Thursday, November 20, 2008

Meath no more

Of the many amusing things that Douglas Adams gave us, my favourite in terms of sheer laugh-out-loudness was The Meaning of Liff which he co-wrote with John Lloyd. The premise of this book was that there are many phenomena that have no word to describe them while at the same "the world is littered with thousands of spare words which spend their time doing nothing but loafing about on signposts pointing at places." Adam’s and Lloyd’s genius was to use these words to solve the naming gap.

One of my (many) favourites was Meath

"Warm and very slightly clammy. Descriptive of the texture of your hands after the automatic drying machine has turned itself off, just damp enough to make it embarrassing if you have to shake hands with someone immediately afterwards."

This was good because it was bang on. Yes! Hand driers! That funny not-quite-dry-not-quite-wet feeling you get after using them. The automatic ones were worse than the manual ones, switching off at such a point to optimise the feeling of meath. But no more. Ladies and gentlemen: the Dyson Airblade.

James Dyson, inventor of the cyclone vacuum cleaner, an amphibious car with huge balloon wheels and a new type of wheelbarrow (this time with a single balloon wheel) has turned his attention to the tricky task of hand drying (suddenly I recall the chap from The Apprentice -- Syed was it? -- who had an all-over body drier for using after a shower, but I digress...).

Yes the Dyson Airblade is a contraption that you put your hands down into slowly withdrawing them at a constant speed while a powerful jet of warm air blasts your hands dry. It certainly works in the hand-drying department, but I feel there is another explanation for the future success of the Dyson Airblade. You see, James Dyson's greatest achievement with the bagless cyclone vacuum cleaner was not that it worked better than standard vacuum cleaners, but that he got men interested in vacuums. Vacuums were unsexy items that we begrudged spending money on -- I once promised my wife that I would dustpan-and-brush the floor every week, anything but spend my money on a bloody vacuum. But the DC-01 changed this. The same genius lies behind the Airblade. It's not that it gets men's hands dry; this was never a problem, because men didn't wash their hands in the first place. Now they merrily and apprehensively wash away just so they can poke their hands into the contraption, listen to the formula-one style whine as the turbo-fan hits 20,000 rpm and closely follow the instructions specifying that the hands are withdrawn slowly and at a constant velocity. Even the name 'Air Blade' conjures images of manly pursuits. A Samuri Warrior, perhaps, or a Honda Fireblade superbike.

Sadly, however, he has also killed meath.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Trust is a transitive verb

Following a talk I recently gave in Cambridge about online relationships talk turned, as it so often does, as to whether you can ever truly trust someone that you haven't met face to face. As it turns out my feeling is that you probably can but that is for a different post. The point I made there and the point I want to make here is that sometimes it just doesn't make any odds. Of course there are instances where people have been fleeced, bullied, phished, flamed and otherwise abused online. But the important point is in the title of this post trust is a transitive verb. Basically you don't just trust, or mistrust, you trust someone to do (or to not do) something even if you don't know what that thing is. Of course we do say in common language 'I trust you' which seems intransitive but it isn't really at the end of that sentence is a silent placeholder, an unspecified list of all the things that you do trust that person to do (or not do).

This is not an exercise in linguistics; this is a consciousness raising exercise (something I've always disliked, so I apologise for that).  Take the example of the phenomenon sometimes called 'the stranger of the train effect'. It has probably happened to most of us. We get on a train and we sit next to someone, and by the end of the journey the person has unburdened upon us a great deal of personal information about their divorce, say, or their mental illness or their worries about their drug-taking children. Stuff that they might only otherwise tell their closest friends. Or possibly not even their closest friends: friends can be dangerous things when interests collide (I'll come back to this).

Are they therefore showing that they trust us? Not at all, because trust is a transitive verb. They probably don't care who we tell about their problems, because we can do no damage with the information. If they tell their friends, their friends could break confidence and tell other people, severely damaging the storyteller reputation in the eyes of other friends, colleagues and family members. By telling us, they feel better about themselves, for 'getting it off their chest' and may even recieve some useful advice (and it is cheaper than therapy). In order to trust, there needs to be risk. If I climb a rockface I might trust the person holding the rope to not let me fall, if I tell a friend my embarrassing problem I trust him or her not to put this on Facebook. In each of these cases trust is important because there are potentially damaging consequences if confidence is not kept. In the case of the stranger on the train there are no consequences, so no trust is needed.

Returning to online. People often disclose a lot more online than they might do face to face (this is sometimes called hyperpersonal communication). People usually only disclose with close friends, so does this mean that people become closer online? That they trust them more? Possibly not, because again the disclosures may not matter. They don't know you or your friends, or your work colleagues or your family, and if you use inscruitible user names then they are not likely to either. People don't need to trust to disclose, if there is no risk there need be no trust.