simple: “the fact that the company’s products have assisted millions of clients throughout the world to overcome manic-depressive alienation and to relate back to their privately owned selves entitles the company to make a bold step further and patent the capital letter ‘I.’” The company assured the shareholders, the government, and that part of the consumer population which had not been yet affected by Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) that it would use the profits raised from the use of the “I,” which is mostly used as a first person singular pronoun, to design new and more efficient brands of neurotransmitter enhancers. For a while rumors even circulated that soon Apple and Lilly would merge, but I personally don’t think this is going to happen, at least in the near future. As “X” and “I” were leaving the public sector behind, other companies were ordering their copyright lawyers through the main bronze door of the trademark building. The brightest realized that the profitability of owning a character depended not so much on whether a letter was part of their logo or product, but on the value that each letter had in itself; it depended, as their assistant grammarians were claiming, on its factual and material “as suchness.” They figured out that in every language there will always be some words and thus letters that will appear  more frequently than others, and charging a customer for using a “T” and a “Q” is not the same thing. Now came the time of the big battles and in what followed it was not the argument that counted but the amount of money each company was ready to pay for the desired sign. As I have already mentioned, Google bought “E” (the most solicited and expensive letter) when it outbid eBay, but the latter in its turn paid a higher price than Citigroup for “A.” Monsanto agreed to share “N” with BBC and I don’t remember exactly why these companies were interested in this particular letter but I am sure that it had something to do with the word “Nature” and its various grammatical forms. And so on and so forth: in two years the process was complete, and what had been known for centuries as ABC became ETA – the alphabet re-arranged itself according to the most expensive letters.

Each letter of the new ETA alphabet was to be followed by an ® in order to indicate that the sign had been registered with the government trademark office. As privatization entered the final stage, the Wall Street Journal launched a new economic index – ETA 26 Graphematic. The new financial indicator tracked the demand and supply of each particular character, showing to the population the market potential of the English language in convincing decimals. Today, for instance, ETA Index showed a 0.1304 for “E,” a 0.1045 for “T,” and a 0.0856 for “A,” and as far as I understand, these digits indicate the price which that part of the populace who can still afford to write (and for some even to speak) is ready to pay for this luxury. For comparison, “K” showed only 0.0042 whereas “Q” (owned by AT&T) recorded only a 0.0012 ratio of consumer demand, which may explain these companies’ concern with the low level of performativity of their signs. My theory is that unless some young talented CEOs introduce new revolutionary business models, capable of putting on the market new words and perhaps even new parts of speech that would replace such frequently used and highly valued semantic units as the article “the,” or the pronouns “he,” “she” “his,” “they,” and “their,” the alphabet will stay in the present ETA configuration.

I do not remember now all the arguments nor all the amounts paid for our ex-abecedary, but this is in very general lines the story of ETA. It is not as bad as it may appear, and for this we must thank our pragmatic nature which transforms every inconvenience into habit. For some letters we pay as we do for gas, electricity, or for water and sewage – with bills coming at the end of the month; other letter-owners prefer an annual subscription; but there is also the third type of letterlord with more intelligent plans for dispensing with their property. Intel, the microprocessor company that owns “R” allows you to write as many “R”(s) as you like, if you operate a device that uses their RAM memory. Time Warner gives you up to fifty upper, and a hundred lower case “T”(s) if you capitalize each Time the word “Time” in your writing or start a sentence with the word “Time.” Timing your sentences and sentencing your Time-consuming thoughts may actually give you enough “T”(s) to fill up almost a 7-sentence paragraph. Time Warner also offer bonuses: for instance, you’ll get up to twenty-five lowercase “t”(s) each Time you write down or speak out loud the actual Time – “10:35:25 PM” – at which your writing or conversation takes place, which I guess saves a lot of maintenance for the equipment and Time for the personnel in charge of studying and surveying your habits. 10:36:55 PM. Many radicals have complained that the letters are too expensive, and that at least some of them must be distributed by the government as a handout. Academics resort these days to some old fashioned psychoanalytic theories to argue that the new alphabet makes consumers too self-conscious or neurotic. I don’t know, I think that there may be some truth in this, for as I write now, I have literarily to count each “I” I am using, and the reason that I splurge now with this expensive pronoun “I” is because I have been on Lilly’s products for quite a while. The drugs give me the privileged right to address myself with respect and attention. For those who cannot afford the company’s products – well, too bad for them; if they own an iPod or something else from Apple then they can use a lowercase “i.” And for those who are at the very margins, for them – well, they stick to the Arabic numeral “1,” which they use also to replace ”L”(s). The numbers, thanks God, have not yet been privatized, and this has something to do with a discord between the banks and the producers of ATM machines over our PIN codes. In the case that my insurance refuses to cover my medicine, 1 might have to descend, like the impoverished, to the numeral “1,” and write like those cyberpunk writers, or like my cousin who e-mailed me the other day complaining about his wife spending their monthly letter reserve in a chat room: M_ b_†ch sp_n† å11 l&††_rs m_n. 1as† n1gh† 1 g0† b_ck fr0m w0rk & w_s _b0u† †0 pl_y my v1d&0gam& 1 c0uldn’† ev&n pr&ss “0K” k&y 0n my c0mpu†&r k&yb0_rd. 1† †urn&d 0u† sh& cha††&d w1†h 0†h&r b1†ch&s _bau† sh1† _nd had us&d †h& m0s† &xp&ns1v& l&††&rs w& had f0r †h1s m0n†h. Sh& k&&ps ly1ng †0 m& †ha† †h& ch1ldr&n h_d †0 d0 †h&1r h0m&w0rk as 1f 1 d0n’† kn0w †h_† †h& k1ds _r& h_ppy n0† †0. 1’m br0k&. 1 c_nn0† f1l& my b1lls 0r &v&n pu† my s1gn_†ur& f0r g&††1ng _n0†h&r cr&d1†. Fuck †h_† m_n, 1† sucks. Y&_HHHHHHH *M$†.1&††&rs WN†D*

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Octavian Esanu, 2006.