Google wants to write your emails for you; It’s time to draw the line

I struggled with Gmail. Every day my emails try to write themselves, and every day I try to prove that I’m smarter than an algorithm.

Take Sunday, for example. I was responding to a Craigslist ad for a coffee table, and started asking, “Is the table still available…” and Gmail’s new “Smart Compose” feature ended my sentence, with an “available “like an apparition and what a self-satisfied smile looked like.

So instead I deleted the whole line and found: Is this article of yours still itching for a new home? And then I pressed send with a bit more bluster. Google doesn’t know me at all.

And yet, with its ever-growing cache of data on human behavior, it knows me – it knows everyone.

Google wants to save me time, which I appreciate, in theory – it knows when “th” means “thank you” and can predict very well how “Let’s meet Satur” should end. When Gmail tries to write full replies with its exclamation mark-rich “smart reply” suggestions (“It was great seeing you too”; “Oh no! I feel better”; “Yum!”) , That’s one less thing to worry about. But what kind of compromise am I making?

Communication has already become less personal. We email and text, even while sitting down for a meal in front of a real, living human being with a mouth that can speak. Meanwhile, talking on the phone becomes the conversational version of a four-way stop – an awkward and hesitant affair, as people seem somehow out of practice. Technology has encouraged us to converse in short, responsive little bursts, and while outsourcing this insane work to one of the world’s most powerful companies seems like an obvious next step, I also feel like part of my brain doesn’t matter anymore.

Technology has already made my ability to memorize phone numbers and my knowledge of directions obsolete; he can even take my driver’s license for anything I care about – bring the self-driving cars. But he can’t have my words.

The word communication comes from the same root as commune, communal, common, community. Words are meant to bring us together and bridge our divides, what have you noticed? – are deeper than ever. So it makes sense that when we stray from our words, we also stray from each other. It’s hard to imagine it will improve if our interactions are based on an algorithmically generated set of Mad Libs.

Gmail’s new bells and whistles look like a continuation of the Facebook extension you can add that automatically sends birthday greetings to every friend. As if it wasn’t easy enough to post a quick note on someone’s wall after being instantly reminded of their special day, this extension lets users appear thoughtful without imposing thought. It’s never been easier to make it look like you care.

Being stupid becomes the default. Text messages and emails are easy to send, so we constantly send them thinking less about what we’re actually saying. I am as guilty as anyone. I love dancer emoji and crying Michael Jordan gifs so much, but when I think about how quickly these shortcuts have become ubiquitous, I’m speechless (though Google might have a suggestion for me).

Before I was a journalist, I studied poetry writing and, for me, the economy of words was everything. We don’t all have the ability to back “J. Alfred Prufrock’s Love Song,” and besides, I love verses that cut like shards – making readers cry (or at least wince) too. efficiently as possible. I used to agonize over every syllable, squinting at my computer screen as if solving a puzzle, struggling to turn three words into one. Now, as editor of Book World, I spend my days reading words written about other words, and the frequent criticism from a reviewer is that a poor scribe couldn’t turn language into emotion. The best writers can induce a sob or a laugh with a brilliant sentence.

This is why I am particularly sensitive to the “innovation” of Gmail. The technology is a stark reminder that our exchanges have turned into something so meaningless that a robot could do them. The era of bound letter collections is over – when you had to prepare the ink, sharpen the nib and break the sealing wax, what you said had to be important. My sympathies are with future historians who have their work cut out for them sifting through endless digital archives of “sounds good” and “lol” in search of something – anything – of significance. Taking a few moments to think about an email to a stranger about a coffee table isn’t going to reverse the trend, of course, but it does seem like a step in the right direction towards more mindful communication.

It is, after all, a tricky time to be relieved of the need to think about our words, with outlandish conspiracies ricocheting across the internet and a president lying more than a kindergartner.

In the end, I decided to end my power struggle with Gmail. I turn off the “Smart Compose” feature, and not just because I feel like it makes me dumber. Instead of wasting time trying to outsmart a computer program, I’m going to use my precious moments to think about what I’m writing. I won’t completely give up my emoji habit – a well-placed pig’s snout says it all. But words deserve special attention even if they don’t demand it – and so do people.

© The Washington Post 2018


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