Email Like a Robot

I reference in this essay the John Herrman article which appeared in the New York Times dated Nov. 7, 2018.

All you gmail users out there already know what I’m talking about.  Smart Reply, Smart Compose.  Smart Compose is the new one.  Say you type in “Have a look…” to one of your co-workers concerning your new widget design.  Smart Compose will offer a way to end the sentence:  “…and let me know what you think”, which appears in a fainter typescript symbolic of its tentative status.  They’re not imposing, just suggesting!  What could be wrong with that?  This technology is so helpful, and yet I feel like something’s being taken away from me…and then guilty for not being able to appreciate this wonderful helpfulness.

The AI in Smart Compose is learning how your individual mind works.  But at the same time it collectivizes thought.  If more people use a certain phrasing than another, the one used more will come up first as the pertinent suggestion.  This is especially efficacious in situations where learned performance trumps expression of will, as in work communications.  Smart Compose is best at exploiting ways we’ve already been programmed, by work, social convention, and the tools we use in the modern world to communicate.  The question of responsibility arises–are you responsible for text that is computer-generated automatically in your name?  One can call this human self-automation.  What fun!

Email thus becomes the backbone of a mosaic of components in which a general routinization of communicative strategies reaches for a predominant position in human thought.

This reminds me of Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas.  This is a little compendium of terms, and how people think about them, which was the inspiration for Flaubert’s novel  Bouvard and Pécuchet (1880), and predated it by as much as thirty years, which he conceived of as illustrating “the all-pervasive power of stupidity”, as A.J. Krailsheimer puts it in his Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition.  Example entries: AMBITION,  “Always ‘insane’ unless it is ‘noble'”.  ARISTOCRACY, “Despise and envy it.” BASES (OF SOCIETY), “Id est property, the family, religion, respect for authority.  Show anger if these are attacked.” BLACK: “Always followed by ‘as ebony’ or preceded by ‘jet.'”  C through Z is just as disheartening.  Routinized thought is as old as the hills.  But we are giving it a new dimension.


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