It's not a bug...
January 28, 2004 6:25 PM   Subscribe

What, if any, is the traditional saying or cultural attitude which lies behind the computer-age excuse It's not a bug - it's a feature? [More inside.]

I've written an essay which has been sent back by the editor for amplification. It's about the standard excuse in restaurants, shops garages and human relationships when you complain. In Portugal, people will say "Isso não é defeito - é feitio", meaning "That's not a defect - that's part of its personality". This boils down to "É mesmo assim: "That's just the way it is", with the implied suggestion "So deal with it and stop wasting my time."

Anyway, my editor reasonably argued that this It's not a bug... thing has got to have very ancient precedents in Anglo-American culture. I've consulted the usual specialized dictionaries and have come up with nothing, as I don't really know how to search.

An example: you complain that the french fries are limp and greasy and could they refry them. The manager takes one look at them and says "Oh, that's not the french fries - that's ??????????????"

What would he say? In Southern Europe, the excuse would go, literally: "That's from the particular quality of the potatoes", meaning nothing more can be expected from that particular type; it's in their nature, so to speak - that's just the way they work out when turned into french fries.

I'm really looking for real cultural attitudes, rather than just a saying or two. What would hurried, hard-working British and American mothers and fathers say if their brats complained the turnips were bitter; the peach cobbler was crumbly or the fish was too fishy? Not along the lines of "Hey, lump it and like it!" or "Just eat!" or "You'll soon get used to it", but in the vein suggested above, involving a tattered pseudo-philosophical explanation which returns the complaint by implying the problem isn't with the turnip or cobbler - it's with you and your ignorance of the way things are in the world.

It's ultimately an insult, of course, implying you are unwordly and wouldn't have asked if you got out more, so to speak.

Sorry if this is a difficult question. I'll certainly understand if there are no answers.
posted by MiguelCardoso to Writing & Language (22 answers total)
It's not delivery, it's Digiorno! (Sorry, I have no idea on this one)
posted by banished at 6:29 PM on January 28, 2004

I dunno Miguel, it could have something to do with the western mentality to roll with the punches and keep on tryin' for that Horatio Alger dream (pukes on floor at the wretched idealism of it all.) You could easily take it back to Abraham Lincoln, who suffered horrible political defeats then used the traits that people made fun of him for to become well known and kick the crap out of his opponent for the presidency.

When I teach ballroom dancing, I always remind the students that missing the beat or taking a different step is improvisation, not a mistake. (Similar idea.) But the whole thing is just an optimistic approach - don't you have optimists in Portugal?
posted by Happydaz at 6:56 PM on January 28, 2004

That isn't my understanding of what "it's not a bug, it's a feature" means. My understanding is that it means "oh crap, that is a bug but I think I'll be a wiseass about it anyhow because I'm tired and I've been working on it for weeks and you're just the client who wanted it all orange to begin with..." So as I understand it, there's a legit problem being pointed out, but you're trying to pass it off as something better, but not really hoping to fool anyone. Like, it's a way to make a joke, not a way to belittle other people. You don't expect THEM to think it's a feature. You both know it's a bug. That or I'm living on Mars and other people have a better grip on this than I do.
posted by jessamyn at 7:17 PM on January 28, 2004

"Oh, that's not the french fries - that's ??????????????"

I think the gist would be, "Of course they are limp and greasy; they're supposed to be that way!" which is a wrong and lazy answer by someone who basically doesn't give a crap.

On preview, exactly what jessamyn said.
posted by gatorae at 7:31 PM on January 28, 2004

that's my understanding as well, jessamyn and I do software QA.
posted by juv3nal at 7:32 PM on January 28, 2004

btw "they're supposed to be that way" is a poor "it's a feature" rationale. Better might be something along the lines of: "We've repurposed our pommes frites XT product line to appeal to the oft-neglected, but significant demographic of people with sensitive teeth and grease deficiency in their diets." (The more arcane and implausible the better.)
posted by juv3nal at 7:36 PM on January 28, 2004

I've always taken it to refer to the unbridgeable gap between programmers and end-users: "There's nothing wrong with the software – you just don't understand how to use it."
posted by timeistight at 8:42 PM on January 28, 2004

You don't expect THEM to think it's a feature.

