- Our audience is busy and can read/think a lot faster than the interlocutors talk.
- Speech is currently not easily searchable.
What Searchable Speech Will Do To You
Will recording every spoken word help or hurt us?
We are going to start recording and automatically transcribing most of what we say. Instead of evaporating into memory, words spoken aloud will calcify as text, into a Record that will be referenced, searched, and mined. It will happen by our standard combination of willing and allowing. It will happen because it can. It will happen sooner than we think.
It will make incredible things possible. Think of all the reasons that you search through your email. Suddenly your own speech will be available in just the same way. “Show me all conversations with Michael before January of last year ... What was the address of that restaurant Mum recommended?
... When was the first time I mentioned Rob’s now-wife? ... Who was at that meeting again?” Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University and a co-author of a forthcoming book on evolutionary psychology, has speculated that we might all get in the habit of peppering our speech with keywords, to help us look it up later. Or, while you’re talking, a software agent could search your old conversations for relevant material. Details would come to your attention at just the moment that you needed them.
Much of what is said aloud would be published and made part of the Web. An unfathomable mass of expertise, opinion, wit, and culture—now lost—would be as accessible as any article or comment thread is today. You could, at any time, listen in on airline pilots, on barbershops, on grad-school bull sessions. You could search every mention of your company’s name. You could read stories told by father to son, or explanations from colleague to colleague. People would become Internet-famous for being good conversationalists. The Record would be mined by advertisers, lawyers, academics. The sheer number of words available for sifting and savoring would explode—simply because people talk a lot more than they write.
With help from computers, you could trace quotes across speakers, or highlight your most common phrases, or find uncommon phrases that you say more often than average to see who else out there shares your way of talking. You could detect when other people were recording the same thing as you—say, at a concert or during a television show—and automatically collate your commentary.
You’d think we were a strange species, if you listened to the whole of humanity’s recorded corpus today.Bill Schilit, a Googler who did early work mining the Google Books corpus, suggested that you could even use quotations to find connections between scientific subjects. “In science you have this problem that the same thing is called different names by different people; but quotations tend to bridge the nomenclature between disciplines,” he said. He described a project where Google looked at quotations used by researchers in different fields. In each document, they’d extract the sentence just before the quotation—the one that introduced it—and then compare those two descriptions; that way they could find out what the quotation stood for: what it meant to different authors, what writers in different disciplines called the same thing.
But would all of this help or hurt us? In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argues that new technology that augments our minds might actually leave them worse off. The more we come to rely on a tool, the less we rely on our own brains. That is, parts of the brain seem to behave like muscle: You either use it (and it grows), or you lose it. Carr cites a famous study of London taxi drivers studying for “The Knowledge,” a grueling test of street maps and points of interest that drivers must pass if they are to get their official taxi license. As the taxi drivers ingested more information about London’s streets, the parts of their brain responsible for spatial information literally grew. And what’s more, those growing parts took over the space formally occupied by other gray matter.
Paradoxically, long-term memory doesn’t seem to work the same way; it doesn’t “fill up.” By offloading more of memory’s demands onto the Record, therefore, it might not be that we’re making space for other, more important thinking. We might just be depriving our brains of useful material. “When a person fails to consolidate a fact, an idea, or an experience in long-term memory,” Carr writes, “he’s not ‘freeing up’ space in his brain for other functions ... When we start using the Web as a substitute for personal memory, bypassing the inner processes of consolidation, we risk emptying our minds of their riches.”
The worry, then, is twofold: If you stopped working out the part of your brain that recalls speech, or names, or that-book-that-Brian-recommended-when- you-spoke-to-him-in-the-diner-that-day-after-the- football-game, maybe those parts of your brain would atrophy. Even more pernicious, as you came to rely more on the Record as a store of events and ideas, you would decide less often to commit them to your own long-term memory. And so your mind would become a less interesting place....MORE