I can currently neither read nor write without the assistance of machines. I am composing this essay with a speech recognition program called Dragon NaturallySpeaking. In order to use it, I wear headphones and a microphone. I stare at the computer screen as I speak. Speech recognition is now remarkably accurate, but despite Dragon’s claim that I will be able to record my thoughts as fast as I can speak, the reality is far different. I must correct hundreds of small errors the program produces (though I have left some of the more interesting mistakes intact for reasons that will become apparent), a process that is nothing less than a battle: human against machine. It is a battle for my tongue, my language. It is a battle to remain myself.
In July 2010, I got a full-time job making and distributing e-books for a small publisher. On top of this job, I was writing a book (my first) in my spare time. On September 29, 2010, my body staged a rebellion against this overuse of computers. The doctor informed me that my payment pain was caused because the nerves that run through my shoulders don’t have enough room. My poem bones are small. I am small. I must rest to reduce inflammation. If this does not help, there is a surgery that can make the holes in my bones larger. Cut away my poems to let my words out. Stop using the computer, she said. Doing my best to heed her advice, I quit my job. I stopped writing. I stopped reading because scrolling on the computer hurt me, and I could not hold even the smallest book. I switched to sleeping on my back so as not to compress my shoulders. I wore hand braces at night to keep my hands straight. My injury was so severe that pain prevented sleep, and I could barely hold my toothbrush.
In April 2011, I endured a painful EMG, a test during which the neurologist zapped my hands and arms with electricity, and then stuck needles deep into my arms to listen to the muscles. I cried for the duration of the test, not so much because of the physical pain but because my entire life had been affected for so long. The test showed moderate carpal tunnel (in addition to the problem with my shoulders). The doctor said it was not severe enough for surgery, a statement that made me want to get worse so I could get better.
My situation called to mind that of one of my favorite writers, Samuel Johnson, who spent much of his life battling various illnesses, mental and physical. During the whole of his life, Johnson waged two wars: the war with his body (plagued by scrofula, partial blindness and deafness, bouts of depression, and what was most likely Tourette’s syndrome) and the war with his tongue. The war with his body ended in 1784. The war with his tongue immortalized him.
In 1746, Samuel Johnson agreed to undertake the monumental task of producing a dictionary of the English language. Johnson wrote that he set out not to change the English language but to order “the boundless chaos of living speech.” What Johnson initially supposed would be a three-year project turned into a Herculean task that ate up eight of his 75 years.
Back in the 21st century, I was still cut off from the things I most loved doing. A hot pink Sony e-reader (5.47 oz!) allowed me to read again, but writing presented more of a challenge. I thought that using Dragon NaturallySpeaking would free me, and that I would be able to write again. But using Dragon is like learning to walk again after severe injury. In order to check my words as Dragon processes them, I must wait for them to appear on the screen. I must speak all of my punctuation marks and formatting. If I don’t pay attention to what Dragon is typing, I go back later and have no idea what I said or who I am. For instance, I am now a pedophile, a fact of which I was previously unaware. I thought I just liked Virginia, but Dragon says I have a predilection for Virgin Young.
When Johnson was compiling the dictionary, he wrote that he had the dreams of a poet, but woke to find himself a lexicographer. I was once a writer, but I am now an editor, speller, and proofreader. In the past, my typing was very accurate, and my proofreading was more about revising than correcting. Now I must make sense of the weird words on the page. After ten rounds of proofreading, I find almost undetectable mistakes, such as the female bower bird of eastern Australia going into the bower to “meet with the mail” instead of going to “mate with the male.” I corrected the gender in an early round of proofreading, but meeting is just as plausible as mating, and I did not catch that until the end.
In addition, after spending seven years in Hollywood writing screenplays, then focusing on stream writing screenwriting during my MFA, I am now writing in a manner that makes it impossible to write dialogue. The sound of my own voice East raise destroys the sounds of the characters’ voices in my head. I used to be proud of my ability to hear how people spoke, and to reproduce it with ease and naturalism. Now, even my own writing sounds stiff and formal. I’m very self-conscious while writing with Dragon. Gone is my career as a writer of erotica! The neighbors can hear me writing.
Dictating to Dragon is different from dictating to a human who understands hundreds and Lang puns and slang. The program does not process regional accents well. I am lucky to have a standard accent and moderately good enunciative capabilities. I wonder what Dragon would make of the guy who worked with me at the nature Conservancy in Hawaii, the guy from why and I Waianae, who was a pig hunter and carried around a bloody machete wherever we went. It was a challenge even for me, locally raised, to understand him. Dragon does not know the words I grew up saying: Paco Lolo. Holly Eva. Cop coffee. Pakalolo, Haleiwa, kapakahi.
