Siri, Take This Down: Will Voice Control Shape Our Writing?

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Do our writing means change our written ends?

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In the future, you will talk to your computer. Voice, the predominant mode of human-to-human communication, has been migrating to silicon for more than a decade and is now poised to hit the mainstream.

Already, voice interfaces have become commonplace in the telephone customer-service industry, have long been of assistance to the blind, and are increasingly used by doctors for transcribing patient information. Even your less-tech-savvy relatives may have seen, for example, the recent profile of Nuance Communications in the New York Times. Nuance is the big fish in the small pond of dictation programming development, and the force behind Dragon, the highly-regarded though still expensive dictation-software package, as well as Siri, the iPhone 4S personal-assistant application, and the Ford "Sync" system's voice-command interface.  Google's concept video for "Project Glass" includes voice-to-text translation. 

So it seems as though our voices may some day displace our keyboards and mice as the primary means through which we manipulate our computing devices. But while to command by voice is one thing, to write by voice is another, and the question remains whether -- or how -- this shift in technology will shape the words we "pen."

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The relationship between writing technology and writing itself is by no means clear, but we can look to history for insights into past shifts in popular writing tech. For example, in a series of lectures in the 1940s philosopher Martin Heidegger fretted over the growing influence of the typewriter:

In the time of the first dominance of the typewriter, a letter written on this machine still stood for a breach of good manners. Today a hand-written letter is an antiquated and undesired thing; it disturbs speed reading. Mechanical writing deprives the hand of its rank in the realm of the written word and degrades the word to a means of communication. In addition, mechanical writing provides this "advantage" that it conceals the handwriting and thereby the character. The typewriter makes everyone look the same.

Writing technologies do not by themselves appear to compel us to write or think in one way or another... at the same time, these technologies do have some influence on our writing and thinking.

If the shift from handwriting to typewriters raised such concerns, what of the shift to computers? Though the keyboard was more or less the same, would the distinctions of computerized word processing shape writing in subtle ways? Susan Sontag thought no, that computers were much the same as typewriters. She explained, "Someone was marveling that I moved with so much pleasure to the word processor. And I said, 'The leap is from writing by hand to the typewriter. From writing with a typewriter to using a computer is no leap at all.' " But for Joan Didion, the particularities of the computer did seem in some ways distinct from her typerwriter, and more efficient to boot. She said:

I use an IBM Thinkpad. I just use it like a typewriter, but when I started using it in 1987, I thought I won't be able to write anymore, so I thought I'd go back to the typewriter. But you couldn't go back to the typewriter after using the computer, so finally after about a month I got proficient enough that I could actually work on it without being distracted by it, and in fact then it started making me a whole lot more logical than I ever had been. Because the computer was so logical, it was always right, I was wrong ... and the time saved.

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Other writers have observed that efficiency and opted against it. For example, biographer David McCullough prefers a vintage typewriter, reasoning that, "I don't want to go faster. If anything, I probably ought to go more slowly... When rewriting, I'm not just typing it all over again, I'm thinking through it again, rethinking, rewording where need be, saying it a little differently on second thought." That is, a disadvantage that comes with the time saved by computerized writing is that it discourages the moments of contemplation afforded by less efficient writing technologies. 

Two important points emerge from these snippets from the history of reflection on writing technologies. First, writing technologies do not by themselves appear to compel us to write or think in one way or another. It seems at least possible to express the same general thoughts with a pen, typewriter, or word processor. 

Second, and at the same time, these technologies do have some influence on our writing and thinking. Writing technologies appear to incline certain styles, disincline others, lean authors toward more or less reflectivity, and supply both conveniences and inconveniences. As Nietzsche said"Our writing instruments contribute to our thoughts."

