Source: Wikipedia

I needed to write an actual document for work, something I don’t get to do much anymore, just because it doesn’t seem like that much needs to be written down anymore, unless you count chat messages, texts, and the occasional email, but most stuff people need to know is either already documented in some way or absorbed through osmosis, and the amount that’s gleaned through intuition sometimes makes me wonder how much people could save on tuition, but that’s another story.

Anyway I was staring at a blank word processing screen and it hit me. I miss Clippy. And I say that unironically because I know almost everyone who’s old enough to remember Clippy, the “office assistant” in the form of an animated paperclip who popped up in the corner of documents, was an incredibly divisive figure. In every office there were two types of people: those who hated Clippy and those who really, really, really hated Clippy.

And I know that waxing nostalgic for a bit of late ‘90’s/early Aughts bit of office technology seems a little odd, and I know that for most people Clippy is not only gone but mercifully forgotten, and it’s a reminder of the continuing advance of time that there are office workers today who never encountered Clippy, and whose ignorance would be envied by their elder peers if anyone cared enough to even think about it.

What those elder peers may not realize, though, is that Clippy was, for many of us, our first real encounter with artificial intelligence—although Clippy, while very definitely artificial, wasn’t that intelligence. No matter what you started typing Clippy would pop up with, “It looks like you’re writing a letter. Would you like help?”

How did Clippy know what I was writing? Well, most of the time they didn’t. I’m assuming Clippy is gender neutral, by the way, since both computer programs and paperclips are, although the latter have demonstrated the ability to reproduce. Seriously—I expect to eventually go back to my office and find my desk covered with paperclips. Anyway I never asked Clippy for help. I never needed help and I couldn’t imagine what help Clippy could provide anyway. Most of the writing I did was creative and I didn’t, and still don’t, trust any artificial intelligence to help with that.

There was something comforting about having Clippy hang out in the corner of whatever document I had open, though, occasionally waggling their eyebrows at me or switching to a star shape before going back to being a standard rounded paperclip. It was almost as though I had an actual assistant, a little helper with me while I wrote.

I feel like I encounter a lot of artificial intelligence now. That’s not a joke. I just mean that when I contact customer service about pretty much anything it seems like their first line of defense, and sometimes even their second or third, is an automated system. I’ve had online chats with what I’m pretty sure were very sophisticated bots responding to keywords in what I’ve said, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve even had some phone conversations with computer programs. I think people were at least partly unnerved by Clippy because the artificial assistant was a harbinger of things to come. There’d be a time, we all knew, when Clippy wouldn’t just offer to help write letters but would eventually write them for us.

So why did I like Clippy? I guess because I knew there were people behind Clippy. And I’d worked in an office long enough to know there were a lot of people behind Clippy. And I didn’t know it at the time but I spend a lot of my day answering questions, and I get so many of the same questions I have a file of stock answers. I’m still a person, I think—at least I can refute Berkeley, and drop an obscure reference—and I read each question, but I still copy and paste a lot, and it’s all part of offering some help.

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    This blog post is rock solid and so appealing, Chris, and you rocked it! One of my favorites (and I’m not being artificial).

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Somehow I thought you’d also be a fan of Clippy.


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