Elchanan sent me the following story:
LONDON (AFP) — Officials in Wales mistakenly erected a road sign that read “I am not in the office at the moment” in Welsh after a translation mix-up.
The sign originally said in English, “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only,” but when Swansea Council officials sent it to be translated, they received an automated e-mail written in Welsh that read: “I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated.”
Unaware of the actual meaning of the e-mail, officials had the sign printed and put up near a supermarket, only realising their mistake when Welsh speakers pointed it out.
All road signs in Wales are required to be written in English and Welsh.
“Our attention was drawn to the mistranslation of a sign at the junction of Clase Road and Pant-y-Blawd Road,” a Swansea Council spokesman said.
“We took it down as soon as we were made aware of it and a correct sign will be installed as soon as possible.”
I think part of what makes silly or erroneous signs so funny is their official-ness: a printed sign has an authority and seriousness that we learn to obey from a very young age. An error on an official sign is like a policeman with a button open — a humanity and vulnerability is revealed unexpectedly and inappropriately.
Reminds one of the well-publicized story of a Chinese restaurant’s English sign, posted specially for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing:
[Images via Neonascent]
You know those awkward moments where you don’t know whether it’s better to say something or just to keep your mouth shut? Like when someone is walking around in their best suit, dragging a bit of tissue on the sole of their shoe. Or giving a presentation with a button open.
On the one hand, if you inform your hapless acquaintance, you will spare him a lot of future embarrassment — but at the cost of being the agent of humiliation. On the other hand, if you say nothing, you can pretend you haven’t noticed anything, but eventually the guy will realize what has happened, along with everyone else he has met that day since talking to you.
What do you do?
I received an email today from a business contact with whom I am barely acquainted. His automatic email signature misspelled his first, last, and company names. His first name is now that of a wild animal; his last name sounds like the evil scientist in a kids’ sci-fi flick; and his company has just changed cultural allegiances.
These are worse than ordinary typos, of course: they are embedded in the footer that goes to every email correspondent. Sigh.
Should I say anything?
“Greedy Mobile Interfaces”
It’s a sad but common sight in modern society – a person walking around in the world, utterly disengaged, head buried in a mobile device – a victim of the visually greedy mobile interface. […] Even the lauded and successful iPhone demands we disengage with the world and worship it’s visual luster during use.
[from Rachel Hinman’s Adaptive Path blog]
A great phrase: “greedy mobile interfaces”. When we were kids, parents went crazy from teenagers immersing themselves in Walkman earphones to the exclusion of the world around them. In fact, you might call the Sony Walkman the world’s first “greedy mobile interface”, even though it wasn’t visual. I’ve still got the original (blue and gray metal!) one that my dad brought back from Japan in a drawer here…
The Me vs. We culture awareness is taking off in a big way (ideas are like that…).
- serial-solidarity: it’s always easier to design something for sole use rather than shared use (although there is a big buzz about youtube, etc.). What this means that we see more and more people in the same place, doing the same things but apart. […]
- invisible technologies: pocketable is a step towards more important miniaturization: we’re going to not see a lot of technologies; because they disappear in the infrastructure. And when technologies disappear, the emphasis on social cues to make then explicit is even more and important.
What Jan refers to here as “serial solidarity” seems to me to be closely related to what psychologists and teachers call “parallel play” in young children — the developmental stage in which children play alongside, but not truly with, one another. (I was an elementary school teacher in a former life, remember?)
Too Much “Me”?
So let’s ask the threatening question: what is the effect on a child’s development when the play environment encourages staying “back” in a less mature stage of relationship? Are people hard-wired enough to just grow to the next stage of truly shared group interaction, anyway? Or will more and more kids grow up to be emotionally (and severely) immature?
Think, for example, of kids playing Nintendo DS games head-to-head via WiFi. On the one hand, there is a shared game, and vocalized communication (usually). On the other hand, each child sees a different view, and is essentially playing against electronic characters as he always does. Is this a group experience? Or a parallel play experience?
Too Much “We”?
