Chat Wars Rage On; Comrades in the Bathroom
I was an AIM developer during the years David Auerbach describes in “Chat Wars,” but not directly involved in the war itself. I’m afraid I must bust one of the claims in the article. Auerbach says that when he added emoticons to the MSN client in 2000, it became “the first American chat program to turn a colon and a parenthesis into a smiley face.” As it happens, I beat Auerbach by more than three years. AIM version 1.0.315, which was linked on November 6, 1997, had that feature, and I’m pretty sure I added it long before version 1.0 was released.
Andrew Jacobs’s “Net Neutrality” is comprehensive, erudite, and elegantly written, patiently tracking the minute twists and turns of a legitimately knotty statutory saga. With its simple title and tweedy but humble tone, the piece seems to say, “Listen now, let’s try to understand this thing completely before we start calling our senators.” It offers itself as an even-tempered antidote to what you have rightly called the online “rage machine” (The Intellectual Situation, Issue Eighteen).
As a campaigner for Demand Progress, one of the netroots organizations organizing to defend net neutrality and enshrine it permanently in the law, it was my job, for many months, to do the opposite of what Jacobs does here. I reduced, I simplified, I tried to tell a story about net neutrality—let’s admit it, a very tedious, unsexy regulatory principle—that hit people hard. So it’s perhaps an occupational hazard that my reaction to Jacobs’s article was pure, petty resentment: Why should you get 6,000 words to explain what I have to pack into 140 characters!
The problem I mean to get at is one Jacobs himself identifies in the last paragraph of his piece: “Net neutrality advocates will need an argument that resonates in the gut if they want broad public support.” It’s also the one comedian John Oliver identified when he said, “The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America: if you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.” The problem is that the internet—an affect factory fueled by slick, seething sentiment (of which I am a reluctant purveyor)—has inured us to the horribly banal, esoteric language in which its future is being written.
I enjoyed Ross Perlin’s “Endangered Speakers,” and found myself in it, too, surprisingly. An early encounter with Mayan glyphs ultimately led me to linguistics, and I still have an abiding interest in the family and its many wonderful languages. But of course this knowledge was also about extinction and then colonialism, and then the history of capitalism. My first professor at college was an Irish syntactician who once said his research made him “necessarily and sadly interested in issues of language death.” Whether this concern with language extinction is a sort of proxy for an awareness of human extinction is an interesting question.
Perlin seems to be troubled by standing by as the objects of linguistic study vanish. For me it’s hard to escape an extension of that: a sense of guilt about the role of linguistics in the colonial project, even if linguistics now can represent itself as benign. Perlin’s Endangered Languages Alliance represents one of the few kinds of fieldwork that takes these structural dynamics into account. But that sense of guilt is one of many reasons why I turned away from linguistics, and one of the reasons why such efforts to preserve existing languages come up against such hard limits: those limits are the conditions of possibility of the field itself.
As someone who shares an open office with several people and a dirty microwave, I took great pleasure in Nikil Saval’s article on contemporary office design and its discontents (“New Trends in Office Design”). I was especially amused to learn of Steve Jobs’s interest in bathrooms. Like Saval, I find it obvious that a person racing to the bathroom in a bled-through skirt may have something besides disruptive technologies on her mind.
That said, I disagree with Saval’s suggestion that collective activity in the bathroom is out of the question. For example, my smelly, populous office is located on a smelly, populous floor of a renovated warehouse. There are many more female employees on this floor than male; the bathrooms, however, are the same size, and the women’s room is a scary place. At 11 AM each day, the water stops running; by 5 PM, we’re out of toilet paper and three of the five toilets are clogged. The locks are broken on all but one stall, and two of the toilets have broken seats. A war has broken out between the bathroom users and janitorial staff, expressed mostly through signage, about whether the women of the fourth floor deserve new door locks and toilet seats, since we can’t even manage to flush.
I have gleaned two things from this traumatic situation. One is that the long-standing tradition of latrinalia can be channeled into productive organizing under the right circumstances. One woman posted a sign that read THE WOMEN OF THE FOURTH FLOOR DEMAND FUNCTIONAL TOILETS AND SUFFICIENT TOILET PAPER, and after many scribbled messages of support (YES! AND SEATS THAT DON’T SLIDE OFF THE TOILET WHEN YOU SIT DOWN) we were given these things, at least for a few weeks. We continue to struggle to make building management recognize our problem, but at least we’re struggling together.
Second, a unique design problem faces all workplaces that employ women. Women’s bathrooms need to be bigger, or something—it takes us longer to use the bathroom, we use it for different things, and we flush different kinds of things, whether we’re supposed to or not. Traffic is always an issue. I’ll leave it to Norman Foster and Sheryl Sandberg to work out the specifics, but this, I think, should be the new trend in office design: High Capacity, High Functioning Women’s Restrooms, with free tampons for all.
Your article on standing desks convinced me to buy one, since my “jelly-like” legs aren’t getting any younger. I’ve been using it for about a month, but to quote Tai from Clueless: “My buns? they don’t feel nothin’ like steel.” I’ve stacked my chair on top of three dictionaries and gone back to sitting. I’m sorry. I hope you’ll come to my funeral.