Nicholas Carr

Spaghetti or pasta?

Nicholas Carr wrote a brilliant post on a small part of Apple’s demonstration of the Apple Watch and iOS 8 that seems to have gone under the radar: Speak, algorithm.

It’s about a new technology coming in iOS 8 called QuickType, which is a highly contextualized predictive text engine. I think it’s going to be fantastic although will no doubt lead to collections of funny bloopers like autocorrect has.

Now you can write entire sentences with a few taps. Because as you type, you’ll see choices of words or phrases you’d probably type next, based on your past conversations and writing style. iOS 8 takes into account the casual style you might use in Messages and the more formal language you probably use in Mail. It also adjusts based on the person you’re communicating with, because your choice of words is likely more laid back with your spouse than with your boss. Your conversation data is kept only on your device, so it’s always private.

Spaghetti or pasta?

In the old days of hand written and typewriter written letters, a misspelling was a much more serious issue than it is today. Even early, crude electronic editing changed that forever by separating composition from printing.

Imagine you’re writing a note about what you had for dinner last night and what you had was spaghetti. If you choked on the spelling pre-electronic editing you might have substituted “pasta” as an easier-to-spell alternative. The mistake intolerance of pen and ink or a typewriter was creating a filter on your vocabulary.

A spoken vocabulary is almost always larger than a written one at least partially because of this: you use the word “spaghetti” in speech but less so in writing because you’re not quite sure how to spell it. When this happens numerous times in a single piece of writing you might wonder if the finished piece of writing is really what you wanted to say.

Because of my problems with writing I did a lot of thinking and writing about this during the early days of computing: How Computers Change the Writing Process for People with Learning Disabilities.

Tools affect language

When you couple this “vocabulary filter” with informal email, texting, or posting to Twitter things get interesting. It isn’t just that writing is getting shorter (for various reasons, including a sort of world-wide ADD that has coined the term “long read”), it’s that we’re doing these things faster and because of this, possibly in a less considered way.

Then there’s printing, cursive, touch typing and “thumbing” and the affect each has on sentence length and complexity. No doubt how we use our hands to encode language is having an effect on the complexity of our written language.

Many of us old folks believe that this speed issue (the fact that things seem to be moving faster) is generational: younger people can handle it better because they were born into it and those of us born in the stone age are struggling to keep up. There’s certainly an element of that, but I also think many people fully engaged in the “new” aren’t as fully engaged as they think they are. Granted, reading a message about what a friend had for lunch doesn’t need much engagement, but that message is now mixed up with lots of other message about important stuff.

In short: I’m concerned with the effect technology is having on our collective ability to deeply consider things we read and write. This is different from cable news pundits reducing complex issues to knee-jerk extremes although no doubt they are connected. This is a lot of small technological filters turning “spaghetti” into “pasta” and we’re going along with it because it seems like a natural evolution.

The Future

The more I dictate on my various devices the better I get at it and dictation certainly end-runs many of these filtering issues. I’m going to dictate this word: Spaghetti (perfect).

Of course, language itself is a filter: maybe some day Apple will get it’s “haptic” or “taptic” act together and really channel the brain sans-language. Not sure the sensors on the Apple Watch will cut it, one might need a new set of earbuds to get closer to the brain, or a special hoodie.

QuickThink is right around the corner. God help us. What goes on in my head, unfiltered, is not a pretty thing.