An invalid argument was encountered

Is that so?

One of the things that make computer error messages so infuriating is that they invariably use impersonal constructions, implying that there is nobody to blame, nowhere to channel your frustration and vent your rage.

Is not the computer, or more specifically the operating system, the product of a collective effort? ‘We encountered an invalid argument’ would offer a glimmer of hope, implying there might be a phone number with some friendly people on standby to resolve any invalid arguments. But of course there isn’t, unless you pay for it, so the glimmer would be false.

‘I encountered an invalid argument’ would be even worse. Several years ago for a brief time the recorded announcements at Raynes Park station started saying, ‘I am sorry for the delay’. ‘You’, I thought, ‘who are you?’. It sounded like a disingenuous ruse to get passengers—sorry, customers—to relate to their rail company on a more personal level. I expected this to develop into ‘I’m doing my best’, which would soften our tempers because it’s just some guy and we all make mistakes but at least he’s trying. The Tony the Tiger of the railways was just around the bend.

Pretty soon they reverted to ‘we’, and ‘we’ is appropriate for corporate entities because they have legal personhood, which is not so good in some ways (why should corporations have similar rights to individuals?), but it does at least mean we can hold them responsible. It’s hard to think how one might hold a personal computer responsible though, except by chucking it out the window.

Perhaps what we need is a new personal pronoun for speech generators that are not persons. Something like a neuter version of the first person, an ‘it’ version of ‘I’. Could they just use ‘it’ in the first person—’it encountered an invalid argument’—or maybe ‘I’ in lower case: ‘i’. Given the move from ‘e’ to ‘i’ as a prefix for anything digital (if the iPhone had been invented 10 years ago, would it have been the ‘ePhone’?), that could be a rather elegant solution.

i encountered an invalid argument

Would that make me feel any better about my computer malfunctioning though? I’d rather it just worked.

Leave a Reply