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Robin Marks

Delphinian Devices

Waiting on hold for tech support the other day, I started musing on the origins of high-tech jargon. Not just the technical terms like GUI and ping and packets, but the impenetrable business and marketing lexicon. We could call such stuff Microspeak, in honor of the software company that made ambiguity a high art form. To be fair (despite any reason to be), we can't hold Microsoft wholly responsible for the high-tech world's addiction to propaganda and euphemism. But, they are just so darn good at it, and we can point a nice fat finger at Microsoft for the seemingly endless abundance of its marketing misdirection.

Microsoft can be credited with the creation of a bevy of characteristically intimidating and non-informative phrases that have become an accepted part of the English language. This corporate vocabulary resembles modern political rhetoric, and the careful buzzwords of organized religion. A "known issue" is just a nice way of saying "software bug" or "programmer error" or "that software glitch we're not legally allowed to comment on." Of course, a "known issue" is never the software's fault, it is akin to an Act of God in that it just happens. It has been willed to us by the creator, so we must lower our expectations for now, and have faith that the next upgrade will bring us salvation.

It's no wonder computer technology has become like a religion to some people. But in this church, heaven is an operating system that never crashes, and the bible is your end-user documentation, your help files, and your 24-hour online technical support.

When Microsoft first shipped its BackOffice system with Windows NT three years ago, they flaunted it as the software to "solve business problems." Since the most common "business problem" I know of is the shortage of funds, the BackOffice price tag makes this statement a downright paradox. In its press release, Microsoft touts the arrival of BackOffice as the future of integrated computing. Here's an example:

Microsoft BackOffice is part of the overall Microsoft architecture for both desktop and server distributed environments. Clients run on the Windows for Workgroups and Windows NT Workstation operating systems for demanding business applications, and on the forthcoming Windows 95 operating system, can integrate office devices into the Windows environment using Microsoft At Work operating system software.

If you can get beyond the flood of trademarks and actually decipher the prose, you'll see this leaves the poor BackOffice user with a "software inadequacy syndrome" that can only be solved by purchasing additional Microsoft "solutions." And even though users hate to spend more money, they will feel more important because they use "demanding business applications" which are "robust," "multi-tasking," and "mission-critical." With so much ego-stroking, sending office e-mail and scheduling meetings online suddenly becomes a heroic act rivaling Homer's Odyssey.

But don't think for a minute that Microsoft chooses its words lightly. I had the honor of writing marketing copy about the company's new browser, and was privy to the ghastly innards of the language tweaking machine. There was a two-hour meeting to determine simply whether to dub one feature the "channel window" or the "channel pane." Though their published material had already gone out with the latter variation, the company decided the "p" word was out (no doubt worried that its homonym would stick in the minds of users).

Microsoft's real marketing coup has been the successful replication of the notion that marketing hype is actually "news".

The company's language is carefully crafted and often rewritten to spin current "known issues." All mention of the word "cookie" was promptly yanked from my description of browser security. The language was replaced with a much more innocuous description of how IE allows you to only give access to "the sites you trust." Any explanation of why you would need to trust or distrust a site was reduced to a vague mention of the "powerful, active content" some sites try to load onto your computer. This also seems ironic, since Microsoft either owns, has an interest in, or is in competition with any "active content" you may be running on your hard drive right now.

But fooling the user is easy. Microsoft's real marketing coup has been the successful replication of the notion that marketing hype is actually "news". The "Start Me Up" marketing bonanza that was the launch of Microsoft's Windows 95 is a prime example. Not only did Microsoft convince the world that marketing slogans are newsworthy, but they managed to work in the concept that a software program can represent nirvana. No more would we pray to false idols! Windows 95 was the way and the light - the one true product - until Windows 98 of course.

However, Microsoft certainly didn't invent this marriage of marketing hype and high-tech obfuscation. IBM has been practicing this art form for decades, both in press releases and user documentation. Have you ever actually had to read a Big Blue user manual? It is hard to say which is more awe-inspiring, the utter incomprehensibility of their prose, or the amount of trees sacrificed to their worthy cause. I recently ordered a software program from IBM for one of their midrange computers (read larger than a desktop PC, but smaller than a washing machine). The program itself came on one unalarming CD-Rom, but the documentation (all fifteen manuals) weighed about ten pounds. I ended up using one or two chapters of one manual. The rest was useless, I think, though I haven't fully translated it all yet.

I certainly felt intelligent though, with all those impressive looking manuals piled on my desk. I must be smart to have figured out how to use such a truly complicated piece of software. I was sure my coworkers were looking on, envious of my prodigious technical abilities, wishing they too could have a big stack of binders on their desks.

And maybe in the end, this is the real appeal behind the tech industry's jargon. It massages our egos, answers our need to feel important, all the while giving us an altar at which we can kneel down and worship. "Oh, high-tech deities, hear our prayers. Give us "known issues," give us "solution providers" and "channel windows." Just as long as we can use your MicroSpeak to impress our friends, our neighbors, and potential employers." After all, without "known issues," many of us would not have "self-enriching employment opportunities." Hallelujah.

Tags : psychedelic
Rating : Teen - Drugs
Posted on: 2001-04-30 00:00:00