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Plug and Play

By Annalee Newitz

LATELY I'VE NOTICED that the concept of "plug-and-play" has extended into the realm of human interaction. People talk about wanting to hire a "plug-and-play engineer" who can churn out uncreative but stable bits of Java, C++ or whatever. Or, describing somebody who is a capable conversationalist, a person might say, "She's very plug-and-play. You can put her into any group of people and she'll come up with something interesting to say." And one might recommend to a friend, "Definitely take him out on a date. He's plug-and-play, if you know what I mean." Oh yeah, baby.

Plug-and-play as a phrase has a pretty rich history in the world of commerce: it's been trademarked in various forms by no less than 41 companies, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark website (www.uspto.gov). Although some of those trademarks are owned by weird outfits like a feed and grain company in Regina, Saskatchewan, most of them are predictably technological in nature. There are trademarks for phrases like "plug and play networks," "plug and play Linux" and "plug and play databases."

I'm always suspicious of what it means when we start using a phrase once applied to consumer electronics to talk about people and their relationships. At one time--back in the early 1990s I think--I hankered for a plug-and-play monitor which would require no extra software to make it work with my Mac Quadra. Later, plug-and-play devices were so common that the phrase began to seem meaningless. Why would you install software to run your mouse? Or your keyboard? That's ridiculously difficult, and requires sophisticated knowledge about how to insert a disk into a drive. Fuck that.

I guess what we want out of people these days is the same thing we want from our computer accessories: no installation required; no introductions or context necessary to interact with them. Why the hell would I want to get to know someone over a period of days, weeks or years? After all, I could just go to a special-interest chat room on AOL and find somebody whose hobbies are so compatible with mine that we can just plug and play--within seconds, we could jump into a conversation about rare 1970s horror movies instead of wasting time talking about where we grew up and what we do for a living and what we think about the war on terrorism.

Maybe the situation isn't as dire as all that. When it comes down to it, who am I to judge what shape intimacy should choose? Perhaps the chat room companion, culled from hundreds of electronic applicants for the position of friend or lover, truly will provide me with the sociability I require. Getting to know someone is a tedious business, and often ends in failure. And certainly, regarding those occasional requests I see on job websites for a "plug-and-play engineer" or "plug-and-play copywriter," I can sympathize with the urge to avoid the annoyance of hiring somebody and then having to train them. You want your colleagues to be like your keyboard--stick them in a cubicle with a computer, and they're off and running.

And yet there's something creepy going on here.

Now that plug-and-play has become one of the default modes for social relationships, I wonder about the future of mystery. What about the random meeting, the chance encounter, the person whose appealing predilections are only revealed gradually as you come to know them better? And what about the idea of growing together, coming to love somebody more the longer you stick with each other? Certainly I don't want friends who are stubborn and silent, impossible to truly know, but I don't want them to be plug-and-play either.

Perhaps more importantly, I don't want to define my relationships using a trademarked phrase that most recently was used to characterize my new optical mouse. The idea that people could be plug-and-play suggests that they are as interchangeable as the mass-produced products of high-tech industry. And yet we are so steeped in the culture of machines that I think many of us believe that everything, even people, should be quick and easy to use.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who is at the tipping point.

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From the January 24-30, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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