My wife and I finally got around to watching Spike Jonze’s “Her” the other night. The preview looked so awkward to me that I avoided it in the theaters (not that I seem to require an excuse not to get out to the movies these days), but I like Jonze and really admire Phoenix (such an odd duck, but I find him riveting), and the reviews were really strong, so we dialed it up via iTunes.
Capsule-capsule review: I thought it was a fine, funny, moving, very weird film. But I want to talk about the movie’s vision of our near-ish techno future, specifically the notion that keyboards appear to have vanished. Characters interact with their operating systems, at home and on the go, by simply talking, and hear back from them (in the Phoenix character’s case, via the super-charming voice of Scarlett Johansson) through a single earplug and a elegant little device that looks like miniature cigarette case.
Eager as I am to jettison my keyboard (not as eager as I used to be, before figuring out how to handle the tendonitis in my elbows), I don’t think voice recognition alone is going to do it. I could see it working for interacting with your phone (though Siri’s pretty underwhelming, from what I’ve seen), but not for getting any kind of work done. Especially my kind of work.
It matters how words look on the page, for one thing. Though maybe it doesn’t have to matter. I’ve been getting a lot of my pleasure reading done via audiobooks, and I have no idea how those words fall on the page. Everything is voice and story, and it’s a great, habit-forming experience. But will we ever get to the point at which we’ll just listen to stories? I don’t think so, if only because it takes a good deal longer to listen to a book than it does to read it, and I can’t see us devoting more time to reading. The larger point is that it’s just a different experience, ingesting words that way. Readers’ brains love and crave the activity of taking in printed text.
Back to the stubborn keyboard: When my elbows were barking, I was forced to experiment pretty extensively with voice recognition software. Even just during the few years I used it, the technology improved a ton. Last time I dabbled in it (during my last elbow-pain relapse, three years or so ago), the new version learned my voice almost right out of the box. Very, very few errors. And yet, just about all I could compose with it were emails and some other business-related text. I know Richard Powers and others spill out whole, fat novels via voice recognition, but I was way too self-conscious, too easily distracted by the sound of my own voice to compose more than a paragraph or two of fiction. I’m a writer, not an orator or performer. I hear my voice “composing” something, and I can’t stop thinking, What the hell do you know? That’s Dave’s voice there, not the voice of whatever character or narrator I’m trying to bring to life. Editing was even more problematic. Way too cumbersome, having to call out commands to select and replace text or punctuation. I got all tangled up.
And yet the keyboard does feel anachronistic to me, even as I tap away on it. Something will replace it. I just can’t imagine what that might be. To work for me to write or edit, I think it’d somehow have to patch directly into my thoughts–and that would probably be dangerous as hell.