Word Production discussion

I believe I’ll give this a try. Read the whole thing here.

The faster I speak, the better my tablet PC transcribes. It won’t choke, even at bursts over 200 w.p.m. The real hitch remains accuracy. When in the groove, my speech software is remarkably precise, far more accurate than most typists. But no machine makes phonetic distinctions as fine as humans do, and my software’s recognition engine doesn’t model meaning. So where my fingers might stop at changing “sign” to “sing,” my tablet can turn my words hallucinatory without limit.

This machine is a master of speakos and mondegreens. Just as we might hear the Beatles sing how “the girl with colitis goes by” or the Psalms avow that “Shirley, good Mrs. Murphy, shall follow me all the days of my life,” my tablet has changed “book tour” to “back to work” and “I truly couldn’t see” to “a cruelly good emcee.” Legend claims that the astoundingly prolific William Vollmann once tried speech recognition software while suffering from repetitive stress injury. He sat down to write his folks. “Dear Mom and Dad” came out as the much more Vollmannesque “The man is dead.”

A greater barrier to computer dictation is the huge cognitive readjustment involved, especially after decades of straitjacketing keyboards. I needed weeks to get over the oddness of auditioning myself in an empty room, to trust to the flow of speech, to learn to hear myself think all over again. So what do I get from the trade-off?

For one, I can write lying down. I can forget the machine is even there. I can live above the level of the phrase, thinking in full paragraphs and capturing the rhythmic arcs before they fade. I don’t have to queue, stop, batch dispatch and queue up again. I spend less mental overhead on orthography and finger mechanics and more on hearing my characters speak themselves into existence. Mostly, I’m just a little closer to what my cadences might mean, when replayed in the subvocal voices of some other auditioner.

Writing is the act of accepting the huge shortfall between the story in the mind and what hits the page. “From your lips to God’s ears,” goes the old Yiddish wish. The writer, by contrast, tries to read God’s lips and pass along the words, via some crazed game of Telephone, to a further listener. And for that, no interface will ever be clean or invisible enough for us to get the passage right. As Bede says of Caedmon, scrambling to transcribe the angelic hymn dictated to him in a dream: “This is the sense, but not the words themselves as he sang them in his sleep; for however well composed, verses cannot be translated out of one language into another without much loss of beauty and loftiness.”

Everything we write — through any medium — is lost in translation. But something new is always found again, in their eager years. In Derrida’s fears. Make that: in the reader’s ears.

Richard Powers’s novel “The Echo Maker” won the 2006 National Book Award.

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2 Responses to “Word Production discussion”

  1. bordermama Says:

    That kind of technology would NEVER work for me. My brain works too slow. That is why I prefer writing over speaking (although DH might disagree with that!)…I have time to really think about what I am going to say and I organize the info so much better. I can’t imagine what would happen if I had to “speak” my writing

    I heard someone say once that to exercise your written creativity you had to write by hand…something to do with the way the brain works. That baffles me b/c I feel like it is just as natural on the keyboard. But I could see an argument against voice recordings…it does seem very different.

  2. dpc+ Says:

    I believe I know how you feel. I remember the monumental shift in thought patterns I went through when I changed from long-hand to keyboard writing… I still wonder which I’m more productive at, which I’m more creative in, and which I prefer. There are times when I sit and type and type and type and it just flows onto the screen. And there are the times when I sit and write (oh, and the fact that the writing can occur in any number of venues, while the typing is quite bound to one or two places) and feel much more inspired.
    The speaking thing is, as you wrote, very different. Maybe it was my upbringing at the feet of an autocrat, but there’s just something I’m suspicious about when it comes to “dictating.” And then there’s the technology. I LOVED the last sentence of Powers’s article: “in their eager years. In Derrida’s fears. Make that: in the reader’s ears.” I’ve had that happen any number of times with hilarious results that put my thought process right off the track.


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