Autocorrect. Of course you know autocorrect. You've probably found yourself a target of its accidentally rude, crude expressions at least once, possibly with unfortunate ends, sometimes with amusing ones. There was the time I tried to text a friend "noooo!" and instead it came back "booooze!" for instance. It's times like those that you think autocorrect may have a sense of humor; at other times, you find it something far more nefarious. There are entire websites and Tumblrs and Facebook pages based on the momentary havoc autocorrect has brought into people's lives.
It has come to the attention of not only people using phones but also the media that autocorrect has this dual personality, this penchant for destruction. In January of 2011 Ben Zimmer wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine titled "Auto(in)correct" in which he welcomed readers to a world of "autocorrection, where incautious typing can lead to hilarious and sometimes shocking results." His lede told the story of a girl who got a message from her father telling her “Your mom and I are going to divorce next month.” The phone had changed Disney to divorce. Ironic, isn't it, how something intended to help you look better (i.e., to spell properly, or to more speedily type the words you're going for) can so easily do the opposite?
The thing is, as Zimmer writes, your phone has learned it from watching you: "iPhones, Android phones and other smartphones learn from the patterns of individual users so that suggested replacements are tailored to the history of a given phone, with a focus on recent and frequently used words." In some ways, then, we can only blame ourselves.
James Gleick takes it a step further in his recent piece, "Auto Crrect Ths!" in The New York Times Sunday Review. He suggests that we're in a slippery slope kind of spiral toward never being able to spell anything. "In the past, we were responsible for our own typographical errors," he writes. "Now autocorrect has taken charge. This is no small matter. It is a step in our evolution — the grafting of silicon into our formerly carbon-based species, in the name of collective intelligence. Or unintelligence as the case may be."
Of course, many of us have been using spellcheck for years, even before smartphones, and then there are the legions of proofreaders and copy editors who've kept media copy clean from the good old days. But he brings up that frequently heard concern, which is, is all of our language/spelling/grammar/writing ability going to hell in this newfangled world?
Gleick talks to a Google software engineer, Mark Paskin, who explains that Google doesn't even use a dictionary (which is perhaps helpful if you're the type of person who texts in exaggerated speech, lots of "ooos" and exclamation points, for example). Instead, Paskin says, "Google has access to a decent subset of all the words people type — 'a constantly evolving list of words and phrases,' he says; 'the parlance of our times.'” It uses an algorithm to try to anticipate what you're trying to say. But since we are all individuals and we say different and unpredictable things all the time, Google is bound to get it wrong. Do we really expect otherwise?
Gleick's concern is that "the better autocorrect gets, the more we will come to rely on it," and soon we'll forget to spell. "One by one we are outsourcing our mental functions to the global prosthetic brain," he says, though in the end he's complacent, saying we do that with everything else, so maybe he can live with that, too. Maybe it's too hard to fight.
But I think autocorrect is a beautiful thing. All the drama or comedy that ensues when a terrible but delightful autocorrect is made is not for nothing—it also reminds us of the difference between us and the computer. And in the range of human problems, it's the stuff of romantic comedies: The misunderstanding that shouldn't be and the shenanigans that ensue, which may or may not end in a last-minute chase to the airport to prevent the one you love who thinks you're marrying another from getting on a plane to Bora Bora and never coming back. These kinds of misunderstandings in society are actually the easy ones to take care of. We can even prevent them, by waiting an instant and reviewing our messages before we press send (yes, we could do that, we really could, if we were patient, which we're not), or even by turning off the autocorrect function completely. When they do happen, they're fairly easily resolved, and we all laugh and move on.
The real reason we keep talking about autocorrect, I think, is not because of any damage done by autocorrect—it's because when it messes up we're happily reminded that phones and computers are not actually smarter than people, that they make mistakes when they "think" they know better than we do. Which is kind of a relief. The truly terrifying thing is not what autocorrect does when it makes a mistake ... but what if it never did? That's the autocorrect of the horror movies.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.