On the flip side, one of my big concerns with the OLPC (One Laptop per Child) system is that it appears to be totally centered on a “We” model — every application is used collaboratively. Via the WiFi capability, users move in and out of work spaces, adding or contributing to the projects.
Perhaps collaborative work is good. Maybe it’s even great. Maybe it’s even the ideal educational environment. But has anyone tried it out in the field/classroom? When I asked the OLPC development team directly, they looked blank.
It scares me to think that the most vulnerable children on earth — the kids who will be receiving the OLPC units — are guinea pigs for a totally untested, not very thought-out new educational system.
Let’s be honest… these children aren’t going to have a wonderfully-trained teacher in a well-equipped classroom, access to books and toys, even daily access to mainstream media. The vast majority of their education will be the OLPC laptop collaborative environment.
What happens if you always learn and create projects collaboratively? Do you develop the skills and experience to independently plan and execute a project from start to finish? If not — here’s the threatening question — then are your skills employable? Do you have the abilities required to get a job in your local piece of the global economy?
As far as I can tell, no one asked these questions before shipping out OLPC laptops to kids who desperately need the boost to employability. As individuals who design products, we can lose sight of the true societal responsibility and global impact we all have in our work. Even when we’re working for the greater good, it’s easy to get lost in the rosy words, and forget that it all boils down to our impact on individual lives.
Remember those warm, fuzzy “Reach Out and Touch Someone” ads on TV? They were sappy, soppy spots that made pregnant women weep, as distant relatives (usually gray-haired grannies) heard the voices of those they loved. Anticipating Skype video conferencing (if only they had known…), the ads used image-in-image to double the poignancy.
Those were the days when communication was about… well, interacting with other people. As opposed to, say, yourself.
Try these on for size:
- Create the illusion of communication. You maxed out your emergency credit card the first week of school. Your parents are looking for some answers. A text message isn’t going to cut it but a voicemail would mean that you tried calling them.
- Just tell your side of the story. You just partied hard last night and going to work is just not on your radar today. You dread having to call your boss and answering any awkward questions he may have. Instead just leave him a simple voicemail letting him know that you won’t be coming into work today.
- Have your cake and eat it too. You desperately need to call your girlfriend but she is a talker and you don’t want to spend an hour on the phone with her because you would much rather watch the game with your buddies. Leave her a sweet voicemail and get a reprieve for the night.
- Play the field more effectively. You are dating quite a few people at the same time. You don’t want to leave them all text messages because there is nothing romantic about that. But a nice voicemail to each would score you points.
Are you sick, yet? These are real examples of how Slydial can be helpful to you! (If you can stomach it, there are more here.)
Given that people are listening less and less to their voicemail messages, I wonder how “off the hook” you really are with Slydial. But if I needed any validation that messaging today is about Me Me Me, now I’ve got it.
[Thanks to the Bell System Memorial site for bringing back those touching memories of long-distance service.]
“Medical help is being given to the last-known surviving speaker of a minority language in Nepal. Soma Devi Dura, an 82-year-old living in western Nepal, is thought to be world’s sole speaker of Dura, a Tibeto-Burman minority language. Scholars want to preserve Nepal’s disappearing minority languages. The country has more than 100 tongues, several with fewer than 100 speakers each.”
[via InterWorld Radio News Bulletin, 16 Jan 2008]
A peice like that really gets me thinking about language in particular, and communication in general. The choice of what form of communication to use (gestural, vocal, body language/facial expression, email, SMS, IM, FaceBook message, FaceBook poke…).
What makes us incline towards using one communication means over another at any given point in time?
- Who we’re contacting
- Time of day (where we are / where the other party is)
- Technology / network available at the moment of communication (where we are / where the other party is)
- Cost of network time at the moment of communication (where we are / where the other party is)
- Desire for privacy / desire for publicity
- Shyness about opening a channel of communication
- Social implications of the communication channel
I’m sure there are others.
Personal related anecdotes:
- Only “old folks” use email. Kids use SMS.
