Recently I got an email my favorite uncle sent to my gmail account. In the email, he posed a question about something, and when I opened his email I found that the gmail autobots had already provided me with three options for a reply email — “yes,” “I don’t know,” and “no.” Any one of the three options would in fact have been responsive to the email question.
I found this troubling. Of course, the proposed response options revealed that the gmail autobots had read the email to me, had interpreted the question correctly, and were sophisticated enough to develop likely responses. It wasn’t a matter of simply seeing a question mark and generating standard replies; the proposed responses wouldn’t have been appropriate for a question about where something happened or when something was bound to occur. But the privacy issues involved in this “read the email and suggest responses” process really didn’t bother me all that much, because anybody who thinks there is much privacy in gmail communications is really kidding themselves.
No, what bothered me instead was the continued roboticization of our interpersonal communications. I wondered how many people, faced with this same scenario, would simply have chosen one of the three response options, used the phrasing proposed by the autobots, and been done with it. The concept offended me, so I typed a response to the question in my own words — and of course the autobots made suggestions about my wording and employed autofill in case I needed to make the communications process even faster, more hassle-free . . . and less personal.
The whole incident made me think about how, in some respects, technology isn’t aiding meaningful human interaction, but instead might be effectively preventing it. How much of our communications — from the “Happy birthday” wishes on Facebook to the proposed responses to email messages — is in fact a canned bit of programming sent by pushing a button, rather than the actual expression of a human being?
Nobody sends handwritten letters any more, but is a personally typed, self-composed email too much to ask?