10 May 2007

Lashing the Wind

Submitted by Karl Hagen
From Wired Blogs comes news that HBO's Chief Technology Officer, Bob Zitter, wants us to stop using the term "DRM" (digital rights management) and start using "DCE" (digital consumer enablement) to refer to the system by which media blood-suckers intellectual property owners make sure that we can only view their material on exactly the terms that they dictate.

If Mr. Zitter is serious he needs a crash course in semantics, and perhaps the history of English.

First, using the term "enablement" for a process that makes it more difficult for users to get their entertainment how and where they want it is so antithetical to the term's natural meaning that I'm sure it will immediately be mocked. Enable consumers to do what? "We're enabling you to buy all new hardware because you can't view our DVDs on your old machines or computers"? On the surface, it's such a stupid label that it almost has the feel of those fake pc euphemisms like "vertically challenged" for "short." (Yes, those were invented as jokes.) I predict that it will be widely mocked.

Now, it's possible that content providers and device makers could manage to foist "DCE" or something similar on us simply by adopting the term themselves and putting it in all their literature, no matter how risible the term. But I predict that such rebranding will make no difference at all in consumer attitudes, and that consumers will hate DCE just as much as DRM.

Euphemisms, you see, have a nasty habit of picking up the connotations of the terms they were designed to replace.

Consider, for example, toilet, which came into English meaning a cloth bag for clothes, and developed gradually to mean a certain plumbing fixture. (See here for the etymology.) In other words, once upon a time, toilet was a polite euphemism. Over time, it became a literal term, and in America was considered vulgar enough that a new euphemism, bathroom, had to be introduced. The same thing has happened with words for people with disabilities. Handicapped began as a polite euphemism borrowed from horse racing.

And let's not forget that "DRM" itself is a replacement term for what used to be called "Copy Protection." The rebranding did nothing to keep it from becoming despised.

You can introduce a new euphemism if you want, but if it catches on, it becomes lexicalized. That is, it becomes a single entry in our mental lexicon, and people rarely if ever think about the term's etymology. That's why it's perfectly possible to have bathrooms without baths, or even to say "My dog went to the bathroom on the rug."

Terms that are in widespread use, then, can acquire connotations that have little to do with their etymology. People assign connotations to objects or actions based on how they feel about them, not based on what the etymology tells them they ought to feel.

Of course when the term is unfamiliar, we do think about it as composed from its component parts. And that may be just why Mr. Zitter suggested it. That is, he may not intend this as serious proposal for a new term. This may just be an attempt to get some free press propounding his point of view. (What we're doing is really good for the consumer.)

The same idea surely was also behind McDonald's "request" to the OED to change its definition of "McJob." I put request in scare quotes because only a fool would think that you can get a dictionary to change the meaning of a word by making a request. And the folks who do McDonald's PR are surely not fools. The whole exercise cannot have been intended to persuade dictionary editors. It was merely intended to get a bunch of press articles, which would inevitably quote the company's position that jobs at their fine corporation were really very stimulating. (And you will note, that McDonald's has an ad campaign running to the same effect.)