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Does The Technology Make The Writer?

Over at The Atlantic, Robert Rosenberger has a fascinating and smart piece about technologies like Siri, which take voice dictation and turn it into text, and whether they will have an effect on how we write.

As a writer who’s being thinking a lot about finding easier ways to write while I have my cat hand out of commission, this is a subject I can really got on board with.

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.

[...] 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.”

There are all manner of dictation tools to choose from. Mountain Lion has been lauded already. Still, I find myself resisting the kind of services a virtual scribe like Siri or ML has to offer. It’s not them — it’s me. I write slowly. I edit as a I go. I think and edit and write and go back. I worry the technology would be too snappy and quick for my style. That it would be too good.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ll end up loving it. I’ll give it a try, sure. Maybe I’m a little bit like the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who I’ve also been thinking a lot about lately, and who Rosenberger happens to quote in his essay. Heidegger was quite fearful of the growing influence of the typewriter in the ’40s:

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.

Or Joan Didion, who feared she would never be able to write again when she first made the transition from typewriter to computer.

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.

This piece is definitely worth reading in its entirety — it’s a brilliant discussion of writers and their technologies and our evolving attitudes towards both. [The Atlantic]

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