Kidnapping the word ‘virtual’

The crime itself is horrific — beyond comprehension in its cruelty — so there’s some hesitancy to complain about semantics.

But this is a technology column and the underlying issue — society’s tendency to blame modern-day bad deeds on technology instead of the bad-deed doers — is an important one.

Here’s an excerpt from a story headlined “‘Virtual Kidnappings Exploit Very Real Fears,” in a recent issue of the New York Times:

“The phone call begins with the cries of an anguished child calling for a parent: ‘Mama! Papa!’ … The youngster’s sobs are quickly replaced by a husky male voice that means business. ‘We’ve got your child,’ he says in rapid-fire Spanish, usually adding an expletive for effect and then rattling off a list of demands that might include cash or jewels dropped off at a certain street corner or a sizable deposit made to a local bank. … This is ‘virtual kidnapping,’ the name being given to Mexico’s latest crime craze, one that has capitalized on the raw nerves of a country that has been terrorized by the real thing for years.”

The word virtual, of course, has come to take on several meanings in the technology world, but perhaps the one most commonly understood by your average newspaper reader is “on the Internet.” Second Life is a virtual world (perhaps there are virtual kidnappings there). Those people you know only on MySpace are your virtual friends. Last week’s Interop conference in Las Vegas was dominated by talk of virtualization.

None of which has anything whatsoever to do with what’s been happening to those terrified parents in Mexico.

So why call this crime “virtual kidnapping”?

I’ll tell you why: Someone somewhere along the line — probably a fellow journalist — decided that “fake kidnapping” or “phone kidnapping,” both of which are not only more precise but better convey what actually happens, suffer from not being very sexy, especially when compared to something as hip, here and now as “virtual kidnapping.”

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And while we’re parsing: The nonkidnappings didn’t “virtually” happen, as in “virtually everyone likes ice cream,” or “the planes virtually collided.” They didn’t come close to happening in any way, shape or form.

How many readers do you suppose presumed they were about to read a story involving kidnapping and the Internet? Just about all of them, I’d say.

Labels matter.

We don’t like Mondays

Does a dread of returning to work on Monday keep you awake Sunday night?

According to the online job mart Monster, about half of U.S. and U.K. participants in an unscientific survey report having their Sunday night sleep disrupted by the mere thought of going back to work on Monday morning.

Such job-inspired fitfulness was reported less often by Germans (40 per cent), Italians (37 per cent), Swedes, (37 per cent) and Belgians (35 per cent). And, sleeping most soundly of all, with only 29 per cent reporting Sunday night difficulties, were the French.

More than 24,000 individuals registered their opinions in the Monster poll, which asked the question thusly: “Does the thought of going to work on Monday affect your Sunday night’s sleep?” (Left unstated was the obvious suggestion that if you are among the hordes tossing and turning over job stress Sunday evening, perhaps you might want to consider a visit to your trusty job-search site first thing Monday morning.)

Personally, I can say with confidence and candour that the prospect of returning to work does not keep me awake Sunday night, because I don’t need any excuse to keep from sleeping. I’m just lousy at it. Always have been.

Finally, a confession/question: Has anyone else ever put off sending an e-mail in the wee hours because you didn’t want the recipient to know that you were up that early and/or late? C’mon, I can’t be the only one.

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