A sense of ownership about your turn signals?
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Fri, 11 Sep 98 10:12:44 -0700
Subject: A sense of ownership about your turn signals?
Forwarded-by: firstname.lastname@example.org (Paul Duguid)
Forwarded-by: email@example.com (Geoff Nunberg)
Every once in a while my eight-year-old daughter Sophie comes up to me when
I'm working and puts her arm around me in a transparently insincere display
of affection, then walks away giggling. I know this trick, and as soon as
she's gone, I pat my back looking for a post-it that says something like
"I'm a knucklehead." It's funny -- you'd think that pronoun "I" wouldn't
mean anything if I didn't put it there myself, but somehow it makes me
implicit in the utterance. She's visited a small indignity on me, and we
both know it.
This is about the most powerful magic you can work with writing, putting a
first-person pronoun into somebody else's mouth. It was probably no more
than a couple of weeks after the invention of cuneiform in Sumer five
millennia ago that some scribe had the idea of pressing the characters for
"kick me" on a clay tablet and fastening it to the back of the robes of some
But the game didn't really come into its own until recent times, as writing
spread to every aspect of our lives. Buttons, t-shirts, bumper stickers,
magazine inserts, credit agreements -- all of them full of first-person
pronouns that other people have obligingly fashioned for our use. "I heart
SF." "My grandmother went to Hawaii and all I got was this lousy t-shirt."
"Bill me now." Most of these we tack on more-or-less willingly, but some of
them just come with the job. You have to feel for those drivers who roll
around all day in company vans with stickers on the bumpers that say: "How
am I driving? Call 555-1234." It's just a sophisticated version of the "kick
me" game, where the object is to make the driver a party to the message. I
don't know who came up with this idea, but I'll give you odds the word
"ownership" came into the conversation somewhere. As in, "McNally, we want
you to feel a sense of ownership about your turn signals." The people who
design new technologies were quick to catch on to this manoeuver. You log
in to one of the Web index services and there's a page labeled "my Yahoo"
or "my Excite" where you can set your own interest profile. You turn on your
PC and you see a little icon on Windows desktop that's labelled "my
computer." The first time I saw this I couldn't figure it out. Who did that
"my" refer to -- Bill Gates? It was a second before I realized it was just
Microsoft's way of trying to provide me with a proprietary feeling about my
In a way this is the biggest breakthrough in pronoun control since Sumer.
It isn't like the "How am I driving?" bumper sticker, where the company that
owns the truck is talking through the driver's voice to the other people on
the road. Here you have Microsoft or Yahoo supplying both ends of the
conversation, referring to the user with "my" at the same time they're
referring to themselves with "we." It's like watching a video game in demo
mode, where the software makes all your moves for you.
That's what a lot of interactivity seems to come down to, on-line or off.
It's the same story whether you're consulting a Web page, filling out a
customer satisfaction survey, or trying to find out your Visa balance over
a telephone voice menu. In the end the channel is always a lot wider one
way than the other: they download pages, you upload clicks. Those first
person pronouns may give the illusion of conversation, but people are pretty
jaded by now -- after all, they've been on to this game since they were
eight. However it's tricked out, it's still a menu-driven world. We aren't
deceived when a friendly waiter asks us how we want our salad. We know that
there are only three choices, Russian, French, or oil and vinegar.
© 1998 Peter Langston