Spell Cheque it – Puh-Leese
We are seeing a seismic shift in the topography of typography. Now, the possibility for literature created or influenced by artificial intelligence is shifting rapidly towards reality. Is that a good thing? Rentaquill reflects.
Imagine a creative world, a literary landscape if you like, in which the influence of technology is so great that typographical errors do not exist. Think hard about that for a moment. How much poorer our lives would be – how nearer, our far horizons – if Armstrong had made one giant leap for ‘a’ man instead of, well, for every one of us really.
The pace of our technological evolution as a species is breath-taking. However, experienced and inspired creative writers will tell you en masse that the impact of today’s digital prowess is something we should treat with caution, and a degree of cynicism. Particularly when it comes to blithely accepting the tertiary “it’s write-its right-it’s wrong” approach to writing with the aid of artificial intelligence as opposed to the tip-thunk-tap-tap-ping! of an analogue typewriter – or the simple scritch of a pen. Why? Because true creativity necessitates the imperfections of humanity.
Allow me to explain. An American firm, Persado Inc., is securing funds to develop software that promises to replace the humble human writer one day: using microprocessors to analyse and consequentially specify language strings that are progressively more productive as catalysts for predisposed reactions by human beings. In real life we refer to that as ‘improving the content, getting a higher response rate’. And that’s fair enough, you might think. There’s nothing wrong with making something better, per se.
But while we writer-types are predictably lazy enough to embrace technology’s momentum in our working lives (it does sometimes makes things much faster-better-easier to do), we also know, as one, that we will never have to enslave ourselves to its predilection for omnipresence, a la Persado.
You could colonize the moon and we’d still maintain the courage of our convictions: it is impossible for technology to prevail in a pixels vs. parchment smackdown. You need proof? That’s easy. I give you, spellcheckers.
‘Watt is the problem’, eye here yew say, ‘with spell chequers’?
Please, don’t misunderstand me. I love great tech. The idea of aiding creativity and automating a writing process that can elicit and improve response rates by analysing data actually appeals to me. And on occasion there’s been a real sense of smugness associated with dropping text into a readability index tool to prove I’ve improved it, so as to speak.
But my belief is that spellcheckers are not only pervading our freedom of creative expression, they are also threatening a most basic tenet for our survival as a species – the ability to communicate well. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve proofed a piece of writing the hard way, in my day-job, and caught a mist ache that a spellchecker deemed too menial to deal with.
The problem? Complacency. We don’t push back. I don’t push back. We all enjoy being lazy, letting our dependents become far too dependant on embedded technology to right there wrongs when their writing they’re words; here, they’re and everywhere. …Now, do you see how it can all go horribly wrong with no human being at the helm? All right. All wrong.
I’ll gloss over the impact of curriculum changes on our appetite for curated literature and creative writing as a learned behaviour – for now. You may dispute my stance on automate word processing if you wish. However, one fact is incontrovertible: people have started relying too heavily on technology to help create the written word and that is a dangerous thing to do.
You type out a Tweet; you tap out a text; you craft a lengthy direct email that prods and pokes at consumers’ penny-lined pockets – but you know what? If you write ‘it’s a really goof way to spend your money’, then it’s a spellchecker that’ll spoil your day no matter which electronic device you’ve used.
Co-operating with technology
Most spellcheckers work on a word-by-word word level, comparing strings of characters against acceptable arrays stored in an embedded lexicon. Goof. Good. They’re both in there.
When a string isn’t in that lexicon, we’re shown a wriggly red line or a prompt of some kind and the programme will lob out a ‘helpful suggestion’ to speed us on our weigh. What that means, is that the spellchecker is only as good as the lexicon to which it’s referring and, guess what, those lexicons are always – always – created by a human being.
It’s known as the Cupertino effect: we used to call it WYSIWYG (What You See is What You Get). Older checkers, for example, had no problem with the word ‘co-operation’ as a hyphenated option. If you wrote ‘cooperation’ on the page though, then a spellchecker would flag that combination of characters as an error. Good show, you’d think. Yes indeed, good show.
The trouble was, the alternative suggestion it threw up in place of ‘ cooperation’ – the one most often accepted erroneously by a human being trying to avoid the WHOOSH of a deadline whizzing by – was worse than useless.
It suggested ‘Cupertino’, a city in northern California (coincidentally, also the home of Apple Inc.) … and henceforth shall the erroneous, poxy insertion of a right-wrong word be known among copywriters and creative directors everywhere as ‘the Cupertino effect’.
To this day, the United Nations hangs its head in shame for widely documenting the ‘South Asian Association for Regional Cupertino’ and a ‘presentation on African-German Cupertino’.
Spell checkers are smart, but they’re not clever
A spellchecker is a handy tool, to be sure. But it can’t differentiate between intentional errors and contextually crafted literary cock-ups: some of the most common examples are simple words we use every day: things like loose and lose; passed and past and – my personal favourite – advise and advice.
In fact, spellcheckers are only as good as their programmers’ comprehension of what constitutes the ‘right’ word in the first place. Not surprisingly, we human copywriters remain smugly defiant in the farce of that so-called digital progress. Not surprisingly, we collect examples to help us substantiate our superiority in that vein: my token contribution here, as a final thought, is from of a man to whom we owe our very existence today.
Imagine a World full of Spell Checked Words
Imagine, again, what our lives would be like if Winston Churchill hadn’t been imbued with that most human, creative talent for choosing words so carefully and writing speeches that touched the heart of a nation. Imagine what a world we would live in if he had relied on a spellchecker to have a qualitative role in that process, and he’d written phrases like, ‘we shall ever surrender’ instead of ‘we shall never surrender’ down upon the page.
Actually, WSC could have done with some help. His frustration at having performed poorly at high-school was one of his motivations for writing so much, so well, as an adult.
In a Spring term report it was noted, ‘spelling about as bad as it well can be’, and proof of this lies in a handwritten note he posted to his mother. He scribbled, “My dear Mamma, I hope you will come and see me soon. Did Everest give you my flour I sent you. Give my love to my ants, and tell them not to forget to come down. I am comeinge home in a month.”
How wonderful, as a young boy’s first draft. And how fortuitous, that the great man never had his creativity curbed by that most maleficent of enemies – the automated spellchecker.
Chief Scribe – Words, words, words
An effervescent individual who rarely apologises for asking readers to reach for a dictionary, Rentaquill was writing copy commercially long before people began referring to it as content. Unfettered, and if not crafting the words for noscible corporate institutions that should know better, Rentaquill can be found robletting and misqueming unsuspecting Tweeters with logodaedalisms – or helping businesses discover how to use their unique tone of voice, properly.