How Siri rewired my brain

I’m sure I’m not the first person to think about this or even to write about it. However, I have not stumbled across it during my Web travels thus far. I woke up in the middle of the night last night with a fully formed idea on my mind, something that has often happened to me throughout my life. I reached over to my phone, ever present as it was on my night table, and began to dictate my thoughts. Before very long, I had written about 1500 words. Feeling satisfied with my exposition, I called it a night and finally went back to sleep.

I woke this morning to find the draft still open on my phone. I reviewed it quickly to make sure I was still satisfied and then saved it into my drafts folder for later sending. As I read it, it dawned on me for the first time how profoundly the use of Siri has rewired my brain. That probably sounds ominous to those who are worried about the creeping power of artificial intelligence, but what I am about to describe feels like a pretty good thing to me.

I’ve always liked to write. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. I voluntarily took summer classes on it and opted to take a creative writing class in lieu of a basic English composition class during my first year of college. I was also always a lousy typist. In fact, I was basically unable to type at all without great frustration until I got my hands on my first electric typewriter that allowed me to view and correct up to 10 lines of text at a time. The advent of word processors with the easy editing and spell and grammar checking finally made it possible for me to write for an audience larger than one.

So, I created a website and wrote a bunch of articles for it and also moderated and contributed to a very active discussion forum for five years. I believe I probably posted about 2000 pages worth of single-spaced material over those years. And, the typing was laborious. Fortunately, it was a labor of love, and I would not take back a single moment of it.

I realized about 20 years ago that my typing inability was going to interfere with my productivity, so I began looking for options. I got my hands on an early version of the Dragon dictation software. However, I discovered two interesting facts when using it. The first was that it was really buggy, primitive software, and no amount of rewiring of my brain at the time would have made it a viable option for me. In fact, as I’m going to describe below, it was the casual act of using high-quality dictation software that begin to rewire my brain in a way that completely offset the second problem I found during my early experiments with dictation.

The second problem was that the movement of my thoughts through my fingers to the keyboard seemed to be quite disconnected from the movement of my thoughts out my mouth. In other words, my writing style was so different from my speaking style that I had a lot of difficulty formulating thoughts verbally that resulted in text that I was satisfied with. This all began to change slowly and organically when I began to use Siri as my primary tool for short text messages and brief emails — nothing that required much forethought or complex sentence construction.

Then, slowly but surely, without me even noticing it, I began to create more and more complex messages via dictation. Now, it is just second nature for me to compose lengthy, detailed emails and even full-length articles via dictation. I’m now much more likely to dictate something of the length of this blog post than I am to type it, with the caveat that I am in an appropriate environment for speaking out loud. So, why do I consider this to be a positive rewiring of my brain?

Well, first I’ve discovered that the most important decisions in my organization require oral persuasion. While I am still a huge fan of memorializing important and complex ideas in text, the act of dictating them allows me to hone a more conversational style of presentation that not only comes across better in the email but also prepares me for the necessity of oral persuasion to seal the deal. The mere act of listening to myself write allows me to hear things that I might have glossed over if they had been typed.

I did a little experiment that involved a tiny bit of math to determine that I spoke at a rate of well over 100 words per minute. And, speaking at this rate resulted in highly accurate dictation. Not only was it about 3-4 times faster than my typing rate but the number of errors was reduced substantially as well. Needless to say, this has dramatically improved the quality and quantity of this type of professional writing for me. Now I completely understand the old standard movie scene of the boss dictating a letter to what was called his secretary at that time.

I’m not suggesting any nostalgia for the working environment of that era. I am just noting that the way that most people shared their thoughts throughout history, whether telling a story or running a business, was primarily oral. The number of people who rely primarily on writing to convey their thoughts has always been relatively small. And, those who do it well has been smaller even. Arguably, the ability to transform dictation into written text opens up the possibility of “writing” for people who are gifted and articulate speakers but who have always struggled with the act of writing itself.

I want to be clear about something. I’m not suggesting that audio will ever be a satisfactory replacement for text. It’s hard to imagine a method of as easily searching audio content for exactly what you’re looking for. I know it’s possible to some extent, but the amount of cataloging required to identify precise passages including certain keywords in something the length of the encyclopedia Britannica would be prohibitive. However, perhaps artificial intelligence is going to find a way around this. Even with some type of comprehensive cataloging that did not require the work of humans, it’s still hard to imagine that there would ever be anything better than searching for keywords and visually scanning the text in which they appear.

I will always prefer text as my primary reference tool because I read many, many times faster than I listen. Now, once I find what I’m actually looking for, listening to audio or watching a video is often the ideal way for me to move forward. So, I like to dictate written text because I prefer my “voice” and because it dramatically increases my productivity. I like to read when I have to plow through large amounts of information rapidly. And, I like to listen to things when it’s convenient and watch things when that is the most effective way to learn.

So, I will never agree with Socrates that writing was a bad thing that would lead to the downfall of civilization. However, I’d like to think he would be heartened by the return to oral traditions in things like dictation software, audio text messages, and podcasts.