February 5, 2004

Clueless/Shiftless/Unsavvy. Which elusive word should apply to the sort of person who keeps doing things like opening unknown email attachments and calling tech support because of an unplugged monitor? The on-line headline on the article in today's NYT is: "Geeks Put the Unsavvy on Alert: Learn or Log Off." On page 1 of the paper copy, instead of "Unsavvy," you'll find "Clueless." The paper copy article continues on another page, where suddenly the word is "Shiftless." What's going on? I note the term "geek" is strangely stable, even though it is being used to include people who aren't in love with computers, but are just willing to learn the basic rules and think rationally through the simplest phases of troubleshooting before bothering someone else.

"Unsavvy" is the nicest way to put it, and oddly that is the one used on line, perhaps in the hope of encouraging people who find their way onto the web to feel that the NYT website is a safe, familiar place to hang out. "Clueless" may have been used on the front page of the paper copy because it's slightly shorter than "shiftless," and space is more at a premium on page one. In support of this theory, I note that on the inside page the article "the" also appears before "geeks," which suggests that there was just more room.

But "Shiftless" is the meanest term. You're not just not into learning computer things ("unsavvy") or airheaded ("clueless"), you're lazy, you have bad moral character.

"Shiftless" might have seemed apt because people who are inattentive to the effects of their computer efforts on other people also often don't bother to use the shift key. They'd rather you put more work into reading than that they should have to extend a pinkie while operating another finger.

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