The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

The Autocorrect Principle

You’d never know it, dear reader, but the Q key on my keyboard doesn’t work. How is it then that Q appears here, you ask? It’s a hassle, I’ll be honest. I mouse around. It’s a copy-and-paste job.

Because of my computer’s handicap, I truly need autocorrect for inserting Qs as needed.  Without it, I’d be buying a new computer. All because of a broken button. For me, autocorrect is essential.

Some people are poor spellers, so I understand why autocorrect was invented. I’m an editor by day, but even I have words I regularly misspell—separate, perseverance, bureau. Just last week I was handwriting a note and found myself in the middle of a word I wasn’t sure how to get out of. I pushed on through, then stopped, sat back, and looked at it. A twinge of fear reverberated through me. How did people ever survive without autocorrect? My trusty computer beckoned like a warm home, broken Q and all. This wouldn’t have happened with my computer.

It was print culture that really gave rise to the notion that words should be spelled the same way every time. Before writing, words were sounds, not objects. Spelling referred to speaking, not writing. After all, casting a spell is an act of speaking. Reading was something you did more with your ears, not your eyes.

Autocorrect builds upon our print-based notions about uniform spelling. For my part, I appreciate the standardized spellings we’ve agreed to. It’s useful and efficient—everybody using language like common operating system so to speak.

Although autocorrect has drawn fire because of text messaging fails, it didn’t start there. It first took shape in word processing programs. Microsoft Word has its variously colored squiggles to suggest corrections. But what processes words more relentlessly than autocorrect? Autocorrect is the fullest manifestation yet. And all for a noble aim—good spelling.

Yet autocorrect is about more than good spelling. We want better, clearer communication. Good spelling is simply a means to that end. Sure, you can text with misspellings, acronyms, and abbreviations, but you always run the risk of miscommunicating. Autocorrect serves to reduce bad communication by ensuring good spelling. Of course, we know the fallout of this thinking. We see now how autocorrect can derail meaning by demanding good spelling. Damn You Autocorrect illustrates how autocorrect can spell correctly but still miscommunicate in humorous and sometimes tragic ways.*

Autocorrect spells a word right but chooses the wrong word. And no amount of good spelling can make up for a loss of meaning. This is the irony. Autocorrect spells well but communicates poorly.
This is the first lesson of autocorrect: Overused technology reverses on itself. What began with print-culture’s emphasis on uniform spelling has become autocorrect’s misguided hyper-vigilance. Reversal is what’s happening here.

So how can autocorrect start accounting for meaning and not just spelling? That’s a reasonable question. And, if they haven’t already, you can bet that programmers are asking that question and answering it with more complex programming.* They’ll develop advanced programming to compare misspelled words to their context and create statistical models based on massive amounts of data to determine whether a word is right or wrong and make a suggestion. And they will probably achieve their goals. It will be impressive technology. It will be autocorrect for our autocorrect. And it will be efficient and handy and helpful.

Consider for a moment if autocorrect had never been introduced. Doesn’t a reader have a better chance at discerning meaning from a misspelled word than from the wrong word spelled correctly? After all, the rightly spelled word is more deceiving than a poorly spelled one. The misspelled word contains clues to the writer’s thinking. But autocorrect demolishes those clues. Instead, we continue using autocorrect, and looking for ways to correct autocorrect.

This is the second lesson of autocorrect: When our technology creates new problems, we tend to solve them with more technology.

Hence, we use seatbelts and airbags—we protect ourselves using additional technology so that our death-defying speeds continue being defied. We could slow down, but seatbelts and airbags save us that hassle. Likewise, we could learn to spell better, but autocorrect saves us that hassle. Our first instinct is to fix technological problems with technological solutions.

This tendency makes the first lesson relevant again: Overused technology reverses on itself. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to step back and ask, “Is there a less (or non) technological solution?” As the joke goes, when NASA went to the moon, it spent millions of dollars developing a pen that would write without gravity. Russia’s solution—a pencil. Surrounded by technology, we can overlook simpler solutions.

Finally, let me pose this. Does the autocorrect principle exist in bigger systems and structures? Do we aim for good spelling in an effort to produce good communication but actually end up with meaningless results? Do we achieve intermediate goals at the cost of ultimate ones? Do we get the two confused?

We can easily recognize and grasp the problems created by autocorrect. But what about technologies on a bigger scale? What if the autocorrect principle happens on the scale of a corporation, government, or globe. Technologies of this magnitude do exist, only they’re much harder than autocorrect to identify and grasp—so are their mistakes. We have processes and programs automating relationships between employees and departments and whole companies. They’re called “protocols” or “best practices” or “standard procedures.” But does the intermediate goal of efficiency actually derail us from reaching our ultimate goals?

Our world has many social ills; the question is, “Is the autocorrect principle to blame?” Our world has sweatshops in Asia and high unemployment in the United States; why is that? Why are we damning laborers to terrible working environments and poor living conditions when we could be easing their burden by supplementing their work with jobs where unemployed workers need income? Our intermediate goal is efficiency. What’s our ultimate goal?

Am I pointing the finger anyone? Certainly not. Blame has no place in this discussion; it’s as nonsensical as blaming autocorrect for miscommunicating. Autocorrect is simply doing what it was programmed to do.

Likewise, businesses, government bureaucracies, and the Internet are doing what they are programmed to do. They’re autocorrect on steroids. Yes, they get plenty right. But they also create new problems. Except this time it’s not about the wrong words, it’s about abused lives. It’s not a matter of misspelling, it’s a matter of injustice. And like autocorrect, no one is to blame.

The lessons of autocorrect are harbingers on many levels. Will overusing technological systems reverse into a jumble of meaningless but correctly spelled products? Has it already? Will we go on fixing social and environmental problems with more and more technology? The Autocorrect Principle should remind us to step back and decide whether good spelling is more important than good communication—whether efficiency is the goal or the means. The clues may be in the misspelling.

*If you don’t know about autocorrect, here are a few more appropriate examples: link
* Yep. link