The Trouble With Tech

This morning, while skimming through a digest from a professional email list, I saw this sentence appended to a message submitted by a writing program director:

[this message sent from my cell phone, please forgive any predictive text issues]

The message that preceded it was short, only a few sentences of commentary on an earlier post, but it did include some errors likely made as a result of their phone’s predictive text function.

I find this deeply disturbing. Please bear with me as I try to work through these thoughts and feelings.

First, let’s talk about the problem of predictive text errors. These kinds of errors are far more insidious than a simple misspelling or typo; such things are easily identified as errors by a reader, whereas an incorrect word prediction looks to all like an intentionally selected word, leaving the reader with little ability to locate the source of their confusion.

While predictive text can be immensely helpful, it is far from perfect. Errors happen, and in fact, they must happen as a part of the machine learning process. But to facilitate that process, those errors need to be corrected–by the writer, as they write. This is how the system learns which words you use frequently and which corrections it should or should not continue to offer. Over time, the predictive text on your particular device will become more accurate and will require less correction.

In this instance, however, the author of this message has chosen to append a sort of disclaimer rather than make those necessary corrections. I don’t know if this disclaimer was typed as part of the original message, or if the author keeps it stored as an automated signature on all messages sent from their cell phone. Either is equally damning. If typed into the message itself, I am baffled that someone would take the time to write this additional sentence rather than simply review and edit what was already written. If stored and appended automatically, the author clearly expects predictive text errors to occur and yet has no intention of correcting them.

While haphazard writing of any kind–especially from a writing program director–is a bit disappointing, this is a particularly egregious neglect of duty. Since predictive text errors are more difficult to identify and correct on the part of the reader, for the writer to dismiss any possibility of correcting those errors before they are let loose on the world is almost hostile. It is placing a burden of confusion on the reader, who then has to undertake tremendously more effort to untangle the writer’s meaning than would be required for the writer to proofread their own words in the first place.

I don’t mean to vilify this one person; while the disclaimer provided here is unusually explicit, it’s not uncommon to see “Sent from my iPhone” messages attached to hastily written emails and other communications. They may not beg forgiveness in so many words, but these messages do communicate, intentionally or not, that the writer has taken less care with these words because of the medium used to create them.

This, I think, gets to the heart of my frustration. Even those whose entire careers are dedicated to the study and teaching of writing are vulnerable to the idea that digitally created media–and to a greater extent, media created through mobile technology–is somehow inherently lesser than more traditionally constructed forms. Its pitfalls are treated as intrinsic to the technology itself, as problems of the medium that the writer can do nothing more than apologize for. Worse, some dismiss new technologies altogether as terminally flawed. This attitude not only serves themselves poorly, but it also does a great disservice to students, who desperately need guidance and education in how to make the best possible use of technology, how to navigate the pitfalls and exploit the possibilities of all the media they have at their disposal. If, as scholars and educators, we eschew these responsibilities in our own writing, what standards can we expect to hold our students to? What skills and strategies are we offering them that will be relevant to their real lives today and in the future?

These questions may seem grandiose, but it’s important to remember how powerful small gestures can be. Developing digital communication skills–ours and our students’–can be as simple as taking an extra moment of care in our crafting, in being a model of effective and intentional writing in all forms, for whomever may be reading.