A few months ago, I made a Faustian deal with a woman in a polo shirt.
She offered me not worldly riches, not uninhibited genius, not even the sudden skill at playing guitar – no, what she gave me was something of far greater significance: the ability to access my emails whenever and wherever I should chose to and the freedom of only having to carry one small rectangular device with me when I wanted to text and listen to music at the same time.
It is true – I bought a smartphone. While this is nothing new to many people, it is entirely new to me, and I’m still getting used to the ins and outs of the particular trade-off I made in signing the phone contract.
It came at a price, certainly, and not only because of the actual cost of the bills. For instance, I am now a slave to my email, and also I have a phone that knows me better than the devil knows hell.
My phone’s wide and varied knowledge of my life and habits still fill me with amazement and vague terror. It knows where I work, where I parked, what advice columns I might like to read.
When I found my height and weight in its depths, I could not begin to understand how my phone could have such information, but I wasn’t exactly surprised. It did not seem entirely beyond my phone’s capabilities to access my health records or somehow know the height of my pocket and extrapolate the rest from there. Only later did I realize I had volunteered that information to it myself, so it would tell me how many steps I take each day.
But a more subtle and perhaps more alarming understanding my phone has of me comes down to the mere words I use and the way I speak. The predictive text function comes in handy when I am too lazy to write out the last few syllables of “interesting” or when I forget how to spell “guarantee.” Yet it wasn’t until recently, when I decided to type texts using only the suggestions my phone gives me, that I realized the extent of my phone’s intimate understanding.
This is the result of choosing each first suggestion, without typing a single letter:
I am a beautiful person. I have a meeting with the people who are you doing? I have an interview with the design of the cats
It’s not the most straightforward text, but once you get past some of the odd words and the lack of proper punctuation, well, it’s scary how close this is to something I would actually type out on my own.
Sure, the syntax is a little odd with the cat design interview there, and it’s a little forward with the self-praise and apparent concern with whom one is “doing,” but the essence is there. I have many meetings and interviews in my life right now, and I am lucky enough to have a job where some such meetings involve cats.
Yet that one text was no fluke. This is from choosing the second option of each word, again without typing a single key myself. This is the other default text my phone thinks I want to send:
Okay I guess I should have been in place for over a decade. One study tracked the TNR program [NOTE: this stands for trap-neuter-return, a program for cats] to help you to the undertaker Nicolas Cage
Again, here is a text eerily similar to what I might send on any given day to someone on my contacts list. A few things seem a little jumbled together, but once again there are two essential things that my phone understands about my life: my interest in cats and my appreciation for Nicolas Cage, to whom I would gladly take people if possible! (My phone does make an error in, for some reason, listing his title as “undertaker,” when Mr. Cage is, in fact, a Hollywood actor.)
Also, it’s true I have been in place for more than a decade – a full two decades in fact – and I’ll admit I’m not afraid to remind people about it.
When I gave myself some leeway, typing the first letter in the first word or two and then choosing each word from the three given options, it was even more revealing:
I’m pretty impressed with the design of the cats on the social media, but a few days ago. I’m sure you are looking to get the insect to the mean time.
Yeah I spose lol, but a few weeks. I’m sure that the cats. And on the individual cats and the ways in the next few weeks.
Okay, I think this is a bit more about the act of a new one of my favorite part of the cats. And unfortunately I don’t know if you are interested in the next 10 times
And some of these texts even had what I thought to be a streak of poetry to them:
This is Joe from you and your business. I am in a few days ago. I’m not sure if you are still in the future.
It is possible that you are not the only thing that I dabble in the next 10 million years
That’s concerning your room? Lol, but it would have to be a near-miss in a Florida college campus, so I’ll just go ahead and delete this message
I don’t have any questions. Saturday is the best deflection, and John Paul McCartney the cats are OK.
I can imagine predictive text becoming a tool for artists and poets. Chance and automation have long been put to use in the name of art, with musical dice and cadavre exquis, and poets before have used automatic writing and word generators.
Whatever the case, I think it’s clear predictive text can be a benefit both to human and to phone. It helps me spell, and, should my phone ever become self-aware, it might send out texts it wrote itself and trick my contacts into thinking I was talking to them.
Yet I must contend that, in spite of my phone’s insistence that I end emails in this way, “bestival” is not a word and never will be.
Joe Zimmermann is a junior English and journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.