So discussions of how our method of writing affects our writing are nothing new. As we begin to think about how a future of dictated writing will look, we should keep in mind that dictation is nothing new either, and we can look to the past for evidence about what dictated writing will be like. For example, Milton was blind by the time he wrote Paradise Lost and is said to have composed the entire epic through dictation. A discussion has emerged over the later writing of Henry James, incited by the expansive biographical work of Leon Edel, about whether changes in James' style are attributable to a move to dictation. And Amy Rowland has recently argued -- based on her own experience taking dictation for journalists and also on accounts of historical figures such as Dostoevsky's "collaborator" (and, later, wife) Anna Grigorievna -- that there are substantial differences between a responsive human transcriptionist and automated dictation software. Rowland claims, "past authors have dictated to humans and their corporeal responses have contributed to aesthetic production, if in untraceable ways."

The recently released first volume of the "complete and authoritative" Autobiography of Mark Twain provides a rich example. Twain eschewed the conventional autobiographical format of simply recounting major events in more or less the order in which they occurred in life, and he instead jumped from story to story, entertaining each only so long as it held his attention. He argued that this would lead to a fresher and more truthful portrait. And he found that traditional writing with pen and paper did not lend itself to his preferred autobiographical form, explaining that, "With a pen in the hand the narrative stream is a canal; it moves slowly, smoothly, decorously, sleepily, it has no blemish except that it is all blemish. It is too literary, too prim, too nice; the gate and style and movement are not suited to narrative." It's striking just how opposite Twain is to Heidegger here. For Twain, the truthfulness and authenticity of an autobiographical account would actually be hindered by the formality and lingering pace of handwriting. He took to speaking his stories to transcriptionists, claiming, "One would expect dictated stuff to read like an impromptu speech -- brokenly, catchily, repetitiously, & marred by absence of coherence, fluent movement, & the happy things that didn't come till the speech was done -- but it isn't so." However, some critics have pointed to this unfocused, meandering, and perhaps self-indulgent style as exactly the central drawback of the work.

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One circumstance that may arise in a future in which computerized dictation has become the default means of writing is a general decline in our ability to compose formal long-form written works. Since in this imagined future all everyday writing -- personal and occupational -- is performed through computerized voice-to-text translation, people may achieve a level of writing proficiency that reflects only their extemporaneous speech. That is, we may come to write only as well as we talk. (This will of course not be the case for everyone. Professional writers, such as journalists or public relations specialists, will continue to write as formally and carefully as the task demands, and would abandon dictation if it proves to be poorly suited for the job, or, more likely, would take up a kind of typing/dictation hybrid.)

An analogous issue today is the concern sometimes raised about the effects of the Internet on reading skills. Critics contend that Internet reading is characterized largely by skimming and divided attention. And they argue that since we nowadays do so much of our reading online, we are being retrained as poor and distracted readers. In a similar way, by writing mainly through speaking to dictation technologies, everyday writers will be retrained to write in only the more casual manner in which they talk.

In some ways we are now entering the reverse of the process that Plato discussed in his dialogue the Phaedrus, as he imagined what it may have been like for those people, ancient to him, who were around when writing itself was new. He considered the disadvantages that come with the practice of writing, for example, critiquing the written word for causing forgetfulness by providing a way to record things that we would otherwise actively work to remember. Plato's larger criticism of the written word is that it fails to meet what he thought was the ideal method for investigation and learning, namely, critical back-and-forth discussion. He claims that once ideas are written down, "they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves." That is, written words cannot answer any questions, clarify themselves, or respond to challenges. Thus, in Plato's view, writing is a less ideal way for teaching and for investigation than active conversation. 

In the case of voice-to-text technologies, however, all writing becomes a kind of rehearsal for verbal interaction. In this light, an important effect of computerized dictation technologies is that they could lead people to become more skillful speakers, and thus more thoughtful participants in meaningful discussions. If writers of the future are composing text almost exclusively through computerized dictation, then they may become more thoughtful and nuanced speakers in the process. That is, the effect of dictation technologies may not be just on our writing, but that they may train us to be better verbal communicators, not just with our machines but with our fellow humans too.

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Presented by

Robert Rosenberger

Robert Rosenberger is an assistant professor of philosophy in the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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