Technology as Dribble Glass

Steve Witham (
Wed, 10 Dec 1997 13:30:16 -0500

Once in a while I find myself trying to explain to someone
that the fact that they didn't adhere to some stupid rule
of some stupid piece of technology
(often stupid in a subtle way, like the fact that
the VCR must be OFF or it won't record X-Files tomorrow night,
or the way that Dilbert, intending to delete an embarrassing
phone message, instead sends it to all his coworkers),
means the piece of technology is stupid,
not them.

Listen, it's a dribble glass.
It's designed in such a way that it dribbles on you.

"Yes, but I *knew* that."
It's still a dribble glass.
Dribble glasses work by fooling you into thinking they're something sensible,
fooling you into doing something perfectly sensible with them,
then doing something to you that *looks like* it was your fault.
Hah, hah, you trusted me.

"You'd think I would learn."
The point is that this is a retrograde, damaging kind of "learning."
It is unlearning the expectation of civilization--the expectation that
people won't hand you a dribble glass. We are in denial. Instead of
admitting the horrible truth that we are being handed dribble glasses
left and right, we take the blame ourselves, eroding the idea that
technology should not dribble on us, that it should be adapted to us.

First maybe learn to be a human being,
then, when you're done that, in your spare time,
you might take up the hobby of learning
the obeisance before fetish-objects,
the nervous glance,
the stepping over cracks,
the counting to ten,
the throwing salt over your shoulder,
the obsessive triple-checking and hand-washing,
the knees-bent, arms-outstretched walk,
the saying-the-opposite-of-what-you-mean, but winking obscurely,
in short the behaviors
that are adapted to the fun house--or funny farm--around you.

There is a moral point here.
Acquiesce to barbarism implies support of barbarism.
By saying "I should learn," one implies that
we all should learn to adapt to bad designs,
that it's okay for people to hand us dribble glasses.
We shouldn't. It ain't.

It's okay, as a provisional, practical matter, to learn the ways
of the idiotic mutant sheep-monkey some piece of equipment was designed for,
but don't make it sound like a measure of a person.

Measuring ourselves by dribble-glass standards is not a game I want to be
included in, implicitly or not.