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May 30, 2017

Things You Can't Make Up

As a professional storyteller, I have hoarded an abundance of anecdotes throughout my career: anecdotes in which I’ve either been a player or a witness. And each one of them can begin with this preamble: “you can’t make this stuff up.” Here’s one from my years as a marketer of thin client solutions. With the company long gone through acquisition, perhaps now it’s safe to tell.

Our product line included an industrial thin client that a customer used on forklifts in its retail distribution centers. It was a heavy, shockproof, dustproof, waterproof device that contained an internal heater so it could be driven inside commercial freezers. (As a gag, we made a video of the product for our customer. You can still find it here.)

Our salesperson for a customer once contacted us with an urgent demand. When the device was started up, several boot sequence lines of text scrolled up the screen. The text described various executable processes that were being invoked, most of which were cryptic. But to the workers who mounted their forklifts and switched on their devices each day, one of them began to stand out. It read:
“Establishing a master/slave relationship”
Now, “master/slave” has a very specific technical meaning to computer scientists. But to the outside world, the cultural meaning couldn’t be more different. If you’re driving a forklift for not very much money – chances are, those words will offend you.
The company deployed a fix very quickly via flash memory update, and the problem was resolved. But this cautionary tale illustrates the supreme importance of context as a communication principle. And no – you can’t make this stuff up.

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