Neon sign at top of building reading "All we have is words//All we have is worlds"
PHOTO: Alexandra

Did you hear the joke about the Danish medical system for the amputation of legs? It gives you two choices. To amputate the “left” leg or to amputate the “correct” leg.

Actually, it’s not a joke. It’s an actual IT system installed by Epic Systems (what a name!).

The Epic health system is most definitely made in the US, with the developers never, ever imagining that there might just be other cultures, work practices and languages in the world. They felt no need to allow for the localization of the medical terms. The Danish developers were forced to use Google translate. “There were howlers,” Arthur Allen writes for Politico. “'C-section,' in the Danish version, referred to an executive suite, not an emergency birth procedure. The American specialty 'speech and language pathologist' does not exist in Denmark. The Danish system for a short time offered surgeons the choice of amputating the left leg or the ‘correct’ leg.”

This is so laughably predictable and consistent. Language? Who cares about language? What do words matter anyway? Just throw a few in. Any words will do.

I once asked a localization manager why the English navigation of his organization’s software was so crap. “We need crap English,” was his reply, “because it’s easier to translate into crap German.” And if we can get rid of the words even better. Icons save space and money on translation. We all know that hardly anyone knows what most icons mean. But we’re not in the business of understanding here, you know. Icons are cheap, cheerful and cool. Who cares if we reduce usage of the software by 40%? Look at all the money we saved on translation!

And if they can’t figure out how to use it, we’ll send them to the “Knowledge Base.” Now, that’s a genius term if ever there was one. What’s the rest of the site called? Idiot Hub? And there they can browse through ‘documentation’ until their eyes pop out of their heads. And if they’re truly desperate, they can go to the toxic dumping ground we call "Frequently Asked Questions." What a gloriously stupid name to call anything! If someone has a question, how do they know it’s a frequently asked question or not? And the maestro who came up with “Quick Links”? What are the other links? Slow Links? Remember “Useful Links”? Useless Links, anyone? 

Words matter. When will we ever learn?

There were a couple of other common aspects of the Epic Danish catastrophe. In Western Denmark, they had designed a similar system that while not perfect, actually worked pretty well. The Eastern Danes decided to buy the Epic system because, hey, we’re far smarter than those Western Danes. Tribalism is everywhere. It may hide under good dress and manners and well-educated accents, but you only need to scratch a little for that tribal stupidity to come crawling out.

The other thing is they didn’t bother testing with real doctors and nurses. These are serious dudes, you know. They needed to launch on time. The resulting launch was described as “indiscernible, total chaos,” so just another typical launch of an enterprise IT system, I suppose. Doctors and nurses were seen weeping openly for days. Wimps!

You can directly chart the rise of computer technology with the decline in global productivity, the decline of the middle class, and the decline in job satisfaction. It was supposed to be the other way around, wasn’t it?