Will Voice Dictation Change the Nature of Writing?

Posted: August 10, 2012 in digital culture, edushifts, mlearning, mobilelearning, reflections
Tags: , ,

Digital mobile technology is changing our society.  The ease at which we are able to convert information into digital formats and then consume this content on a mobile device is changing how we consume information.  A good example of this is with audiobooks.  The increasingly widespread use of digital audiobooks has led to an increased discussion over whether the mainstream use of audiobooks will change the nature of reading.  While audiobooks themselves are not new (i.e. books on tape, books on CD), the advent of digital files, digital downloads and the widespread availability of audiobooks in digital format for consumption on mobile devices have led many to believe that audiobooks may weaken reading ability and render reading written text less important.

Digital mobile technology is also changing the way we create content. This much we know.  The new change is in how we record ideas.  As digital formatting is changing the nature of reading through audiobooks, voice dictation software is beginning to change the way we create content through the writing.  With the advent of voice input software for mobile devices, such as Apple’s Siri, and voice dictation on Apple’s computers, we are seeing the beginning of the mainstream use of voice commands and voice dictation.  Once again, voice dictation is not new (i.e. someone dictating to a scribe, Dragon Naturally Speaking software). Unlike the recent past, however, voice dictation software is now coming included when once purchases a particular hardware device and the software is becoming much better at understanding natural speech without any sort of ‘training’ period.  This is leading some to wonder whether this is going to change the nature of writing.

I recently read an article on this very topic titled, “Siri, Take This Down: Will Voice Control Shape Our Writing?“. In this article, there is a discussion of how the nature of writing changed with the advent of the typewriter.  The article quotes philosopher Martin Hiedegger,

In the time of the first dominance of the typewriter, a letter written on this machine still stood for a breach of good manners. Today a hand-written letter is an antiquated and undesired thing; it disturbs speed reading. Mechanical writing deprives the hand of its rank in the realm of the written word and degrades the word to a means of communication. In addition, mechanical writing provides this “advantage” that it conceals the handwriting and thereby the character. The typewriter makes everyone look the same.

Growing up and living in a world of typed text, I personally find the concept of a person’s character coming through in their style of writing/penmanship interesting.  I’ve always read typed text and learned to focus on the ideas presented rather than on the character of the person writing.  Nevertheless, the idea is presented that a shift in communication style occurred when people began writing words down. Then a shift in writing style occurred when people began typing words rather than writing words.  The question now becomes, ‘If we can now dictate our words, will our writing style change again?’  The article makes the point that voice dictation may shift our writing away from a formal and reflective style to a conversational style.

In reading this article and taking some time to reflect on this issue, it struck me just how our technology changes us.  We created the technology of writing to allow for ideas to be recorded, compiled and shared over time and space and this changed the way we communicated.  It became less important to speak well and more important to reflect and record well.  It appears that voice dictation is bringing us back to our evolutionary roots in terms of communication.  If we begin to write less and dictate more, then product of our work may be less formal and more conversational and it will force us to become better oral communicators as well.

How does this all affect education?  Really, it’s revolutionary.  The grand focus on reading and writing may begin to give way to a grander focus on listening (audiobooks) and oral communication (voice dictation).  Sitting quietly at desks reading and writing may give way to more talk and listening exercises.  In addition to reading comprehension, we will also need to focus more on oral comprehension.  This shift may come faster than we anticipate as it is already possible for students with the most updated Mac OSX software to dictate their work to their computer and produce a written piece for their teacher.

Another point to consider is whether this change is a ‘bad thing’.  Some may say that if one can simply talk their ideas into a device, then they will lose the important skills associated with writing and writing conventions.  Personally, I don’t believe that ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ is the correct way to approach this change.  If our goal as a school system is to humanize children and to prepare them for life in civilized society, then our instruction has to reflect the social requirements demanded by society.  If our society demands critical thinkers who are strong oral communicators, then that is what our instruction must focus on.  One way to look at this change is that writing was invented to address a need; namely to create a record of ideas.  Voice dictation can now address another need; to simplify the manual task of writing to allow us to focus more of our mental power on thinking and developing new ideas instead of focusing some of that mental power on the mechanics of writing.  Some may even argue the merits of developing critical thinkers instead of suppressing critical thinking through an overemphasis on the mechanics of writing.  It is important to have people able to write well but what is the purpose of excellent writers who really have nothing to say? I am not suggesting that we abandon reading and writing altogether.  After all, written text is still the backbone of our social fabric and written ideas are still what make our civilized society tick so effectively and efficiently.  Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the importance of oral communication and how, through voice dictation, the nature and style of what is written may change because of mode of input is beginning to change.

The striking part for me is that all this can really be accomplished on a mobile device.  We can dictate text messages and other short text pieces now.  What will our world sound like when we begin to dictate larger pieces of writing to our mobile devices as well?

  1. Larger pieces of writing need to be edited, regardless of the way the first draft is transcribed from thought. It is only the tools we use that change.

    • True, but it is only a matter of time until the voice dictation software will be able to handle editing as well through voice prompts.

      • Peter Mullaney says:

        That depends on how one defines “writing.” If you define “writing” as the physical act of putting words to paper and editing them to a finished product, then writing as such may change. If you define writing as being performed by the brain, then writing is not going to change much.

        It is like saying that a microwave oven “changes the nature of cooking” when in truth it makes chemical changes to food faster and more convenient. He who equates cooking with making chemical changes to food probably does not have friends clamoring to come for dinner.

      • Hi Peter,
        As stated in the Wikipedia entry for writing, “Writing is the representation of language in a textual medium through the use of a set of signs or symbols (known as a writing system)”. What goes on in the brain is idea formation – this will never change. Communicating those ideas using symbols for that everyone outside of our own brain can understand what we are thinking and the method with which this happens – this is what is changing.

  2. […] evaluating mobile technology and having “pilot” programs to see if it makes sense, Rob DeLorenzo not only has embraced the concept but it pushing hard to make us think about what it really means. […]

  3. The implications of shift towards dictation will be far-reaching. For example, what will the classroom or open-plan office be like once everyone is speaking to their devices?

  4. Kemal says:

    This is thought provoking reading, and it makes sense. In a way, however, none of this is wholy new, it is a shift to the norms of the mid-late 19th and early 20th century.

    It is strange how things once normal can be lost in time, the primary – second to none – mode of composing prose in the business world was dictation up until the 1940s and 50s. It survived in LAw and Medicine until today in some ways, but 100 years ago no one drafted business letters by hand, they were dictated even junior officers managers and lower level executives dictated to stenographers.

    Of course people also wrote longhand, massively at first though less so with the advent of typewriters. But quite a bit of what was written longhand or typed was first dictated.

    I think that what you are describing will be a return to this, in which we dictate email and correspondence and more primarily, and when we have the time we may use pen and ink.

    The number of turn of the century popular genre (as opposed to literary) authors who either mostly dictated or dictated now and then is far larger than people would imagine. But it would take scouring quite a few biographies to even begin to get a picture of this.

    It really is a lost history.

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