Is the Smartphone auto-corrector the new Almighty? C’mon, so it changes a letter here and there, no big deal. Indeed it is a deal of epic proportions. The Smartphone auto-corrector is not only reconstructing the words we write, it is redesigning reality itself, engineering life. The ghost in the machine has been assigned the task of turning what we say into what we mean, an algorithm masterminded by people we don’t know and who don’t know us. I wonder, other than ourselves, who could ever know what we mean?
While the auto-corrector presents as the palace servant, it in fact holds the throne of the digital age; it is mission control through which all communication is processed. Once communication has been altered, it (and all that it impacts) can never return to an un-altered state, but can only continue inside its new reshaped form. Though seemingly harmless, the auto-corrector is a symbol for what is a more frightening and dangerous aspect of technology. When we “correct” our words, we “correct” our meaning, the reality that transpires from that meaning, and thus all of life. Are we really comfortable surrendering meaning, reality and life to an algorithm?
Consider the following examples:
Case 1: I am in a heated discussion with a friend. I write “NO Gail,” and hit send. Without my awareness, the auto-corrector texts my friend, “GO Girl.” The next communication I receive is chatty and without the rancor of the current disagreement. I look back and notice the Smartphone’s “correction” and subsequently burst into laughter. Ultimately I decide to go with the new, altered reality, dropping the rift altogether (and noticing how meaningless it really was!)
Case 2: I am setting up plans with an acquaintance and she asks if I can meet her downtown or do I need to stay on the upper west side. I write her back, “UWS” (upper west side). Unbeknownst to me, my Smartphone thinks that I should travel outside my neighborhood and so replaces “UWS” with “Yes.” My friend understandably takes this to mean that yes, I can indeed travel downtown and so sends me the address of a bar in Greenwich Village. I repeat that I need to stay on the upper west side in order to get back to work. The next text I receive is a Freudian analysis on why I was originally willing to go downtown, but now have changed my mind. Apparently, I was going to surrender, but then decided to control the experience. Despite explaining to her that my Smartphone’s auto-corrector had agreed to the downtown location while I, the person behind the Smartphone, needed to be back to work on the upper west side in less than an hour’s time, still, the interpretations had already been voiced. Feelings were expressed that otherwise would not have been expressed. Perhaps a good thing, perhaps not. Either way, our relationship had changed as a result of those three small letters being re-organized. To this day, I am not sure if she ever did believe that I had originally written UWS, but it is a moot point. Our relationship now journeys down a new and “corrected” path.
Case 3: A therapist receives a suicidal email from a patient. She responds and signs her name “Patty.” Her auto-corrector, perhaps in wanting to correct the situation by offering some encouragement to her patient, changes the salutation to “Party.” No (more) words needed.
Case 4: I text a friend to ask if she can babysit. Although my friend is obese, we don’t talk about her weight other than tales of her latest diet, and she doesn’t share her real struggles with me. Nonetheless, her weight is an unspoken presence in the room with us. When she responds to my request by saying that she can indeed babysit, I write back “That’s great!” My auto-corrector, (who is apparently also a personal trainer/fashionista) responds with, “Cover rear!” While we shared a good laugh (and she knew I didn’t write it), still, I sensed that it caused her pain and brought something shameful to the surface, in my presence. That “correction” introduced a new reality in our relationship, and spoke loudly to the unspoken. I don’t know if she wanted this new element in our relationship, but once again, a moot point. In re-organizing those few letters, the auto-corrector had re-organized our relational path.
Case 5: Jill goes to meet her boyfriend Jack’s father for the first time. An older man, Jack’s father has just purchased his first iPhone and is excited with the new toy. The next day, in deference to his technological delight, Jane decides to text instead of call. She writes, “Thanks so much for last night!” Unfortunately, her auto-corrector sends, “Thanks Douche for last night!” Not fully understanding the auto-corrector function, Jack’s father is not amused. As a result, Jack and Jill never did go up the hill and any future Jacks or Jills that might have been, never were.
Furthermore, in addition to designing and mutating reality, the auto-corrector is now contributing yet another mirror to the funhouse that is human communication. As a psychotherapist and one who studies human behavior, I have (lovingly) come to see the majority of human communication as some form of projection or transference. That is to say, when two people are speaking, for the most part, neither is hearing what the other person’s words mean to the other person. They are hearing what the other’s words mean to them personally, once run through (and distorted by) their complex system of memories, thoughts, experiences, history, and the biggest one, identity. It used to be that at least the words that were being distorted in communication were the original words intended by the other. Now, with the addition of the auto-corrector, even the original material is distorted, so we are left with a distortion of a distortion. Who knows, distorting the distorted, we may end up back at some form of heel… (!) real.
Copyright Nancy Colier 2013