- “Poking” someone on FaceBook when I’m not sure they’d want to be a friend, but might feel compelled to accept if they received an invitation.
- Wanting to kick someone under the table during a conversation, but refraining.
- Calculating which landline (or cell phone line) to use to call a relative in another country, based on calling plan rates.
- Trying to reassure a tense friend whose mother-tongue is Tagalog.
- A surprised daughter exclaiming, “Mommy! They all talk like we do!” in a supermarket in San Francisco.
- Delaying data downloads to the cell phone until accessing a WiFi network.
- Receiving an SOS email: “Are you up? Can I call you?”
- Being available to that friend in crisis when she can’t call anyone in her own country for help at 2.00am local time.
Back to our opening story…
What would it feel like if your native tongue were nearly extinct? What would it be like to live in a world where you always — always — had to speak in a foreign language to be understood? What kind of alienation would you feel?
My favorite books on language:
Friday night was not an ordinary Sabbath evening in our haredi neighborhood of Jerusalem. At 2:30am I was wakened by a police car circling the streets, announcing: “Dear Residents: A 12-year old child is missing from his home. All who are able should come to help in the search.” The quiet zone that is Shabbos was broken.
Men in fur shtreimels, men in suits and ties, men in flannel pajamas and bathrobes, yeshiva students in sweatsuits, carrying flashlights, riding motorcycles, patrolling in cars. Helicopters circling low, flare explosions down in the valley, police hunching over a map big enough to serve
as a Shabbos tablecloth.
Hushed mid-street conferences under the yellow glow of the streetlights. Cars, motorcycles, ambulances, and police vans patrolling the silent streets. Tens of people working their way methodically from synagogue to synagogue. By 4.00am, hundreds of neighbors were quietly taking up the trail. Down the mountainside, out to the highway, peering into the ancient and crumbling structures in Lifta, carloads dispatched to an ever-increasing radius of Jerusalem neighborhoods, Ezrat Torah, Ganei Geula, Mea Shearim, Geula, Har Nof, Givat Shaul, Bayit Vegan, Ramot.
By daybreak, several hundred people had fanned out to search, building by building, from roof to basement, then to report back to the headquarters at the community center.
Serious faces, determined expressions, blistered feet, up and down hundreds and thousands of stairs. Jackets going on and off in the cold air and heat of exertion. Every hour, the announcement repeated: “A boy has been missing from his home since the afternoon. All who are able should come help in the search.”
…the exhaustion, and the swell of relief as the news spread that he was found.
Car-mounted amplified announcements are used frequently to advertise sales, prayer rallies and funerals in religious neighborhoods, where a vast majority of the population does not access mass media outlets. In the twelve years that we have lived in Israel, this was only the third time that an announcement was circulated on Shabbos: the first was when a toddler was kidnapped (she was found, thanks in part to the amplified bulletin), and the second was when a specific brand of baby formula was found to be causing serious neurological damage to babies (it was later discovered that the problem was a lack of B-vitamins, not a toxin).
I love the idea of a graphical window into a hidden world. In this case, it’s a view into a computer, and elegantly done.
When we say, “the eyes are the window to the soul,” aren’t we poetically expressing something similar? The eyes, the nuances of facial expression, body language, speech content and tone of voice all serve as our interface between the minds and hearts of people. We take for granted that we can communicate thoughts from one person to another, from one locked cranium to another. Not everyone can.
When it comes to electronic device development, we speak loftily of pervasive computing and “interaction” but our communication with our devices is about as limited as that of an unborn fetus with the outside world. We hear some noises, we see some flashing lights.
On the cutting edge, I’ve seen experiments (and patent applications) incorporating smell into mobile phones. We’re seeing the first market-viable applications of haptic feedback and more subtle, almost peripheral, GUI alerts. It’s encouraging. It gets us to the point of, say, someone with Asperger’s-type autism. We study the messages (warnings, alerts, error, menus), we think about what they might indicate, and we attempt a response hoping to achieve the desired outcome. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Ultimately, we have a long, long way to go before we can say that we are really “communicating” with our computers.
[via information aesthetics]