August 17, 2017

Well, LOL, and Pass the Spell Check

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

My computer underlines all words with which it disagrees.  It does so in bright red, squiggly lines.  For some time I repeatedly added my sister’s name to its dictionary.  DORCAS.  Unfortunately, its software only takes advice for individual files.  Its dictionary is ROM.  Read Only Memory.  In other words, her name ― or anything else with which it disagrees ― has to be added to the dictionary for every document I create.  Why bother?  Besides, in my letters to her, her name usually only appears once, right there at the beginning.  Dear Dorcas.

Regardless, it’s infuriating.  But it does illustrate an important aspect of computers:

They’re condescending.  This one is intolerably overbearing in its self-assured correctness.  Who made it so certain that I can’t spell my sister’s name?
True, spelling was never my strong suit.  But there have been instances where I’ve gone back and checked.  Entire pages of my prose have been underlined in red, nothing excepted.  I peer more closely.  Come on!  I spelled ‘the’ correctly.  Why underline that?

It usually turns out that I’ve been shifted into a foreign language program.  I gather ‘the’ isn’t a word in German.  Regardless, this page was created in English.  I just checked.  Still, it doesn’t make much difference.  Every paragraph has underlines, even crosshatchings in red.  Take my word for it.  They won’t print but they’re here on the screen.

Why am I going on about this?  Surely it’s trivial.

Actually, no.  It’s not.

Increasingly, our world is run by sanctimonious, unrepentant computers.  It doesn’t matter if their smugness is misplaced.  Look at spell check.  It’s a program everyone uses.  It doesn’t just insert properly spelled words into incorrect contexts.  By doing so it redefines our confidence in our own language.  That’s a subtle point but a critical one.  What is it about print that solidifies our thoughts?

Sure, we’re human and prone to error.  Everybody knows that.  But let a computer state that I have 12 speeding tickets ― when in fact I don’t have any ― and it’s instantly perceived as gospel.  The same is true for everybody.  In fact, identity theft is only made possible by computers.

That’s far from trivial.

The sad truth is that while computers were invented by humanity, they’re returning the favor.  They’re reinventing us now that they’re here.  They’re doing so at the most basic level.  Language.  In a very real sense, they’re a language-based learning disability, turning society into socially inept geeks.  My sister can’t be Dorcas.  That’s not a name.  More than defining misspelling, more than creating something that I can’t correct, computers instigate continual attitude adjustments.  Ours.

Think about it.  They’re recreating language.  Oh, we do the same thing.  People create new words all the time.  It’s not just how any word is spelled.  Neither is this the first time words have been created for machines.  But it is the first time machines have created new words themselves, making a different language, grammar (or more properly, the lack of it) and all.  Most unfortunately, it’s a very limited one.

That has enormous implications.

Nuance is disappearing.

You doubt me?  Have you tried deciphering a text message lately?  Perhaps you text regularly yourself.  Then you know that Huxley’s New Speak is here and that we don’t even notice.  We’re losing the words to express our feelings because there are too many letters to text in far too many.  Well, LOL.

Except it’s not funny.

I’ve spoken about this with others and been lectured for my concern.

“Computers are tools.  They only reflect what we know.”

That’s no longer true.  Computers are far more than tools.  They stopped being merely tools when they began interacting.  The sad truth is that millions of people spend more time interacting with computers than they do with other people.

We’ve all been in restaurants and seen customers on cellphones texting while other, honest-to-goodness, real flesh, blood and present people sit neglected beside them.  We see the same thing on the streets, in airplanes, buses and subways, too.  What are we learning from our actions?  Why do you suppose that texting is banned in classrooms?

Computer interactions have changed us while we imagine that we’re doing the interacting.  How ironic.  How insidious.

I suppose that I could rush out and buy a new computer that knows my sister’s name is correctly spelled DORCAS.  But isn’t that missing the point?

Computers have forever changed language.  By so doing, they’ve changed social interaction, too.  I’m not suggesting that should be reversed.  Indeed, it can’t be.  There’s no going back.  But I am positive that we should talk about the changes.

That’s just you and me.  Let’s leave the computers out of this discussion.