Activating unconscious mode with the anti-friend: Techno-Stockholm Syndrome
Deactivate that light!
A product manager once asked his project team in an email that I was copied on why the UI was, in the app settings, saying things like “switch on” and “switch off” instead of “activate” and “deactivate.”
“When I go home in the evening,” I rationalised, “I switch on the lights. I don’t activate them.”
“Well,” he replied, “that may be true, but when it comes to computing, I prefer to ‘activate’ things.”
I theorise that there are at least two forces at work here:
- The impulse to embrace technical language, which we believe shores up our position (it doesn’t)
- Techno-Stockholm Syndrome (TSS for TLA* fans)
We are not worthy
The computer is a man-made tool** that, like all our best tools, does things much better than we do. Because the computer can arrive at answers many, many orders of magnitude faster than our brains can, we fear that we’re intellectually inferior to the computer, despite being its creator.
The computer then demands our attention and (often personal) information, which we unflinchingly give. The computer often speaks to us in a rigid, esoteric vernacular that we not only tend to believe must be “correct” (because it’s coming from a computer) but that we’ve also allowed to supplant our everyday spoken language.***
Do you kiss your mom with that mouth?
This is why we’re not shocked when asked brusque questions like “Abort the installation?,” shown car-crash notices like “Confirmation successfully dismissed” or fed skewering status messages like “Data submission failed. Retry?” If anyone were to speak to us like this, we’d drop whatever we were doing, turn away and perhaps question existence.
TSS is the horrible child that results when our technological inferiority complex crosses with our misguided, goofy faith in high-falootin’ jargon. We start to believe that our computing machines are our benevolent captors, and that they deserve first our deference, then our empathy — perhaps finally even our love.
And we make sure that they speak to us in the way that we believe we deserve to spoken to.
* Three-letter acronym
** Pedantic alert: It has been known for some time that Homo sapiens isn’t the only species on the planet that makes tools.
*** In the safety of a footnote, I can admit my true belief that it is engineers who have long insisted that “regular people” learn to speak their lingo in order to use machines that should have no linguistic barriers. Our fragility gets the best of us. We too often see the need to design with user-centricity as “dumbing down” and therefore a trivialization of our technological work rather than what it is really doing, which is saving its life. (Fear of death also has a lot to answer for, but as an argument is nowhere near as entertaining.)