James Gleick has a recent article in the New York Times about Autocorrect (“Auto Crrect Ths!” – Aug. 4, 2012), that bane of impatient texters and Tweeters everywhere. Besides recounting some of the more hilarious and embarrassing autocorrections made, he very poignantly tells how Autocorrect works and how it is advancing as computers get better at making predictions.
But in the second to last paragraph, he missteps. He writes:
One more thing to worry about: the better Autocorrect gets, the more we will come to rely on it. It’s happening already. People who yesterday unlearned arithmetic will soon forget how to spell. One by one we are outsourcing our mental functions to the global prosthetic brain.
I don’t know whether Mr. Gleick’s writing was the victim of an editor trying to save space, but that seems unlikely since there’s room on the internet for a bit of qualification, which is what could save these statements from being common cases of declinism. Let me explain.
“People who yesterday unlearned arithmetic” probably refers to the use of calculators. But I would hesitate to say that the power and ubiquity of modern calculators has caused people to unlearn arithmetic. Let’s take a simple equation such as 4 x 4. Anyone conducting such an equation on a calculator knows the arithmetic behind it. If they put it in and the answer comes back as 0 or 8 or 1 or even 20, they are more than likely to realize something went wrong, namely they pressed the minus or plus button instead of the multiplication button. Likewise they know the arithmetic behind 231 x 47.06.
Mr. Gleick writes implies that the efficiency of calculators has caused people to rely too much on them. But this is backwards. The more difficult that calculations get, the more arithmetical knowledge a user is likely to have. Relying on a machine to tell me the square root of 144 doesn’t necessarily mean I “unlearned” arithmetic. It only means that I trust the calculator to give me the correct answer to the equation I gave it. If I trust that I pressed the buttons in the right order, the answer I am given will be sufficient for me, even if I do not know how to work out the equation on pen and paper. I doubt any mathematicians out there are worried about “unlearning” arithmetic because of the power of their calculators. Rather, they’re probably more worried about how to enter the equations correctly. And just like I know 8 is not the answer to 4 x 4, they probably know x = 45 is not the answer to x2 + 2x – 4 = 0.
Taking the analogy to language, we see the same thing. Not being able to spell quixotic, but knowing that chaotic is not the word I’m looking for, does not mean that I have lost the ability to spell. It merely means that I have enough trust in my Autocorrect to suggest the correct word I’m looking for. If it throws something else at me, I’ll consult a dictionary.
If the Autocorrect cannot give me the correct word I’m looking for because it is a recent coinage, there may not be a standard spelling yet, in which case I am able to disregard any suggestions. I’ll spell the word as I want and trust the reader to understand it. Ya dig?
None of the infamous stories of Autocorrect turning normal language into gibberish involve someone who didn’t know how to spell. None of them end with someone pleading for the correct spelling of whatever word Autocorrect mangled. As Autocorrect gets better, people will just learn to trust its suggestions more with words that are difficult to spell. This doesn’t mean we have lost the ability to spell. Spelling in English is a tour de force in memorization because the spelling of English words is a notorious mess. If all I can remember is that the word I’m looking for has a q and an x in it, does it really mean I have unlearned how to spell or that I have just forgotten the exact spelling of quixotic and am willing to trust Autocorrect’s suggestion?
Learning arithmetic is learning a system. Once you know how 2 x 2 works, you can multiply any numbers. The English spelling system is nowhere near a system like arithmetic, so the analogy Mr. Gleick used doesn’t really work for this reason either. But there is one thing that spelling and arithmetic have in common when it comes to computers. Calculators and Autocorrect are only beneficial to those who already have at least a basic understanding of arithmetic and spelling. The advance of Autocorrect will have the same effect on people’s ability to spell as the advance of calculators did on people’s ability to do arithmetic, which was not really any at all.
By the way, I once looked up took (meaning the past tense of take) in a dictionary because after writing it I was sure that wasn’t the way to spell it. And that’s my memory getting worse, not my Autocorrect unlearning me.
[Update – Aug. 6, 2012] If our spelling really does go down the drain, it should at least make this kind of spelling bee more interesting (if only it were true).