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Culture, Memes and Programming

Posted by timboudreau on September 2, 2007 at 9:22 PM PDT

I was in Home Depot this afternoon, and used their automated checkout to buy some supplies for the NetBeans Mobile. They have an automated system that lets you scan your own items, and talks to you. It's a perfect example of how software cannot be divorced from culture.

To provide some backstory, my dad is a literary critic and semiotician who got me interested in the subject of memes when Richard Dawkins first proposed the concept in the afterword to The Selfish Gene (my mom was a psychologist - and no, dammit, I'm not overly analytical!). Anyway, the intersection of culture and computers and language is a fascinating one - I was almost a linguistics major, and the topic of “making computers talk” is one I will probably never lose my fascination with.

So I'm at the checkout in Home Despot. The checkout machine has a touch screen and a female voice. What struck me as weird was the sentence: “Use pin-pad to complete transaction”. Now, what would have been wrong with saying “Use the pin-pad to complete the transaction”? After all, at the conclusion it says “Thank you for shopping at the Home Depot”.

Faskinating. In this day and age, with decent speech synthesis available for free, what is the cost of a the?

The answer is culture. I would wager that the programmer who built this system had seen some sci-fi, and without even knowing it, absorbed the meme that computers speak in stilted language. Odds are the omission of the in those sentences has nothing to do with conscious choice - someone simply acted on an impulse that was culturally conditioned, and created software that talks like Robbie the Robot, because that's how Robbie the Robot is supposed to talk. Fascinating, isn't it?

Now, at Sun, we occasionally also talk like Robbie the Robot - but it comes from the conscious choice of lawyers (ever wonder why presentations never say “create a JavaBean”, they say “create a JavaBeans™ Technology Component”? That's trademark protection in action - I think someone needs to do for trademark licensing what the GPL and other licenses did for software licensing - this is an area that desparately needs some brave and creative lawyering, because I don't want to have my slides edited into Robbie the Robot-dom, dammit - but such is my one-man war against Sun being the-company-that-doesn't-know-how-to-talk).

Cultural artifacts abound in software - it gets very interesting when the team building a piece of software is multinational. I suspect creating software - at least anything that has a GUI - to be cultural-artifact-free is impossible (and not even a worthwhile goal if it were).

Anyway, think about this the next time you run any random piece of software - how many cultural artifacts and assumptions can you find in it?