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apple’s most personal device forces us all to speak the same

apple’s most personal device forces us all to speak the same


siri, please let me type the way i want

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when i write for the verge, i don’t write like this.

we have a style guide based on american english, journalistic conventions, and certain decisions about grammar. some of it i agree with; some of it i don’t. i am okay with this. adhering to the system is part of my job, and it makes the verge a better publication. i slip in and out of it without having to think much at all.

but i do have to think a little bit, which means it isn’t really me.

the way i write *without* thinking comes out when i send texts, tweets, line or slack messages, emails to my family, and anywhere else i enter text unburdened by shift keys and standardisation. it’s a mix of style, punctuation, and spelling informed by where i grew up, who i’ve known, what i’ve read. all those things and more poured themselves into what you’re reading now — and all of these things are stripped out when you communicate with the apple watch.

i’ve been wearing an apple watch for weeks, and though i generally like it, it’s often uncomfortably restrictive for something tim cook calls "the most personal device we have ever created" at every opportunity. the apple watch relies heavily on voice dictation from siri to mitigate its tiny, keyboard-less screen; you can use this to search for information or, more importantly, reply to messages.

i’ve typed in lowercase ever since i first got internet access

i hate using siri to reply to messages. it listens to what i say and, if it hears me accurately, converts my thoughts into flat, expressionless, standardised prose with imperfect punctuation and no room for spelling variation. i do not want this. i don’t type short messages in lowercase, for example, because i’m lazy or don’t know how to capitalise — i type short messages in lowercase because it’s the best way to render how i imagine my thoughts would come across. i like lending writing with accurate spelling and grammar a casual veneer by decapitating the caps. plus, well, i just think it looks better. i’ve typed in lowercase ever since i first got internet access and started talking about radiohead on audiogalaxy boards fifteen years ago. it’s why i’ve turned autocorrect off on every phone i’ve ever owned.

as a linguist in a former life, i know that language’s most potent strength is its ability to evolve. advances like the printing press and the internet have dramatically influenced how people use language, leading to the spread of innovative new forms of writing that would have been unimaginable just decades ago. often limitations can be turned on their head and used for creative ends, as seen by the shortened spellings that came to prominence as a way to get around text message and tweet character limits. the unlikely spread of emoji from a feature on japanese flip phones to a de facto cultural standard across the world is another example.

it’s important to be able to express yourself in writing — not just with words, but with style. writers like e e cummings, cormac mccarthy, and film crit hulk have made style a part of their work, subverting standard english to help convey a mood or message. this month a canadian architecture PhD candidate (called, brilliantly, patrick stewart) made headlines for writing a 52,000-word dissertation with barely any punctuation. stewart told the national post that he "‘wanted to make a point’ about aboriginal culture, colonialism, and 'the blind acceptance of english language conventions in academia.’" not everyone makes a conscious effort to rebel when sending a text message, of course, but we all do the same thing to some extent: we write based on our background and experiences. to strip this capability out, even from ephemeral or seemingly unimportant forms of communication, is to neuter the essence of language.

We write based on our background and experiences

it is, of course, early days for the technology. natural language processing is extraordinarily complex, and it makes sense that apple and others would target standards first — by their very nature, they’re easier to analyse. and for the sake of interface simplicity, it’s hard to know what to propose as an alternative. my colleague ross has noted the awkwardness of speaking punctuation out loud, and offering binary options to customise one’s idiolect might be a step too far. the answer may lie in analysis of the words we do type deliberately on our phones, since these could be linked to the same cloud system that powers siri.

i worry, though, that it might be too late. we appear to be headed toward a future where everyone’s speech is filed down into a bland, conventional codex of homogeneity, and where this is considered a feature, not a bug. apple’s watch may be its most personal device ever, but it’ll have to get to know me a lot better before i’ll be comfortable telling it my thoughts.

verge video: reviewing the apple watch