TUB Talks

Predictive wrecks

TUB stands for Technology User Blues, as well as the kind of thoughts that surface in the relaxing womb of a bathtub or hot tub.

We’ve all been both amazed and annoyed by the antics of the clever little device that tries to predict what we want to say next on our phone or computer. One day it’s as prescient as Jeeves – thank you, on-line butler, for saving me the effort of thought. Yes, I did mean ‘indefatigable,’ but couldn’t be bothered to spell it properly. This is you at your best.

And then there’s the time when you try to type ‘aspidistra’, and the silicon moron comes up with ‘Aspergers.’ Have you no bloody sense of context?

Predictive text : blessing or curse?

Mainly the latter, unless you prefer to continue thinking:

(a) like the predictable average, or

(b) exactly as you’ve thought in the past.

That’s the essential glitch here – the invisible predictor is another version of ‘Amazon’ thinking. If you’ve liked this in the past, you’ll like it again. Music, film, books and words – why not replicate your past patterns. In fact, why bother to think at all? We can automate it all for you.

I’ve written before about the wonderful idea in a book by science-comedy writer Douglas Adams: a time in the future when we’ll all be too busy and overloaded to believe in the things we know we really ought to. The solution? A programmable monk who does all the thinking and believing for us, supposedly freeing up mental bandwidth for the immediate stuff we have to deal with. In business, we’re fond of outsourcing just about everything else, so why not give our neurons a break and let the machines do the heavy lifting?

Voila! Problem fixed.

However, I think it’s the thin end of the techno-wedge; in effect, the start of outsourcing thinking. It’s us who are being fixed like butterflies on a digital wheel if we give in to this too easily.

Why, just because I like the choral music of William Byrd, won’t I like Captain Beefheart live in Amsterdam in 1980? (I do). Can’t I love Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and Wodehouse’s Mulliner Nights? And just because I typed Swindon last time doesn’t mean I wouldn’t rather write Sweden this time? I usually would . . .

The stage villain of this piece has been around since my schooldays; it’s the old taskmaster of ‘learning by rote.’ If technology can save you having to learn phone numbers, addresses, quotes and lines of poetry, then why overtax your tired noddle with this junk. Save it for the important stuff – the machines are damn useful as a memory bank for the stuff you don’t want to hold front of mind.

The idea is quite compelling unless you think about it for a moment. What’s being confused here is learning by rote – good for times tables but soul-sucking for much else - and learning by heart.

Now that’s quite a different proposition – it implies that the knowledge you acquire this way has been felt deeply, resonates within you and has the chance of morphing from mere information into deeply sensed wisdom. Great poetry, inspiring quotations, lines from songs and the like fit the bill here. Speak them from the heart and they will have double the impact of reading them from paper or screen.

Even the act of recalling numbers, addresses, names and data has its own value in exercising your memory muscle, a process that is all about paying attention – a rare currency in our distracted times. A friend who claims her recall is on the blink calls me her ‘external hard-drive memory.’ (I’ll take it as a compliment.)

While her perceptive thinking is as sharp as ever, she sometimes struggles with names of things, which I help her out with. In this I’m probably her mirror image – memory still there, sometimes think on the blink. This is where she reciprocates in clarifying my thinking.

The point is that our friends and dear ones might be better at predicting what you really want to say than a machine - especially if you share, as we do here, many years of joint ‘context.’ At one level that’s what a relationship is. The only health warning being that those who know you well should prompt you to take the road less travelled in your choice of phrase, to get you to catch yourself thinking or saying something you usually wouldn’t. Otherwise they might as well be made of silicon.

Switching off predictive text - yes, that’s what I’m proposing - also helps expand your vocabulary, at least if you are prepared to pause and consult a Thesaurus. This way you get several alternatives. All right, I know, some e-readers allow you to do just this and often they are spot on, but somehow the process of leaving your typing to explore either a physical or digital Thesaurus relaxes the mind just long enough for you to realise how to reframe a whole passage. As well as focus – choosing a variant on the word you thought you wanted to type - you need the expanded view of sensing what you mean to say. The meaning of individual words and the purpose you are employing them for are not the same thing.

I once typed a review of a play where I praised the ‘Dramaturgist’. OK, I was showing off and could have said ‘playwright’ like anyone else. An email link was in an article they had written, so I put this in my note, adding that the recipients needed to check out this . . er . . dramaturgist.

I proudly clicked ‘send’ to a bunch of receivers, only to discover as the hours went by that I had recommended they go and see a “Dermatologist.” Some friends were confused. And then not amused…

Yes, I could – should - have checked, but tempus was fugitting as usual. And I won’t tell you what came up when I typed that bastardised word.