This Was Not Written by a Machine

THIS WAS NOT WRITTEN BY A MACHINE

Somewhere there is a human who, as part of their job, once wrote out the following sentence: “A VARIED AND BALANCED DIET AND A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE ARE IMPORTANT”. Remembering this is not the work of a machine is important, at first my brain casually imagined it might have been[1]. The truth is, a thinking, breathing, living, person is behind that unhelpful statement on the back of  a packet of Wrigley’s gum.

Best case scenario they were a freelance copywriter doing a bit of contract work and had a word limit they needed to be as close to as possible. In this world the words become “filler” material and were only reprinted on an industrial scale because of a quirky clerical requirement. It’s still an irritating waste of resources but it seems less awful than the possibility anyone invested real thought into the process.

Ironically the more consideration that has gone into these words the worse the situation is. The sentences surrounding it are pretty functional. The one highlighted in bold is presumably useful in a legal sense: “CONTAINS A SOURCE OF PHENYLALANINE, EXCESSIVE CONSUMPTION MAY PRODUCE LAXATIVE EFFECTS”. In other words, if you eat too many packets of gum, you might shit your pants.

It is immediately after this sober warning about the effect of “PHENYLANINE” upon a human bowel system that the problems begin. Maybe it was because the image this evokes is so pathetic and the solitary author was subsequently horrified. It’s difficult not to be if you think of someone who requires this advice[2], overcome by their desire for mint flavour chewing gum, eating three or four packets of the stuff and then being forced to sit on a toilet howling their guts out. Certainly anyone who is so imprisoned by their desire for minty gum deserves our initial sympathy.

This train of thought might explain the copywriter’s subsequent need to essentially provide instructions on how to use the gum: “CHEW FOR AT LEAST 20 MINUTES AFTER EATING AND DRINKING”. At this point I imagine the writer in a darkened room with a crusty lap top, sitting back and rubbing their chin, with a face that at first looks content. “Good,” they may have thought initially, “that will also help a few people out”.

What’s important is the effect such a sentence has upon the mind of a human. Words change your consciousness. Try to imagine the psychology of a someone who is required to write such a sentence. They live in a world where there are people who need such instructions. The author was a marketing person probably. I believe the writing on the packet exists so Wrigleys can try to sell chewing gum as a form of dental hygiene. However, what they are also selling, to both themselves as well as us,  on a subconscious level at least, is the idea we inhabit a world of fools.

Perhaps they fell victim to this line of thought and this is why they then went on to to think:

“F–k!, I’d better give these idiots some more of my advice, they’ll be f–ked without my help, they can’t even use chewing gum for God’s sake, what’s the world coming to?”.

That might explain why they then found themselves writing out the plain obvious:

“A VARIED AND BALANCED DIET AND A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE ARE IMPORTANT”.

Imagine them, in this scenario, what did their face look like as they composed such an inane combination of words? Do they look worried to you? Smug? Scared? If anything I’m anxious to empathise here. How they managed not to descend any further we will never know. Perhaps these sentences were the last thing they ever wrote or maybe their work was edited down and did originally include other homilies such as:

“BE NICE TO EACH OTHER”

“LOVE YOUR FAMILY”

“ALWAYS CARRY A CLEAN TISSUE IN YOUR POCKET”

“DO THE RIGHT THING IN LIFE INSTEAD OF THE WRONG THING”

“HELP ME, I’M ALONE AND FRIGHTENED IN A WORLD I DON’T UNDERSTAND”

That’s one scenario but the other more, likely one, is far worse. There’s a fear in my mind that this is the work of more than one person. In other words, this sentence is an expression of collective thought, rather than a solitary individual nearing the point of mental exhasution or two people with one in the role of copy editor.

