Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Enterprise - 32

Once the Product had been loosed upon the world we found we were mostly powerless to affect its course, to guide its adoption, even to define it. We’d crafted for it the persona of a genial boy-robot, whimsical, wide-eyed and heroic. Yet our audience—our unintended audience—generally treated it as a semi-moronic younger sibling fit for extravagant, humiliating abuse. We also observed in the reports prolonged sexual interactions. Some had a naive, poignant quality suggesting they were conducted by preteen girls, discovering and exploring the erotic nature of the query, the reply, the silence in between. Some seemed to be farcical. But maybe not. In other interactions the Product appeared to play the role of confessor, of an interactive diary. Sometimes, some of the things I saw in the reports—raw cries of pubescent rage, of anguish—anonymized though they had been—I was not supposed to see. No one was supposed to see. I’d read until my shame took hold and forced my hand to close the window.

As a group we were bemused. A little worried. And so we escaped into minutiae. For weeks we debated the issue of help. As in: how should the Product assist a user in need of help?

“We need a help domain,” asserted David.

“Why? It is help already,” said Tom.


“It is help. ‘What can I help you with?’ ‘I’d like to know the weather, please.’ ‘Here you go.’ Help is what it does.”

“But what if you need help getting help?” David persisted.

“Then we don’t care.”

“We abandon the user? We give a bad experience?”

Tom shrugged and made his grimace. Conversations went on like this for days, in formal and informal meetings, across e-mail. When one area of concern was resolved, or abandoned in frustration, or forgotten altogether, another was seized upon, invested with significance, raised above our heads to be examined from each angle. We were afraid that if there wasn’t any problem with the Product, there wasn’t anything at all.

One day I happened by Tom’s desk as he was furiously typing code for an application that was to be deployed on a limited basis for a well known e-commerce portal. A demo for the client via teleconference was scheduled for the following morning.

“The only thing I care more about making this thing work is my wife. And my son,” he declared. Never taking his eyes off the screen.

Bob and Fun developed an elaborate mini-site, skinned with the prospective client’s branding, to support the application. I was called upon to provide the copy. Meanwhile Tom coded late into the night, coordinating with the hosting department out west to get the thing up and running.

The demo occurred—I supposed—as planned, behind the closed conference room door, live voices alternating with tinny ones on the speakerphone, query, reply, silence, query, reply. It ended in less than an hour and I never heard a word about it again.

The curious hush in which we normally operated deepened with the passing weeks. We wore headphones, listened to Pandora on the Internet. We communicated with each other primarily by instant message—even with our neighbors. Our work, our interactions—our very lives—we conducted from pixelated sanctuaries, outposts in the increasingly bewildering realm of objects and emptiness, of floors and ceilings and walls. For the better part of the day we fell into the interface. Not quite present. Not quite gone.

What might we look like to a race of aliens? What might we look like period?

I perceived the heat of human gaze upon my shoulder. David had spun his chair and taken off his headphones. Presently he glared at me.

“I know what you’re doing, Paul. And I don’t like it.”


“I know what you’re doing!”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“You’re undermining me, Paul. You’ve been doing it all along!”

“Jeez, David. What?”

He threw his headphones and they bounced off his keyboard with a plastic clatter.

“I know more about this than you do! I’m the information architect!”

I assured him that I respected what he did and had no idea what he was talking about. Still, I felt a chill of guilt. What was going on? Was it something? Was something going on?

David stormed out for a cigarette. When he came back he informed me, in the coldly formal tone of the officially aggrieved, that he’d soon be writing a complaint to the human resources department—Sally—his boss—Tom—and Neil, the CEO.

“OK,” I said. “I understand.”

I didn’t understand. I pretended to go on working, my trembling fingers jumpy on the keys.

The following day Tom sat us in the conference room. He’d received some kind of message from David, evidently, but made no mention of its contents.

“I think you guys need to go out and have a beer and work things out,” Tom said.

I nodded agreeably. David was still and mute throughout. Later, at our desks, I sent him an instant message saying: Yes, we should go have a beer. Work things out. He said he thought that was a good idea. We never communicated with each other again.