Originally published April 1st, 2006. Reissued for your entertainment.
On 1 April 2025, the International Commission on Naughtiness (ICON) took Google Inc to the World Trade Court on a potential breach of the Usability Services Exchange Regulations (USER). This is deeply ironic.
Google Inc was one of the pioneers of the new exchange, showing at the end of the last century that the true value of any service was its usability. It was as a result of Google Inc’s success that usability became a tradable commodity in its own right. The rest, as they say, is history!
The Usability Exchange had long since replaced the Stock Exchange as the main market for trading in service company shares.
The charge against Google Inc is extremely serious—a major breach of the USER Services Usability Code (SUC). SUC laid down a set of rules for usability auditors to follow. The Information on Testing (IT) they provided the Exchange is used for the Settings of Exchange Equivalent (SEE) of any stock—the monitory value of a company trading on the Exchange. If a company the size of Google Inc has breached the code, then the whole USER SUC, IT, and SEE process could be in doubt and the market would be unworkable.
However, the most interesting part of the case is how the alleged violation was discovered. Professor Alexandra (Lexie) Hoover in charge of new word usages at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) noticed in her monthly statistical reports that there was a significant decline in the number of NEOLOGs (New English Ordinary Language Opportunity Grabbers)— words that come out of specialist usage and try to grab popular usages. The average number was in the order of 1000 per month and growing, until April 2019, when the figures initially stabilized for a couple of months and then declined. By January 2020, the figure was down to a trickle of about 100 per month—a 90% decline. According to Lexie, this was the first continuous decline recorded since 1984. Curious about the reasons for this, Lexie contacted a student whose thesis she had examined about 10 years ago—Buzz Schweig—who had done a PhD on the subject of new word adoption. “A brilliant thesis, predicting which words in specialist use had a high probability of becoming popular” said Lexie “Buzz was the obvious man to talk to about the decline”. Lexie couldn’t track him down and so decided to reread his thesis, But oddly, there were no copies in the library and a Google search revealed nothing. Then she remembered the single hard copy that she had been given as an examiner. At the back of the thesis was an appendix listing all the specialist words Buzz had predicted would find their way into popular usage over the next 10 years—page after page, thousands of words; but as far as Lexie could tell with her intimate and detailed knowledge of the OED, none of them had made the transition to popular usage.
Were Buzz’s predictions wrong after all? Lexie could not resist the challenge and began looking for explanations. Buzz had predicted that in each case for a transition to occur there had to be a person who acted as a kind of catalyst, making the word popular. Lexie went in search of these catalysts and found that in almost all cases they had stopped using the word at a critical moment before the transition. Some had changed career, some had retired early, some said they had just lost interest; there were a few odd suicides and accidents, and one unexplained death. The only common theme was that they all went through some sort of life-changing experience just before the critical transition phase. Why? It was at this point that Lexie got in touch with ICON.
ICON, with its special resources, tracked down Buzz to a position in Google Inc where he headed a department known only as G5. Further probing discovered that the department was nicknamed the SWAT team (Search out Words and Terminate them).
With the matter still sub judice, there are few details in the public domain, but the indictment cited Section 52(a) of SUC which says that a service provider should not take any actions that might interfere in any way with IT. Have Google Inc been acting as self-appointed paradigm police, manipulating language use and preventing new words emerging—to protect the value of its investment? If so, does this amount to interfering with IT and a breach under 52(a)? This is obviously going to be an interesting case to follow.