Working notes from the Scandinavian Institute for Computational Vandalism

in the case of templates the writing itself becomes peripheral to the processing

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Excerpts from Matthew Fuller’s It looks like you’re writing a letter

The Templates, sample documents that the user can edit to make their own, with their repertoire of ‘elegant fax’, ‘contemporary fax’ to ‘formal letter’ or ‘memo’, acknowledge that forgery is the basic form of document produced in the modern office. The purest manifestation of this so far is 419 Fraud, named after the Nigerian Statute that outlaws it. 419 consists of tens of thousands of letters, apparently coming from government officials, company directors, military officers, approaching Western bank account holders with an incredible offer. The letters claim an insight into some impending calamity or coup and requests that the recipient aid the senders by allowing their bank account to be used to move capital out of Nigeria in return for a generous commission. All that is requested is a simple downpayment. And then another. A couple more. The entire operation is based around faxes and letters, an industrial scale semiotics of fraud: letterheads, confidentiality, intimations of corrupt generals, numbers in government departments and corporate headquarters, calls to aid the world’s poor, stranded bank accounts, readily available cynicism with politics, the ploy of the African simpleton working the racist sucker. The believable template, hooked up to the mailing list database is an economic machine that works all the better, all the more profitably, if it is fuelled on fraud.

Whilst “In mechanised writing all human beings look the same” in the case of templates the writing itself becomes peripheral to the processing. Employment agencies on the net have been found to be advertising non-existent jobs in order to pull in trade and the appearance of market share. Tens of thousands of people respond with their CVs. For jobs knocked up by the batchload on a CGI form come a multitude of self-starting no-dozers with ski-lift productivity profiles as per the thrilling careers of the templated exemplars that come with the program.

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The underlying grammar of the program conforms to that expected within the standardised proprietary interface. The menu bar at the top of the screen provides a list of verbs which can be actioned on the nouns within the currently active window. These verbs are put matter-of-factly, as tasks: File, Edit, View, Insert, Format, Font, Tools, Table, Window, Work, Help. There is the same bluntness about the use that the program is primarily intended to be put in the sub-programs that direct the user to produce certain kinds of documents with the least amount of fuss: CV Wizard, Envelope Wizard, Letter Wizard. These are the modes of writing it makes easy. Suicide Note Wizard remains uncompleted. The Autotext toolbar already sees this easy description begin to fray. The writer is locked into the lexical domain of ‘Dear Mom and Dad’ as much as into ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ and ‘To Whom it May Concern’. Mailing instructions and ‘Attention’ lines are offered alongside a range of closing phrases ranging from the formal to the intimate.

‘As the user learns the new system, the language installs the user in the system’

Effective human-machine integration required that people and machines be comprehended in similar terms so that human-machine systems could be engineered to maximise the performance of both kinds of component Word has no direct ‘interest’ in information or communication, but rather in its facilitation. It arranges things according to a pragmatics that is not concerned so much with such as “When I say my mouth is open how do we know that this is what I have said?”, but with sensing and matching every bit of such possible statements. The end point of which of course is that every possible document will be ready for production by the choice of correct template and the ticking of the necessary thousands of variable boxes.

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