Hello, Failure

Of all the enemies of literature, success is the most insidious

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Failure of the Day: Language

No, not like yesterday's failure. I mean the language used in computer books and by computer people. I mean the lexicon. The crap I have to edit.

So there was this cool sci-fi movie/mini-series type thing some years ago called "V." A fairly obvious parable about German complicity--or at least complacency--during the Third Reich. Anyway, nasty lizard people come to earth to steal all the water. But they're cleverly disguised as regular looking people, and only a small handful are hip to What's Really Going On after somebody sees the hot chick second-in-command alien open wide and swallow a live mouse. (Which looks a lot dopier as a written sentence it than it was as a scene in the movie.)

Bear with me. I'm getting to the point. So a lot of humans, in proud The President Would Not Lie To Us form, think the aliens are all about the American Way and have only come to trade us the cure for cancer for some of the Earth's natural resources that we apparently don't need, 'cause we're only to happy to fork it over. And these trusting sorts, policeman and old money society ladies and such, believe in their heart of hearts that the Visitors are our friends and the resistance fighters are malcontents and rabble rousers and think it's a swell idea to let the Visitors pretty much take over the world and declare martial law. They pretty much hand over humanity, their own and everyone else's, on a big shiny platter.

(It occurs to me I could use this example to make a much better point than the one I am about to make. So it goes.)

Finally, after…what? 20 years? The Microsoft Styleguide For Technical Publications has disallowed this kind of phrasing:

"The Help screen allows you to research the topic."
"You can add and delete your contacts at will."

They look innocuous enough, don't they? Well, they're NOT! The first example posits that the user needs some sort of permission from the computer to look something up, and the computer is kind enough to grant it. That's a fairly creepy power dynamic. The second example is worse (and it recalls another, better sci fi movie): Contacts Are PEOPLE!!! You can't just go around deleting them. Or you can, but it is very bad and wrong.

I find it shocking, SHOCKING! that no one put up any sort of fuss that for 20 years, computer documentation writers happily had human beings begging computers for permission to work and being deleted like so much spam. It's creepy. But it strikes me as that same instinct to bow to what is perceived as a "superior" intelligence. To bow and then to surrender our humanity. Not to the computers (this isn't some stupid luddite rant; I love the damn things, personally), but to the lizard people, the techies. If they say we need permission from the computer, it must be so.

Now, I don't go around staking a lot of claims, usually, but if I must, I pick A) my place on the food chain (higher than cows, lower than whatever alien species finally does come and eat us up, and, as near as I can figure, roughly equal to viruses), and B) my inalienable right to elegant and precise language. So put 'em up, baby. Thems fightin' words.


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