Unless you document it. Bug + documentation = feature. "See, it's supposed to do that -- it's in the manual!" This works well in strict development methodologies in which bugs are literally defined as undocumented behavior.
posted by kindall at 8:49 PM on January 28, 2004

Ok, here's a specific attitude from the "American Help Desk Monkey" culture:

The rationale behind the phrase is that 90% of user complaints to the help desk at their place of work can be categorized as user error, ie: there's nothing wrong with the computer, IT'S YOU, IDIOT!

Heh, not to get down on people, I honestly do believe that software is frequently over-designed and almost always dressed in a terrible UI. But it's also true that people report problems with software when it is working as it's supposed to, hence the retort.


user complaint
"Several times a day my computer screen just goes crazy and things start swimming all over in all directions. I think that new mouse you gave me isn't compatible with Windows XP."

the user was given a new Microsoft mouse with the "autoscroll' feature, which is mapped, by default, to the mouse's thumb button. The user's previous mouse did not even have a thumb button, and they are now pressing it from time to time without realizing it. Subsequent movements of the mouse are interpreted as scrolling instructions, although the user doesn't understand the connection and perceives it as random.

In reality, the user is simply not prepared to make use of advanced features on the computer. Their skillset encompasses only the rudimentary operations. Any ambitious designer will become frustrated with the inability to bring sophisticated powers to their customers, and in particular the users' frustration with "buggy" behavior. In classic customer-hating fashion, software designers add these features anyway.

The result affirms, at once, the supposed intellectual superiority of the designer, yet at the same time, takes up his/her time with the annoying complaints. Hence the rather ascerbic tone you usually hear in this phrase.
posted by scarabic at 10:20 PM on January 28, 2004

Miguel, I took your question to mean what is the origin or history of phrases of the form 'Thats not X, it's Y!' where there is an implied sense of mistaken authenticity, as if the speaker is playfully scolding.

My guess is that this construction is probably as old as English itself since it doesnt seem particularly precise or inventive.

However, you left me wondering if the general usage of this phrase had a more recent provenance. Perhaps a specific instance when it was injected into the language.

I got the idea from banished above that maybe this rhythm was first used in the advertising industry. Maybe it was part of a succesful advertising campaign? I think that even if the original words in a campaign fade away, its possible that old slogans inject (or perhaps exploit) their rhythms into the language, leaving behind a ghost of an old saying.

In any case, I paged briefly through my copy of frank's conquest of cool and came up with nothing. Well, except for the campaigns where the deception was actually the undermining of authenticity - stuff like 'I can't believe it's not butter!' or 'Take the Pepsi challenge!' or 'Is it live or is it Memorex?' In any case, I got nothing but thought I'd contribute my ramblings.
posted by vacapinta at 10:23 PM on January 28, 2004

I think, Miguel, that what you are talking about mostly happens in cases where one party has certain specialized knowledge that leaves the second party in the vulnerable position of doubting their own evaluation, but not typically in a setting where the two are on an equal footing. In a normal fast food restaurant, the manager could not defend the limp fries, but at the pricey Maison de Casa House, the maitre de might patiently explain "Ah, but those are the Lyonnaise fries, sir - a specialty of the house!"

(sorry about the accents Miguel, but according to the latest XYZHTML Dynamic ASS Web Standards, this is the new preferred character set. Or maybe I'm just lazy.)
posted by taz at 12:06 AM on January 29, 2004

Historical note: not a bug, but the proverbial "feature" appears on Usenet in 1981, and was popularized by the first jargon file -- where it is certainly a classic example of ha ha only serious. From there it has crept into popular culture; I was trying to remember a major software event of the 1980s, perhaps involving OS/2, that inadvertently spread it further, but I couldn't place it precisely.

For clarification, the original hacker meaning was something like an unexpectedly useful mistake, but this has devolved into the more consumerist the customer may be fooled with sufficient marketing blather. Today it certainly is rarely said without irony, without a certain wink at the way that certain monopolies respond to complaints. I think anyone who said it straightfacedly, today, would get tagged as disingenuous.

