Remember the last time you got a handwritten letter?
And no, the ink signature (/stamp) on typed correspondence does not count. I’m talking white-envelope-plastered-with-stamps-trifolded-paper-smuged-in-bad-ball-point-ink-blotts. Snail-mail. The pen-pal days (for me). When was the last time you handwrote a letter? When did you last sit down, face the white page and whip out your favourite black pen? “Dear Mariana…” – no emoticons, no “c u soon, m8”.
Google is launching its latest feature for its email Inbox app: suggested replies based on an email’s content. The feature is called Smart Reply, came out November 5th, and frankly caused me to purse my lips. Starting today, when you get an email, before even pressing the reply button, Google will suggest three responses.
Hmmm…yes, does makes things easier, but…are we taking ourselves out of our own conversations?
Let me preface my moral conundrums by stating that this is a pretty nifty app. Heard of IBM’s Watson? This Google app will use machine learning (algorithms that learn how to do things without being specifically programmed to do so) to understand the context of a message and compose a reply that makes sense. Snazzy. Of course, Smart Reply is not a revolutionary technology by any means. My 3 year old smartphone (I know, call the museums, I’m carrying a relic) prompts me with suggested quick txts (“I’m in a meeting!”, “Call you later!”) if I want to ignore a received call. Texting is a game of suggested words and pre-packaged gifs. But there is something about email that sets it apart from texting or the twitter 140-character limit.
Emails are our letters of today. They carry a greeting and a closing. They have paragraphs, intro, conclusions. Emails are also our primary writing routine (admit it, even if you’re a writer, you cannot escape having to consistently write emails). They are the exercise through which we transcribe our thoughts using language. Unlike messaging, emails demand a writing endeavour that engages the nuances of language. Where a message can at best convey a thought, emails can convey a theory of mind, a persuasion, an argument.
Language is how we participate, the bridge from our unreadable mind to outwards expression.
The act of putting our thoughts into our own words is creativity. And creativity is a muscle that we need to exercise like any other. Echoed through history, the greats repeatedly expound that conveying our ideas effectively is almost more important than having the idea in the first place. Stephen Hawkins is a brilliant mind who has revealed great secrets of the universe. The key word here is revealed. Stephen Hawkins is a genius, and an even better writer. Go read his book, A Brief History of Time. As Einstein put it: “Genius is making complex ideas simple”. If Hawkins was limited to using pre-packaged sentences, how could he explain undiscovered concepts?
We have to be able to communicate our creations, our imagination, our different ideas, effectively. Creativity, by its very definition, is a thought that no one has had before. In other words, not a prefabricated answer. Choosing between three ready composed replies is not a creative exercise. We are not given the opportunity to think differently as we write an answer.
We are our words. What we choose to write is an act of self-determination.
If we do not take the time to exercise our writing muscles, to exercise putting our thoughts into words, we could lose our ability to communicate. Communication cannot be limited to pre-determined pret-a-porter phrases. Our greatest strength as humans is our ability to think differently. We are not limited by a set of algorithms, by a binary system that depends on certainty. We have the gift of uncertainty. We can cut through the if-then command and whisper, “what if?”.
The question is: do we want to delegate communication to an algorithm? Do we agree to lose those quirks of language that define our ideas and arguments?
If we go on the premise that it is how we communicate our ideas that define who we are, then delegating the exercise of writing in our own words culminates to delegating the essence of who we are. Because if we are not to communicate in our own voices, can we really say we still have one? Let me whip out a phrase I’ve been waiting to use all week: if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?
Of course, all these disquietudes aside, Google is trying to address a very real problem: our lack of time. Back in the handwritten-pen-pal-letter era, I remember putting off writing a reply for days. We’re busy people. But, this is not where we need save time. We have to participate in our own conversations.
Remember when you first decided how to sign a letter? A crucial coming-of-age deliberation. A key moment of self-determination. You had to pause and think. Would you choose something classical, -“Regards,”, “Best wishes”, “Cordially”-, go with your passions for the unconventional –“Live long and prosper,”, “May the odds be ever in your favour,”, or just plain make it up as the mood strikes you? Smart Reply would take care of this for you. But something as seemingly trivial as how you sign off is an integral part of your personal narrative. It makes you, you.
So, write those sloppy emails. Deliberate how precisely you are going to convey to your boss that while you are ambitious and open to new opportunities, you really don’t want to do your co-worker’s project for them. Pen that perfect subject-line. And make your own conversation.
Keep it real,