Non-fiction

Facebook’s Contribution To Society: Flowchart Revival

Facebook has already ruined: food photography, dog ownership, the act of poking someone, faces, books, Xanga, drinking with your friends, wondering what-someone-is-up-to-these-days?, most song lyrics, the end of On the Road, ecards, regular cards, high school reunions, any employee who works at a desk or computer, your happiness, stalking (I imagine some stalk for the thrill of the difficulty), getting a job, yearbooks, the word “like,” the notion of liking anything, the word “friend” and the notion of friendship, folksie idioms among the British, George Takei, email chain letters, your health, that one guy who shot his daughter’s computer’s status as a sane person, the word “status,” this blog post, relationships (especially potential ones) with people who are physically around you, college face books, childhood and the idea of having children.

But now that it is a stream of recycled jokes and brutishly oversimplified political opinions, the life-Suckerberg has also brought something back from disuse! Todestrieb, the death drive? Ha ha, no! The flowchart! If you’re like me and feeling pretty depressed after reading that list, join me in celebrating the flowchart!

Look at how quickly you can use a flow chart to see if it’s okay to use something from deep in the Harper’s archive:

Copyright 2002 Sunstein, Kann, Murphy & Timbers LLP. With this handy flowchart, it's fairly clear that this copyright expires in 2097.

The flowchart is an elegant and wonderful diagram that can be used for problem solving or showing a process. Why it’s even funny for making those visual jokes that can then be shared via facebook! So stop worry about the fact that your identity and all your human relationships have now been commodified for someone else’s gain! The flowchart is around! (I’m seriously just trying to blog the pain away, but I feel like I’m being crushed by a great weight. The room is spinning)

The invention of the flowchart is credited to Frank Bunker Gilbreth Sr., who is probably best known as the father figure in Cheaper By The Dozen (the 1948 book by FBG Jr., the 1950 movie, but less-so the 2003 movie). Gilbreth is a fascinating individual and soon shall have his own entry ToC, so we won’t digress too much here. For now, we’ll have to note that Gilbreth originally called flowcharts “process charts,” and move on.

In 1947, standardized symbols for flowcharts were laid down by the ASME (founded as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, but you know, it’s like “KFC”). If you’re interested, you can learn what those symbols are here, but if you’re just using flowcharts for jokes, why bother? The most telling symbol in the whole lexicon might be this one:

The writing was on the wall.

This is the symbol for punch tape, in case you need to make a process chart for either a very old computer that reads holes poked in long strips of paper, or a player piano (I assume). Punch tape is pretty interesting too, but that may be because I’m sort of bored researching and writing about flowcharts already. Anyway, the ASME flowchart symbols also account for computer punch cards, but neither I, nor the internet, could be bothered to create a separate little clip art for it, because what’s the point? It conspicuously lacked a symbol for “a monkey to collect change” meaning that while an organ grinder’s organ could be charted, his business could not be. Anyway, you can probably surmise where this is headed.

A silver gelatin photogram of punch tape. This was once technology's cutting edge.

Verily, like the mythical Uranus AND Titan–who should’ve seen it coming for a number of reasons–the death of the flowchart did come from its own progeny–the computer.  The computer, using principles that are inherited from the flowchart, can do anything that any flowchart can except much faster, with more nuance and options, and without needing to stop to check its facebook, albeit with the hazard of usually containing the means to do so.

So there we go! One thing that facebook has brought back–flowcharts. Computer giveth, computer taketh away.

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