When a glitch inspires culture

This story of Microsoft Office programs’ mangling the ‘smiley face’ emoticon in emails is excellent. For some reason related to the horrible Wingdings font (yet another crime) Office programs often end up replacing smileys with a ‘J’:

I recall a story (possibly apocryphal) of somebody who regularly exchanged a lot of e-mail with Microsoft employees and who as a result started signing their own messages with a J, figuring this was some sort of Microsoft slang. The Microsoft employees who got the J-messages scratched their heads until they were able to figure out how their correspondent arrived at this fabulous deduction.

The full post has more explanation, but the idea of a glitch or a non-human computer activity infecting human culture with ‘wrong’ or ‘fabulously deduced’ cultural activity seems like a lot of fun to me. I’m struggling to come up with a similar example of a technical error being mistaken for a cultural peccadillo – obviously all technological features in the broadest sense (“It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!”) can inform or even determine human behaviour, but we often infuse our explanations with the caveat that someone, somewhere intended something about the feature even if the actual results are less than perfectly predicted.

But there’s something about the origin of this glitch that sets it apart – there never was an intent behind the glitch-intoduced ‘J’. It’s not even the result of a well meaning typo missed in QA, nor is it likely the result of mental confusion, poor planning or oversight.  The glitch happened when software talked to other software and got confused.

We can deal with culture as coming form other people, and we’re getting better at dealing with it as it arises from the technologies we engage with, but even when talking about technology there is always the knowledge at the back of our mind that someone made this. In the case of our strange J-glitch, no one made it.

But perhaps we might say it “emerged” from the unforeseen interactions of systems (“You should have anticipated this, Jeff.”) but I like the idea of emergence less and less as I’ve read about theories of it. It’s too much of a kludge for me – a half-way-house between the human-oriented world of intentions and (yep) the object-oriented. The archaeology of intention and the uncovering of human plans and designs twice-and-thrice removed begins to feel extremely tired.

I didn’t mean to make this a blog post about object-oriented otology, honest!