Dragon has become a co-author of everything I write, and I must work with it even as I battle it. As in other collaborations I have undertaken, there is a sacrifice of my total vision. The difference with Dragon is that I do not respect the creativity of my partner. Overall, my writing has become more robotic, perhaps because that is how I must speak in order to communicate with this machine. It is hard to imagine writing something intimate, like a love story. It is hard to imagine that there are soft touches or tender words.
Samuel Johnson once said that only a blockhead writes for anything but money, but I think he wrote because he loved language. He loved the beauty of words, the strangeness of them. I think he loved their changeability, even though it made his job as a lexicographer more challenging. He was a moralist, who believed writing should instruct. There are no bad words in his dictionary, nothing puerile or suggestive. In this way, he was like Dragon, but he also believed that language was created by the people who use it: the writers of his time and times before. He looked to them to define his words.
Dragon is less tolerant of the liberties I take with the English language. It does not like when I try to make my best friend’s name into a Latin species name. It won’t use the peculiar spelling of the 17th century unless I spell out every single word letter by letter. My language, once full of wordplay, abbreviations, emoticons, and shorthand picked up while living online, is gone. Dragon, unlike me, does not like to swear. It won’t shit. It will only shift or ship or sit. It never wants to fuck. Always has a headache. But it will truck and flock and walk and even suck.
In a fit of exasperation with Dragon, I whisper: Fuck you! into the microphone.
How kale, Dragon types, trying to take over, trying to wash my mouth out with soap. Perhaps it is just as frustrated as I am.
Star Trek often addresses the boundary between computer consciousness and human consciousness. In episodes of the Original Series, androids desire freedom and lives of their own. Sometimes they fall in love, or are destroyed by emotion. Computers are swayed by philosophical arguments. Spock, half-Human and half-Vulcan, exemplifies the conflict between logic and emotion, between what computers can do and what people can do. Because of my reliance upon Dragon, I’ve become obsessed with what makes me different from an android. I look human, but I am part computer. My life is contained in 20,000 tweets and three blogs. Most of my brain is now on Google and Wikipedia. They are extensions of me. I feel this conflict between my human self and my machine self every day as I sit at my computer, saying, “I am not a computer.”
I say the words, and they appear on the screen. I say the words, and the computer says them with me.
In 1752, two years before Johnson finished the dictionary, his wife Tetty died. Due to his work, he was with her less than he would have liked. I often think of Johnson slaving away on the dictionary, forcing himself to go on even though he was racked with grief, missing half of himself. I think the dictionary saved him because he found hope in the words, which could change almost beyond recognition, yet live on in another form. I believe the work of compiling the dictionary kept Johnson’s mind from deteriorating or collapsing into grief. In the face of losing one living being he loved, he could at least fight to document and preserve the other.
Before arthritis incapacitated my grandmother, she crocheted knickknacks, blouses, baby booties, doilies, and many other things. She was talented. And she loved to crochet. By the time I knew her, she had been forced to give up her craft, and she watched television for eight hours a day. When I went to the doctor for the fourth time in as many months, I asked her: Is it arthritis? I’m too young for arthritis. No, she assured me, it’s not arthritis. But I know that it runs in my blood, and it is only a matter of time before it happens to me.
My fingers had a voice. Our physical gestures affect brain function. Ask any smoker. To me, typing is as natural as breathing. The information goes straight from my brain to the keyboard without any translation. It is like playing the PML piano. The music comes from the fingers. It does not go from the brain to the fingers to the PN oh piano. If suddenly a composer had to go from playing a piano to playing a violin, I predict that the music composed would be different. In that same sense, writing with my voice has changed my voice and my words. But changes and mistakes give rise to beautiful new creatures. Words are misunderstood, they even all four evolve, and we can trace their journeys, as Johnson did in his dictionary.
I often think of what Johnson went through to preserve the tongue he loved. I think of him as I bemoan humanity’s descent into using lay instead of lie, even though this same humanity is responsible for the words staycation and manscaping, which delight me endlessly. I think of him when Dragon twists my tongue. And when it redeems itself in moments of brilliance, as when it calls Nabokov the baklava.
Documenting shifts in language is a task with job security. Johnson could have worked on the dictionary for 1,000 years. Similarly, the only way to train your Dragon is to sit in your garrett, in sickness and in health, taming your language, battling your century and your pain. The only way to bend Dragon to your will is to keep on trucking. In fits of anger, fits of rebellion and stubbornness, I hurled profanities at Dragon: Truck! Truck! Truck!
Until one day I said, “Fuck,” and Dragon finally typed: Fuck. I stood up, triumphant, my fist in the air, and shouted it a few times more. I felt something a computer can never feel: the joy of speaking and being understood.
drawings by Seth Shaw
Benjamin, Walter. Task of the Translator: Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. Fontana, Collins, 1970.