"Devices and Devirtues"

2008
Oct
30

I’m looking at the labels on the pieces of tape that make it impossible to open DVD packages. One always has actual information about the contents of the DVD, sometimes terrifying information (I recall the one that said – I kid you not – “Disney’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”). But the ones on the other two edges nowadays always say “SECURITY DEVICE ENCLOSED“. A Security DEVICE. Not just a Security Chip (which recently malfunctioned on my newest laptop, turning it into a doorstop that occasionally emits a 16-beep warning and which I must find an Authorized Warranty Service Undisclosed Location for), but a Security DEVICE.

The word device has a very dangerous connotation, due to its frequent use as a military euphemism. “Yes, it was a 14 megaton nuclear device that we accidentally dropped onto the home of that blogger in Central California. No Mister President, it wasn’t nucular, it was nuclear. No, it didn’t detonate and our surveillance cameras show he is now using it to hold up one end of his kitchen table. Well, we can always hope, sir.”

But for me, after a single college course in scriptwriting in the mid-70s which included a one-and-a-half classroom hour lecture on “Plot Devices“, I can’t quite take the word seriously. So at that moment when the hard-working patriotic language guerrillas in the U.S. Army redefined the “home-made bomb” as an “improvised explosive device”, I suddenly had visions of the people who did their improvising at Second City.

Of course, this word is also severely overused in the computer field. I thought for a while that it was falling out of favor when more and more geeks shortened “peripheral device” into simply “peripheral” (an early example of the nounification of an adjective that was quitepopular before the verbification of nouns took over). But then Microsoft (which itself is the nounification of TWO adjectives) started referring to “Plug and Play Devices” which I always thought should have been called “Plug and Work Devices“, but that would’ve given the false impression that they actually work.

A common affectation among physical laborers wishing to give the impression that they are more skilled laborers is to substitute the word Device for Tool. Norm Abrams has done this at least once in every episode of The New Yankee Workshop. And many actually licensed plumbing contractors in Ohio specifically refer to “Joe the Plumber” as a total device.

There are also Rhetorical Devices, which are featured in every Wendell.Me blog post of more than one paragraph, and the military also uses the word Device to refer to “an attachment to a medal’s ribbon denoting special service, participation in a battle, or additional awards”, which can become disturbingly ironic when issued to a soldier who has been injured by an improvised explosive device. Fortunately, the latest Defense technology has succeeded in making military medals virtually impervious to irony.

Of course, there is an easily Googlable website that provides a special perspective to all this: The Museum of Unworkable Devices, which is primarily devoted to failed Perpetual Motion machines and NOT the storylines of “Heroes”.

For anything else on this subject, I’ll have to quote a former boss of mine who’d end each staff meeting with “I’ll leave you all to your own devices. Please don’t use them.”

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