Anthropomorphism

Subject: Anthropomorphism
From: geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA
Date: Wed, 6 Aug 1997 12:15:38 -0500

Matthew Long wondered about problems with anthropomorphism
in technical writing. Matthew, you're confusing two
definitions here, and that's what's leading you astray.

If you say something like "the software searches for a text
string", you're not anthropomorphizing... you're simply
using a verb correctly. It's no different from saying
"Newton discovered that apples fall from trees"; the apples
do fall, irrespective of whether they do so consciously.

The problem arises when you say something like "the
software is your friend, and will find the text for you".
Problem? Well, the software _isn't_ your friend (in fact,
if its MSWord, it's more usually your enemy), and you're
misleading the reader by making that implication.
Sophisticated readers won't misunderstand you, though
they'll resent the style as patronizing; neophyte users may
absorb the metaphor of "a friend" and get seriously shocked
when they find out that the metaphor is a sham. (I'm basing
this on William Horton's writings, so if you need original
references, check out the first edition of his book on
writing online docs; I don't recall seeing it in the second
version. Another specific reference involves the
psychoanalysis program called Eliza, if memory serves; many
people who interacted with this software refused to believe
that there wasn't a real human analyst typing on the other
side of the glass.)

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Disclaimer: Speaking for myself, not FERIC.

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