'Q' is for Cuba, and other tales from tech support

A week of computer woes prompts the Monitor's language columnist to note how language and technology substitute for one another.

Over the past week I've had computers on my mind more than I really would have liked. Suffice it to say that I needed to remove an obsolete program that had evidently left broken bits of code scattered throughout my hard drive and clinging to it like cockleburs.

After a week of e-mail correspondence failed to solve the problem, I was told to stand by for a phone call from Bangalore.

Once we'd established voice contact, and I'd consented to "remote assistance" (in effect letting the support engineer "drive" my computer), the problem was cleared up within 45 minutes.

But there were enough little pauses in the whole operation to let me reflect on English as a world language, and on the way language and technology substitute for one another.

At one point in the process, the support engineer gave me a complex string of characters to enter, including, as she described it, " 'q' as in Cuba."

"Hey, wait a minute!" I couldn't resist. Maybe I was feeling more competency-challenged than I realized. I don't know much about software, but I can spell. "Cuba is not spelled with a 'q'!"

I didn't need a videophone to picture the roll of the eyes that accompanied the exasperated response from the other end. "It's just a letter!"

The irony was that she was using – sort of – a technique developed to help people communicate in environments with poor sound quality, e.g., over crackly radios during wartime. In the international radio­telephony spelling alphabet ("Alpha, Bravo, Charlie"), "q" is represented by "Quebec." Under another system, the 17th letter of the alphabet is "queen." Nowhere that I can find is it "Cuba."

But the irony was that both the engineer's English and the phone connection were clear enough that such spellings were unnecessary.

Tech support from India is possible because so many people there speak English, and good telephone and Internet services have become so cheap.

You might say, though, that the original information superhighway was language itself. As early humans moved beyond pointing and pantomime into sounds that have abstract meaning, and then to marks corresponding to meaningful sounds, they developed a channel that later broadened and deepened to accommodate such ideas as Hammurabi's Code, Einstein's special theory of relativity, and remote tech support.

Language helped make technology possible; technology helped create more channels for language (phone calls, text messages, automatic translations of Web pages). But then some forms of technology obviate the need for language.

I was prepared for the Bangalore call to consume most of my morning. Not too many years ago, such a call would have been a lot of "Go there, click here, and tell me what you see on your screen." But the technology of remote assistance made that unnecessary. No need for a support engineer to talk when she can point and click herself.

It was weirdly gratifying to see the engineer travel down the same path I had taken and then hit the same dead end. (See? I told you! I'd tried that and it hadn't worked!) And then it was satisfying to see her click into places I hadn't seen were there (think secret panels in the walls of the enchanted palace) and delete files I had assumed must be there, somewhere.

When it was all over I celebrated with a dinner of leftovers from one of my favorite Indian restaurants.

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