Monday, 1 December 2014

In your own words


In an idle moment I recently checked when I last sent a letter. September 2011 seems to be the most recent – a little over three years ago.

I know because I compose my letters in MS Word before printing them off and signing them. At least that’s what I used to do. I’ve no idea when I last sent a hand-written letter - or if I’ll ever send another. Probably not.

As you probably know, MS Word is able to correct certain spelling errors and highlight what it thinks are grammatical infelicities, as well as picking up missing punctuation or the same word written twice in succession. Such as ho ho.

Imagine a situation where this kind of automated assistance becomes a little more intrusive throughout the embedded text editors of email and social media. As with a spell checker it could highlight inappropriate words and suggest alternatives. A word such as “shit” could become slightly more difficult to write unless the digital assistant is switched off.

Maybe the loss of “shit” is no big deal, but what if the text editing software becomes still more intrusive and fiddly workarounds are needed to write the word “shit” at all. Taking it a stage further, suppose alternative phrasing is suggested whenever we leave a radical comment in the social media.

It isn’t an issue of libel, racism or whatever. There are usually existing policies for those issues. What is suggested here is more speculative. It lies in the technology and possibilities of a proximate future. A future of endlessly tightened guidance by all kinds of embedded text editors as they are tuned to our habits and to social norms.

This could occur under pressure from government bodies, pressure groups, charities and all the usual suspects - including mainstream media of course. Step by step is usually the way.

So what if one day we find our words are no longer our own?

Many won’t notice because they don’t use social media to express themselves in a radical manner. Their idle chatter is likely to remain untouched apart from digital finger-wagging over the expletives and a raised digital eyebrow when the ramblings become particularly incoherent.

What do you think?

Feel free to comment.

For now.


Sam Vega said...

The process is well under way. Another important aspect is the way in which there is a lot of pressure to provide "evidence" in support of opinions and arguments. Points of view, just like undergraduate essays, have to be supported by a host of references (even if only to Wikipedia!) to have any sort of credibility.

And when we Google something, we have absolutely no control over what will come up. Something - an algorhythm? - decides what knowledge is.

Michael said...

It's possibly en extension of - say - Amazon's announcements like 'Others bought this similar item', which means that when I've bought a Frozen Doll for my granddaughter, there's a selection of fridges shown at the bottom of the page...

And why can't I scan and print a fiver any more? Even printers have software built in to stop me having a bit of light entertainment.

You make a good point here, Mr H.

Anonymous said...

I will probably never hand-write a letter again for the simple reason that I have lost the ability to 'do' joined up writing. My Christmas card problem is looming large!

Demetrius said...

Indeed, post digestive natural substance emission may be accurate but does not quite have the conceptual impact.

A K Haart said...

Sam - I wonder if browsing the web for reliable info is already too tedious for casual users. As you suggest, they take what is at the top of the list so whoever controls the list controls the ideas.

Michael - I find it spooky when I search for gas fires and ads for gas fires pop up in the next web pages I visit.

David - my joined up writing was always borderline legible anyway. My signature is even worse.

Demetrius - you must be linked to Amazon. I've just been looking at a "Fart Gun" for Grandson!

Anonymous said...

Ah, all you need is my department's new Circumlocution App. Just type in oldspeak words and approved newspeak comes out. For the radical troublemakers among you, you can reverse the process. Just download at This app is updated regularly by my staff of hyper-correct linguists, radical feminists, social science dropouts and others. We set cookies and in extreme cases visit customers at 3:00am.

A K Haart said...

Roger - I hear your app may soon be integrated with the major operating systems with no option to uninstall.

In fact it seems to be working already because it's a brilliant idea.