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

Do our writing means change our written ends?


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."


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.


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."

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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