Commentary: Siri, Say What? A Southern Writer's Struggle With Dictation Apps

Feb 25, 2016
Originally published on February 28, 2016 10:04 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Writer Julia Reed recently learned a lot about the difference between her speaking voice and her writing voice after breaking her elbow. She picks up the story from here reading an excerpt of a piece she wrote for the magazine Garden and Gun.

JULIA REED: (Reading) It was my left elbow. While crossing one of New Orleans' typically mean streets, a brand-new protrusion of asphalt sent me flying. You'd be amazed at what you need two arms and hands for, including, as it happens, my job. Though almost to a man, everybody I encountered cheerfully insisted that I was lucky, that today's smart technology would see me through. Don't worry, they said, that's what your dictation app is for. It won't be a problem. It was a problem. First of all, like the iPhone's highly temperamental Siri, Dragon and the rest of the dictation apps I tried steadfastly refused to understand almost everything I had to say. Dragon slogan's NaturallySpeaking, but clearly none of its coders has ever spent a natural minute below the Mason-Dixon Line. A smart person could make a lot of money by inventing a Siri for Southerners. Each time, for an example, I sent an email asking someone to meet me at Cochon, one of my favorite local restaurants, it showed up on the screen as kosher, an especially ironic substitution considering that Cochon, as the name implies, is a tasty shrine to pig meat. The only words my computer unfailingly recognized were the epithets I hurled at its screen, where whole lines of them would dutifully appear, which meant that I'd have to use my good hand to erase them and start all over again. But even on the rare occasions when things would go smoothly for a whole paragraph at a time, I realized it was no good and I couldn't even blame the technology. While better cooperation on those emails would have been nice, it turns out that I cannot talk a story. When we talk, we rarely edit ourselves. We tend to drone on, especially in the South, a place famous for what scholars like to call our oral tradition. Loosely translated, this means that we're prone to drink a lot of whiskey and spin a lot of yarns. My own so-called voice is a rather more hard won thing that comes, finally, from putting pen to paper or fingers to keys. My fellow Mississippi Deltan Shelby Foote wrote his great three-volume "The Civil War: A Narrative" in longhand with an ink pen. During that 20 year project, he put more than a million and a half words on paper, but he didn't mind. In fact, he felt it was crucial. He told an interviewer I like being in close touch with the paper, with nothing mechanical between you and it. The very notion of a word processor horrifies me. I can only imagine his horror at Siri and the rest, but it would be a moot point. No dictation app on the planet could have made sense of Foote's courtly Deep South cadences, and the world is far better for it.

SIEGEL: Julia Reed is a writer based in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.