In that nightmare possibility there will have been a meeting somewhere attended by pricks who likely get paid more than you do. Their job is to talk shit about things they do not understand. They strut about with an unearned swagger, calling themselves things like “Project Manager”, “Team Leader” or “Group Facilitator”. They care little for the worlds of either grammar or ethics. They add extra “AND” words to sentences for no good reason. They dole out useless, unwanted advice, to others in an attempt to elevate themselves above the ‘little people’ they find around them. They think you and everyone else in this world is stupid. Furthermore they pretend to believe there’s something “good” about lecturing us in common sense.

No one thinks “A VARIED AND BALANCED DIET” is a bad thing. No one thinks “A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE” is not good. Furthermore, if people do exist who think “UNHEALTHY” might be better or an “EXCESSIVE AND UNBALANCED DIET” is the way forward, they’re beyond the reach of ‘wise words’ written on packets of chewing gum. The ONLY real purpose of these words is to put you in your place. They create a relationship between you and the chewing gum where it knows best and you’d better do as it says. It can only do that if you agree that such a sentence was the correct thing to write upon the back of this packet.

In other words, if you’re one of the people who read this article and think to yourself, “meh, what’s wrong with putting that on a packet of chewing gum?” they’ve got you already and you’re currently beyond our reach. You’ve become alike to a nodding dog, hypnotised by the rhythm of the road and conditioned to think having the obvious stated to you is good in and of itself. Like saying a prayer, reading non-specific, and therefore obvious, health advice is simple good for its own sake.

Snap out of that trance! “MAY CONTAIN NUTS” on a packet of peanuts is advice for fools and it envisages a society fit only for them. It pulls us all down into the mire of idiocy. Treat people as children and sooner or later they start acting as children. Machines care not for people, they do as well tell them to. Lets programme them not to patronise but respect us.

A machine evolves by becoming more efficient, that is, more foolproof; hence the objective of mechanical progress is a foolproof world–which may or may not mean a world inhabited by fools.

George Orwell, The Road To Wigan Pier

The cultural machine which produced this sentence about chewing gum would like a world inhabited by fools. They are easier to sell product to. It’s a reality where human-fools become product and are almost indistinguishable from the objects which are sold to them, resist such nonsense.

Particularly if it is your job to write sentences like that one.

Nick Margerrison

My twitter is here

[1] An early version of this piece appeared on my personal blog and someone has suggested to me the sentence is a demonstration of “Engrish”. In other words it has been through an automated traslation service at some point.

[2] A friend of mine who is a pharmacist has informed me you have to consume a lot of phenylalanine for it to act as an effective laxative. Debate on the internet varies but overall appears to corroborate this.

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  • http://twitter.com/n7autis Matthew Clapp

    I have these same thoughts when I open my mail and see that I’m an ‘informed consumer’. I wrote something similar in 2007: http://www.nautis.com/2007/03/im-an-informed-consumer/

  • Ted Heistman

    I Think We’ll get revenge on the machines. People are mean spirited. If there ever comes a day where there are androids walking around, like C3PO or something, they won’t be able to get out the door with out a million pranks being pulled on them. They will be taught to curse like sailors, and given the most debauched view of the world from their daily interactions with people. Everyone they talk to will respond to them with sarcasm and seek to confuse them. They will never get a straight answer from anyone. They will be constantly be sent on foolish non-nonsensical errands and be set against each other for our amusement.

    There is hope.

  • alizardx

    My own reading indicates that just about every weird disclaimer or warning one sees on a consumer product is a result of a product liability damage judgment or out-of-court settlement.

    • Ted Heistman

      Yeah, probably somebody did nothing but eat gum all day and sit on the toilet and sued Wrigley for ruining their life.

      • “Big” Richard Johnson

        I lol’d

        • Ted Heistman

          Don’t laugh! I actually got diarrhea as a kid once for eating a whole pack of gum. Had I been more litigious, I could be a rich man right now. Too late. You have to get in early with these things.

