Autocorrect Leads to Other Autocracies

First they came for the carriage returns, and I did not speak out. New York Times legend Russell Baker was quick and right to bemoan the loss of the mechanical “ding” at the end of every line. That bell demanded writers do some physical work, swiping the carriage to the right with a strong left haymaker.

Word processors demanded less of everyone. Everyone was pleased.

Then they offered easy hyphenation, and I did nothing. It made all the lines look so tidy, nearly even in length. The writing on the page suddenly “looked” better, at least to those who couldn’t or refused to read.

They offered to correct punctuation and capitalization — what could be the harm? A long-simmering dispute among typists was quietly settled. Two spaces after a period or one? Proportional lettering solved it. The losers were tossed a sop, almost in pity. Two spaces typed quickly now places a period and sets caps lock — declaring a new sentence ready to begin.

And if the sentence makes no sense, it was helpfully underlined, warning each typist that a writer they may not be. Grammar correction was an easy addition for those who knew better. Clear rules can be followed. Infinitives were unsplit, participles undangled. The world seemed to be getting better.

Soon whole words could be corrected, and I wondered about it, but it was already too late. The corrections were based on an algorithm, probably written by a math major, guessing which keys you meant to press, based on their proximity to those you did.

There could be no more Freudian slips, because slips are for ships but not for people, and you didn’t mean Freud because you probably meant Friend, but more properly Friendly. Friendly slips wouldn’t make much sense, but it must be what you meant, because it’s what others have accepted as correct when they made the same mistake.

Silently, power shifted. Elon Musk and Bill Gates warned about it. Ray Kurzweil predicted its dark inevitability. Machines became intelligent, but artificially so. They gathered data from similar circumstances and took the lead from humans, pushing the cursor rightward on their own. Autocorrect became auto-suggest.

Drawing from databases of what others have typed, machines predicted the future of the sentence you were thinking, but without the benefit of any of your thoughts. The weakest among us saw suggested endings of our sentences that we liked better than what we had in mind. Acceptance becomes assent. Each agreement cycled back into the database, making it stronger and smarter. Soon, few could resist the sentences’ faux finish.

Ideas began conforming to one another — all in the name of efficiency. Deviancy devolved. Machines meted out our sentences. We didn’t notice the pun and the machines didn’t care. While self-driving cars were still a dream, the nightmare of self-writing paragraphs moved among us.

Without the benefit of written articulation, thoughts could be expunged from public discourse by those who knew better. Coloring inside the lines became easy — when the crayons stopped working outside them.

People stopped correcting one another. “Machines do that now,” we reasoned. But machines correct the mistakes, not the mistaken.

We told others and ourselves that what we’d written — what we’d had written for us — is what we intended. If it sounded better than what we had thought, then lucky us. “Autocorrect loves us and has a wonderful plan for our page.” Effort and outcome were no longer connected. A Golden Age of Inconsequence dawned on humanity.

Then learning slowed, or stopped, or was forgotten. Improvement became something only machines aspired to. Ambition itself left humanity’s cabinet of curiosities. Who needed more than what they already had? As soon as an errant thought emerged to be expressed, it was corrected before it could be seen.

People became more alike and so, interchangeable. Older models were considered obsolete. The sturdiest were kept around for spare parts, but seldom turned on or lit up. Sharing lost its joy. The only networks that mattered were the ones joining machines — sharing, improving, aspiring machines.

It all could have been prevented, but those who knew better weren’t better.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.