Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Dangerous Mix of Globalization and Software

Dana Hughes has filed a story on the Blotter blog maintained by ABC News that demonstrates (even more than Imus) just how bad things can get when it comes to conduct in the world the Internet has made. Here is the core of the story:

ABC News spoke to Doris and Douglas Moore of Toronto about what happened when they purchased a set of dark brown couches for $1300 and were told the couches were high-quality imports from Italy. But when they arrived, her 7-year-old daughter made a startling discovery. On the shipping label, next to "color," it read: Ni**er-Brown.

This obviously raises two questions that are far harder to answer than they were in the Imus affair:

  1. How did this happen?
  2. Who is actually responsible?

This seems to be a case in which efforts to address these questions were best satisfied through the local media business:

So far, no one has wanted to take responsibility for the slur. Moore immediately called the furniture store, Vanaik, from where she and her husband purchased the couches, but received no response. So she contacted a local television station, Toronto's City News, who tracked down the store manager. He told a reporter from the station he was sorry for the label but blamed the supplier, Paul Kumar of Toronto-based Cosmos Furniture, who also ships furniture to the United States. In media reports, Kumar said that the label was placed by the manufacturer, located in China, not Italy.

Kumar told ABC News that he spoke to the manufacturer and that the mistake was made "out of innocence." The slur was a translation problem with the labeling software, he said, but he declined to name the software used. He also said he didn't know how many other pieces of furniture his company may have sold with the racial epithet on the label.

I can think of no better case study of the extent to which the distorted philosophies of globalization (such as those of Thomas Friedman), when coupled with software designed with no awareness of the social world, can make a mess of disastrous proportions. The answer to the first question is: This is the sort of thing that happens when software is developed and used in what I previously called "a world without reflection." There was clearly no attention to social consequences during the software development process; and, if the software was being used in China, it is reasonable to assume that the user was not equipped to reflect on the English texts being generated by that software.

Unfortunately, the second question is far more problematic than the first. The Ontario Human Rights Commission, however, has decided to answer it by filing suit against both the store and the distributor; but we have to wonder whether or not the imposition of a fine is going to restore the process of reflection to a system that has been designed to eliminate it. The reality of the situation is that globalization has created a world in which, to draw upon the phrase from Dickens' Little Dorrit that become the title of the two-part film adaptation, this kind of mess is "nobody's fault." A world without reflection is also a world without accountability; and that is the world that seems to work best for making and selling stuff in a highly distributed but cost-effective mode of operation.

One might say that the fault ultimately lies with those advice-givers whose "wisdom" has given us the world the Internet has made. Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton once wrote about one of those advice-givers in Elizabethan England. His name was Henry Cuffe. He had been a professor of Greek at Oxford but became secretary to the earl of Essex. As we all know, Essex was executed for treasonous acts. Jardine and Grafton, however, have done us all a great service by pointing out that Cuffe was also hanged for his part in the Essex rebellion, thus becoming one of the best case studies for the precept that giving advice can have serious consequences! Now I doubt that such a fate is in store for Friedman or any of the other purveyors of globalization or, for that matter, Web 2.0. For that matter I doubt whether its lesson will do anything to make the world a more reflective place. However, if only a few of the readers of this blog bother to reflect on it, we may be making our first steps in the right direction!


Unknown said...

A preposterous fuss. That term was absolutely standard in the UK for textile colours until the 1960s, with no offence intended or taken (British English did not then load the word with the same vicious connotations that the American variety does; white supremacism would hardly have been a selling point for knitting wool or sofas).

The Chinese firm involved must have simply used an old British dictionary.

Stephen Smoliar said...

As the old cliche goes, "Context is everything." I find your explanation highly plausible, more plausible than the hypothesis that the software was some kind of malicious prank. Nevertheless, I would not call the fuss "preposterous," though. Every age has a new set of oxen to be gored.