So I'm not sure I'd lay it to longstanding Anglo-American attitudes, at least as stated. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade might be the closest cliché analogue. Henry Ford's any color you want as long as it's black is certainly a related antecedent, though, as is the entirety of planned obsolescence. The closest overall philosophical family must be a kind of utilitarianism, an end-justifies-means thing. But again, this refers to the corrupted meaning, rather than the engineer's.

The parents, then, with whiny yard-apes at the table, would probably say something like It builds character, son, perhaps trotting out the When I was a boy, I had to hike seven miles to school! In a snowstorm! In my bare feet! I think that sort of complaint, in the prototype American culture at least, is viewed as a failing of the complainer to be prepared to endure what life throws at you. Americans, you know, don't really believe in fate! To be honest, the Portuguese expression would be regarded as dangerously Mediterranean, implying a kind of accepting laziness. I should probably mention American attitudes toward Latin Americans generally, especially Mexicans. I find it very interesting, then, that a Portuguese editor thinks this is an intrinsic Anglo-American attitude. Is he misunderstanding the usage?
posted by dhartung at 12:52 AM on January 29, 2004

C'est la vie.
posted by Goofyy at 2:27 AM on January 29, 2004

How many microsoft engineers does it take to change a lightbulb?

None - they just declare darkness to be industry standard.

posted by Pericles at 3:34 AM on January 29, 2004

Actually, dhartung, to me it seems there is this strange dichotomy (well, maybe not dichotomy, exactly?) of the American "be prepared to endure what life throws at you" attitude nested very snugly in the "I deserve and expect the best possible ____________" (fill in the blank). It doesn't really seem like these two approaches should be quite so neighborly, but so they are. It's sort of "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen" fused with "but as long as I'm in the kitchen, it better have the best damn appliances to come down the pike, or I'm outta here.
posted by taz at 4:54 AM on January 29, 2004

I don't know that it is a dichotomy Taz (or even a contradiction). Because, "If you don't like the heat get out of the kitchen" is always said to another person ("you"); the opposing saying is always said about oneself ("I deserve and expect ..").

For example, "many hands make light work" is always said by people soliciting assistance; "too many cooks spoil the broth" is the attitiude of bosses unwilling to hire assistance for tasks, in my experience.
posted by Pericles at 5:35 AM on January 29, 2004

Wow. Thank you kindly for the enlightenment and help!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:50 AM on January 29, 2004

[I see I'm late to the Ask A MeFite party! What a great idea, Matt! Thank you!]

There's one more thing you should probably know about "It's not a bug, it's a feature...." It's the modern equivalent of "Good enough for government work," a phrase that probably pre-dated my fifties' childhood. Means the developer is on a government contract and will be paid even if the product sucks long as he can deliver 50 million whatevers next week.

All too often, "good enough for government work" kills people. In World War I, had the escape hatches of some of the bombers been 2 inches wider, more of the fliers would have survived being shot down. In the Viet Nam war, somebody came up with a nifty way to attach your handgrenades to your backpack---which unfortunately made it possible for a branch to pull the pin out of the one you were wearing.

(For a brief period in the late sixties', I knew several folksingers who, whenever they struck a sour chord or had to finish a set with a broken string, would wink at the audience and say, "Close enough for folk-music!" in deliberate parody.)

In this oldie household, Diebold voting machines are "good enough for government work." This is not a compliment. Neither is "It's not a bug, it's a feature."
posted by realjanetkagan at 2:15 PM on January 29, 2004

You people do read MetaFilter, right?
posted by NortonDC at 7:21 PM on January 29, 2004

Hey, thanks a million, Norton DC!

I missed that not-altogether-unrelated thread!

Thanks also, Janet! That's very similar to the spirit I was trying to write about. In Portugal, it's said "Para quem ?, bacalhau basta.". Meaning: "Considering who it's for, salted cod is good enough", i.e. "Anything better would be wasted on him/her." Of course the saying dates from the time when salted cod was cheap. Today it's very expensive and so the saying means the opposite of what it once meant.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:17 PM on January 29, 2004

Of course, rendered without the correct accent marks, the Portugese phrase comes to mean "Considering I just shit in your garden, I will eat salted cod." ;)
posted by scarabic at 8:28 PM on January 29, 2004

*explodes laughing*
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:51 PM on January 30, 2004

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