technology + voices + people
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Technology, Language, and Behavior

We opened doors by thinking;
We went to sleep by dialing ‘0.’
We drove to work by proxy,
I plugged my wife in, just for show.

Gary Numan, ‘I Dream of Wires’

Technology changes language and behavior in fascinating, sometimes surprising ways. This is to be expected: reigning social conventions, political goals and intertwined policies largely govern the course, application and uptake of new technologies, which gestate in stews of complexity. When a technology lives and finally thrives to become so complete, stable, and well-polished as to be commonplace, it “disappears,” the wonder of its magic act fully dissipated. The next time you’re on a jet flight, observe how many passengers don’t gaze outwards and below as they levitate on a 500 m.p.h. perch, 35,000 feet above the earth rotating majestically below them. (I always try to get the window seat.)

People no longer see mature technologies as special, believing the processes fully mapped and unworthy of notice, for example paying about as much attention to desktop phones as to double-bladed axes. Yet telephones once were flighty, expensive devices of poor tonal quality and suspect reliability, rapidly proliferating anyway due to sky-high utility and ‘wow’ factors, transforming social conventions and transactions at every scale. When new, telephones were magical, and at the time, it was immediately obvious they would change the nature of human interaction.

Instead of saying things upon meeting like “Greetings and salutations, madam,” or “Hail fellow well met, sir,” or exchanging masonic codes, it is perfectly normal for English speakers to greet each other in all settings with “Hello.” In the AT&T archives, you would find Thomas Edison defined that word as the standard greeting to open telephonic conversations. People needed a neutral word to hail each other, and to test the line. “Hello” was printed on the attendees badges at the first national convention of telephone operators, held at Niagara falls in 1880, and became part of popular culture thereafter. Saying “hello” signaled you were hip, part of a buzz that could reach over distances, and American Telephone and Telegraph became the highest-valued company in America.

What was not so obvious then or now is how the telephone would steadily transform language into a more colloquial endeavor, how it influenced choices in location and vocation, time and behavior. It is difficult to imagine not being able to pick up a phone and call three time zones away (zones necessitated by real-time communications), but if we were still communicating by telegraph, perhaps linguistic economy would be more prized, or the formality of public discourse might have been retained. As it played out, we now speak as disembodied data streams to friends, family, co-workers, strangers, and business associates over the same electronic commons. Now, if the sum total of words spoken on the planet every day could be calculated, the majority probably go through phones.

Language is the result of cognition, sometimes a great deal of it, and for most of us it’s the primary record we leave of our lives. With improvements in web infrastructure, the digital portion of that record has increased by an order of magnitude every few years for the past two decades. While my great-grandfather was a bold man he wrote practically nothing down, and to know more of him I had to ask his children and grand-children for detail, even travel to the village he came from in southern Germany. Still, his thoughts, sayings, and what moved him to do fairly remarkable things remain mysteries. In contrast I suspect my great-grandchildren will know me rather well, not because I’ll live to see them, but because we’re in the early stage of another technology-based transformation ushering in changes yet more profound: speech multiplication.

Speech synthesis and recognition are speech multipliers, and these technologies will enable, impact, and play a part in nearly every transaction 20 years from now. In the electronic susurrus of server-backed mirror worlds, voice commands and exchanges will be recorded, parsed, and converted, and their trails will be combined with other data to reconstruct cognition.

Talking to a wall, the ability to say “Play Blade Runner, Director’s Cut” will be taken for granted, as will data-mining mails by voice, automatically transcribing phone calls, e-discovery, turning blogs into podcasts, reading online texts, agent technologies which will anticipate your needs and wants, storing and retrieving family holidays, billboards recognizing and addressing you personally, and a host of strange things no one knows they want yet. With Microsoft’s popularization of the Sync application in Ford cars, we’re literally on the road to the web talking back; while driving a vehicle, having it do so is a matter of life and death. A lot of work waits to be done for the void to respond sensibly, responsibly, or elegantly, and very few people understand or have an intuitive grasp of how to make it excel, just as very few people once knew how to build reliable, highly functional telephone networks or airplane wings. Dealing with an automated customer service line shows how much room there is for improvement, how far there is to go.

Language is a Pandora’s Box, a Babel, a room full of ladies from the old country who chatter at the same time. Language is a technology all its own, one of the first, and the human versions of it have dazzled in the past 40,000 years. It’s still a great place to be, and we’re doing what we’ve always done: advancing the state of the art, and making the human voice the interface of record.