In Google’s defense, I should admit that email is often a waste of human labor. The typical worker receives about 100 emails a day and sends just under 50. The vast majority of these emails should not be sent, and the vast majority of text within even the properly sent emails need not be written. There’s nothing wrong, in theory, with technology that reduces the busywork of email.
What’s more, it’s a little odd to harbor animosity toward a technology of anticipation since, at a high level, the consumer-tech industry is all about building anticipatory networks at scale. Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, and every company in the attention economy anticipate what you’d like to see, hear, and buy next. Software might be eating the world, but anticipatory software is doing most of the chewing. So why direct anger at a mere email auto-completer?
In short, there is a distinction between anticipation and predictability. This is one of the subtleties of any intimate relationship, whether it’s with a spouse or a neural network. It is a joy to feel seen by another person but a horror to be told that your tastes are easily decoded. “You really know me” is a loving expression of intimacy. “Yes, because your preferences are so very predictable” is a rhetorical shiv in the spine. Gmail uses its predictive powers to make its users feel predictable.
Read: The demon voice that can control your smartphone
Smart Reply and Smart Compose are smart features that have the effect of highlighting just how unsmart we might be. In a recent interview with a source for another story, I brought up my issues with Gmail’s auto-complete function, and we ended up talking about that for several minutes. “It can be so stressful!” he said. “Sometimes I see Gmail suggest a sentence and then I feel like I have to come up with a better sentence than the machine, because I don’t want my response to feel robotic.” In these cases, Smart Compose doesn’t automate the email process or save time at all. Rather, it extends the work of replying to email by alerting writers to the banality of their prose and by establishing a kind of Mendoza line for non-robotic emailing that has to be surpassed before the author can hit send with his soul intact. As the source continued to talk about his email issues, I laughed the nervous laugh of somebody who felt not eerily predicted, but deeply understood.
The optimistic promise of technology is that it allows humans to focus on what really matters, to be “more human.” Farm technology freed most workers from agrarian labor, then manufacturing technology freed more workers from the factory, and thus the labor force has slowly climbed Maslow’s hierarchy toward advanced health care, fine dining, entertainment, and yoga instruction.
But email automation does something quite different. Rather than free people from drudgery so that they can focus on themselves, it directs users’ focus to the very fact of their banality, their robotic tendencies. It says: Ha ha, you email like a droid. I mastered your pathetic email-response style, and it only took me like a second, dweeb. That is, at least, the voice of my own existential angst.