    • kowalityjesus

      Maybe the premise for the statement about “a varied and balanced diet” is a strong suspicion in corporate headquarters that artificial sweeteners will one day be a proven link to cancer.
      Therefore anyone that was led to believe that they can drink diet coke and chew gum all day and still live to be 75 will have an army of lawyers suing half the food industry. At this point, Wrigley will pull out his trump card: “We told you all along that you need ‘a varied and balanced diet,’ therefore we cannot be legally responsible for your lifestyle choices.”

      • alizardx

        I think the bad news about processed food go way past artificial sweeteners.

  • “Big” Richard Johnson

    This was an amusing read.

  • Anarchy Pony

    Reminds me of that bit from The Andromeda Strain, where it describes the woman who recorded all the automated voice messages used in the facility.

  • InfvoCuernos

    No mention of the King of packaging disclaimers? Dr. Bonner’s castile soap of course. Makes great reading on the john, for after a night of binge gumchewing.

    • Matt Staggs

      There’s a great documentary on that guy and his company online. Caught it last year, but don’t recall the title.

      • InfvoCuernos

        Ya I saw that one on netflix. that old guy was crazy, but not in a bad way.

        • Jin The Ninja

          and the soap, is well… amazing.

          • kowalityjesus

            For we’re all One or none! Exception’s eternally? Absolute none!

          • InfvoCuernos

            It says you can even brush your teeth with it.

          • Jin The Ninja

            i know several old guard hippies-cum-academics who in fact do this. i’ve tried it- but i prefer the taste of myrrh or anise.

  • BuzzCoastin

    Cliché is the essence of language
    cliché facilitates communication
    delivers compact versions of complex thought
    provides linguistic comfort
    and most importantly
    entrains the mind to a way of thinking

    Have a Nice Day!
    God Bless America!
    My Cuntry Right or Whore!
    Your mileage my vary.
    Void here prohibited by law.

  • howiebledsoe

    Well, the “contains nuts” thing is important, given some people’s fatal reaction to nuts.

    • globulargob

      surely those people who know they have bad reactions to nuts won’t, generally, be in the position where they find themselves perusing a bag of peanuts to see if there are any nuts in them.

  • Roger Mexico

    No, it was probably written by someone with a Master’s degree in English literature.

  • Wewillwin

    I think looking too deeply into the ‘mind’ of the person who wrote this the disclaimer on the pack of gum and garnering their evil intentions from common sense disclaimers on consumer products might be a step too far. I agree with alizardx that the more obvious reason is for this is liability issues and protection from lawsuits. It may also be a reflection of the corporate attitude towards the labeled mindless ‘consumers’ but I don’t agree that any words put onto the back of a piece of gum are going to change anything about me or anyone else or ‘put me in my place’. Being an educated critical thinker is the best weapon against the consumer driven culture.

  • emperorreagan

    As someone who occasional puts nonsense in user’s manuals:

    When I write a installation, operations, and maintenance manual, I read maybe a half dozen similar manuals from other manufacturers that produce a similar product. There’s a lot of language that is just boiler plate across an entire range of products, e.g. all service and repair must be performed by a certified technician, that goes in every manual by every manufacturer. Everyone gets everyone else’s manuals and everyone is copying everyone else’s manuals. Some of what I’ve written is just rephrasing something someone else copied from someone else through god only knows how many iterations.

    Some of the stupid bullshit I put in a manual is based directly from questions I’ve taken providing phone support. “Press the up arrow to move the cursor up.” I absolutely get the “may contain nuts” statement on a packet of peanuts – if you’re fielding calls from fools, you’re going to try to take measures to limit the number of fools that are calling you. It doesn’t mean you think everyone is stupid.

    And sometimes when you’re bored you just throw some bullshit in there and see where it turns up again. It can’t be out-and-out crazy, but you can write any inane thing you want otherwise.

    I did the same thing as a consulting engineer – add notes to project drawings and see where they turn up again. Sometimes you find your notes appropriated by some larger body as part of standard – for instance, a university incorporating something into their broader facilities requirements. To me, it’s a game – can this little empty turn of phrase turn up again someplace?