Lorem Ipsum Dolor Sit Amet

I was browsing this store for worker clothes in Germany a few weeks back when I noticed something funny in the bottom corner. I’ve highlighted the snafu in the screenshot below with a big red arrow.

lorem ipsum screen shoot

The arrow points to paragraph that is definitely not in German. In fact, it’s Latin. Well, almost Latin.

The paragraph is a famous piece of Latin nonsense text that starts with, and is usually referred to as, lorem ipsum. Lorem ipsum has apparently been in existence (in one form or another), and in use by the printing and publishing industry, for centuries. Although it’s originally derived by a text from Cicero, the Latin is meaningless.

The story behind lorem ipsum is rooted in the fact that when presented with text, people tend to read it. For this reason, and because sometimes text for a document doesn’t exist until late in the process, many text and layout designers do what’s called Greeking. In Greeking, a designer inserts fake or “dummy” text that looks like real text but, because it doesn’t make any sense, lets viewers focus on the layout without the distraction of “real” words. Lorem ipsum was the printing industry’s standard dummy text. It continues to be popular in the world of desktop and web publishing.

In fact, lorem ipsum is increasingly popular. The rise of computers and computer-based web and print publishing has made it much easier and more common for text layout and design to be prototyped and much more likely that a document’s designer is not the same person or firm that publishes the final version. While both design and publishing would have been done in print houses half a century ago, today’s norm is for web, graphic, print and layout designers to give their clients pages or layouts with dummy text — often the lorem ipsum text itself. Clients — the “real” text’s producers, that is — are expected to replace the dummy text with the real text before printing or uploading their document to the web.

We can imagine what happened in this example. The clothing shop hired a web design firm who turned over the “greeked” layout to the store owners and managers. The store managers replaced the greeked text with information about their products and services. Not being experts — or just because they were careless — they missed a few spots and some of the Greeked text ended up published to the world by mistake.

A quick look around the web shows that this shop is in good company. Although lorem ipsum is often preferred because the spacing makes the text “look like” English from a distance, many other dummy texts are both used and abused. Here’s an example from an auto advertisement.

car advertisement with dummy text

Due to rapidly and radically changed roles introduced by desktop publishing — changes in structure and division of labor that are usually invisible — you can see accidentally published lorem ipsum text all over the web and in all sorts of places in the printed world as well. We don’t often reflect on the changes in the human and technological systems behind web and desktop publishing. Errors like these give an opportunity to do so.

Picture of a Process

I enjoyed seeing this image in an article in The Register.

finger shown in Google book

The picture is a screen shot from Google Books viewing a page from a 1855 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine. The latex-clad fingers belong to one of the people whose job it is to scan the books for Google’s book project.

Information technologies often hide the processes that bring us the information we interact with. Revealing errors give a picture of what these processes look like or involve. In an extremely literal way, this error shows us just such a picture.

We can learn quite a lot from this image. For example, since the fingers are not pressed against glass, we might conclude that Google is not using a traditional flatbed scanner. Instead, it is likely that they are using a system similar to the one that the the Internet Archive has built that is designed specifically for scanning books.

But perhaps the most important thing that this error reveals is something we know, but often take for granted — the human involved in the process.

The decision on where to automate a process, and where leave it up to a human, is sometimes a very complicated one. Human involvement in a process can prevent and catch many types of errors but can cause new ones. Both choices introduce risks and benefits. For example, an automated bank transaction system may allow human to catch obvious errors and to detect suspicious use that a computer without “common sense” might miss. On the other hand, a human banker might commit fraud to try to enrich themselves with others money — something a machine would never do.

In our interaction with technological systems, we rarely reflect on the fact, and the ways, that the presence of humans in these areas is important to determining the behavior, quality, reliability, and the nature and degree of trust that we have in a technology.

In our interactions with complex processes through simple and abstract user interfaces, it is often only through errors — distinctly human errors, if not usually quite as clearly human as this one — that information workers’ important presence is revealed.