In a reversal of predictions, typing has replaced speaking

When I was in junior high school in the early 90’s, my typing teacher mournfully predicted that typing would soon become an obsolete skill. Before long, computers would type as we dictated. Her prediction was not uncommon at the time. Many were enthralled by the ability of computers to understand and type out spoken words. As it turns out, however, we’re still typing. And we’re doing it more than ever before. In fact, in an especially surprising reversal of predictions, typing has replaced speaking instead of the opposite happening. The keyboard–virtual or physical–is more a part of daily life now than ever before.

Voice recognition technology has made some advances and found some applications, to be sure. For instance, those terribly annoying phone trees that now tell us what words we can say to respond–rather than simply indicating which number to press–have become commonplace (“Sorry, I didn’t understand that. Please try again. You can say…”). Other applications allow a car driver, for example, to speak out and send a text message or command their smartphone to call someone while they drive. Certainly the technology has found worthwhile roles elsewhere as well. But it is nowhere near the sort of widespread use that many once imagined.

For instance, voice recognition has made absolutely no material advances into the world of word processing–typing out essays, memos, briefs, blogs, and so on. This failure should be blamed on the pure absurdity of the application at least as much as it should blamed on any glitches in the technology. Consider how ridiculous it would be for a bunch of attorneys to be sitting in their offices dictating briefs and memos to their computers. I don’t know if everyone feels the same way, but I find it quite uncomfortable to have someone watch what I’m typing as my thoughts are developing. Would anyone really be comfortable with dictating not only to their computer but to the entire office? True, there was a time when attorneys and business professionals dictated letters to secretaries who dutifully typed up their rambling thoughts. Thank goodness those days are past. The failure might be compared to that of the Segway. Fascinating technology to be sure; the only problem is that it just looks silly.

Another reason voice recognition has failed to get any traction into word processing is that typing has made huge advances. No one has had a bottle of whiteout sitting at their desk for at least fifteen years. No one has to replace a messy type ribbon anymore. Meanwhile, everyone who does any meaningful amount of word processing has mastered the keyboard. As a result, most folks can type at least as quickly as they can articulate the precise words and sentence structure they want recorded. When it comes to deleting several words or a few lines, moving paragraphs, adding punctuation, or simply placing the cursor at a particular spot, there’s no question that the keyboard is more efficient than voice commands.

But it seems there has always been some doubt as to whether voice would actually replace the keyboard. So no one should be terribly surprised that it has not. The bigger surprise is that typing has replaced traditional voice applications. The examples are numerous and widespread. Emails have replaced in-person business meetings, “chatting” has replaced a casual phone call with a friend or less casual phone call with a customer service department, and texting has replaced the traditional role of voice in a conversation between two teenage friends sitting next to each other at In-N-Out Burger.

The simple reason for this surprise is that typing is private and inconspicuous. It isn’t so remarkably annoying as someone trying to carry on a personal conversation over their cell phone in an otherwise quiet public place. Furthermore, written communication allows more time to develop thoughts. A long delay in an online chat is far more acceptable than a long pause in a phone conversation. Written communication distributed by email rather than verbally in a face to face meeting can be carefully reviewed and tested; whereas, spoken communication is more spontaneous, especially if questions are allowed–a basic expectation of an in-person meeting. Written communication also allows each party to receive the message when it is convenient rather than requiring everyone’s attention at the same time.

Voice recognition technology will continue to make advances and find new applications. But I doubt that in my lifetime it will ever be used in ways we once imagined. Meanwhile, keyboards will remain as commonplace and useful as shoelaces.

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