by James Somers, February 19, 2011

“The Record”

Data storage is now cheap enough and file transfers fast enough that you could walk around with a voice recorder that was always on, periodically shuttling your audio to a server when the local drive started to fill up.

On its own this already has serious implications. You’d never have to worry about missing a great line or joke; you could replay and dissect every subtle argument; no conversation would be forgotten.

But imagine if this capability were combined with fast accurate speech recognition. For one, the plain text that such a gizmo might produce would be trivial to store and share. But more importantly, your speech would be searchable, skimmable, excerptable, etc., just like any other kind of text.

That’s where things get crazy. Imagine being able to perform the conversational equivalent of highly targeted keyword searches—“What are two guys in Arizona saying about ‘X’?” Think of advertising and media; think of the law; think of the bubbling up of ideas and jokes and people. Whole debates might be pruned and published; quips that get enough of a laugh could automatically be tweeted; meetings minutes and class notes and informal colloquies would all be broadcast and indexed and archived. You could get famous just for being well-spoken.

The name-tag scenario

In Season 5, Episode 7 of Seinfeld—“The Non-Fat Yogurt”—Elaine, shooting the bull with her boyfriend Lloyd Braun, suggests that “everybody should wear name tags all the time—to make the city friendlier.” “It would be like a small town,” she says.

Later in the episode we discover that Braun has shared Elaine’s proposal with his boss, the sitting mayor, who essentially torpedos his bid for reelection by making the name tags a key part of his platform.

Silliness aside, it’s quite likely that someday soon everyone’s name will be visible, in one form or another, to everyone else. Maybe we’ll walk around with Terminator-style heads-up displays; maybe our smartphones will show us the Facebook profiles of everyone within thirty feet; maybe we’ll all have state-issued wristbands.

If something like that does happen, what will become of names? Will I still perk up whenever I hear “James,” or will the sound wear out? Will it be kosher to even use a stranger’s name, or will new norms for introductions evolve? Will people be more empathetic, or less? Will we just seamlessly adapt?

E-mails of note?

Letters of Note is one of my favorite blogs. But it makes me wonder what will become of our correspondence, now that it’s all electronic. On the one hand it’s infinitely more accessible—neatly typed, frequently copied, and keyword-searchable. But all the good stuff is buried in tens of thousands of useless ads and notices, and what’s worse, siloed in password-protected inboxes hosted by companies that might very well dissolve.

What a shame it would be if our progeny couldn’t read our intimate exchanges the way I did Feynman’s, or Joyce’s, or Lewis Carroll’s. And what a thrill it would be if they had, say, J.D. Salinger’s gmail password.