“Language is a means of dealing with the unutterable and the inscrutable.”
– Henry Miller
Google wants to write your emails for you. Gmail users, you know what I’m talking about. Two new artificial intelligence features—SmartCompose and SmartReply—showed up in our inboxes this past year. The first feature attempts to finish your sentences, the second serves up snappy replies for you to select and send, saving you the typing.
Anyone with an inbox can appreciate the short-term value of these features. Research shows we receive about 90 emails a day, and send 40. Even if you only spend a minute on each, that adds up to hours of your day. But what’s the long-term impact? How does using these tools affect our ability to communicate effectively? In what ways does it potentially erode our ability to compel and connect with one another?
Admittedly, as someone who earns his living writing, I’m particularly curious about these types of technologies and how they shape our behavior. Still, I think everyone would benefit from thinking twice before we get in the habit of using them. This is only my opinion, of course, and it doesn’t reflect the company’s views. But here a few reasons why I’m hesitant about using this tech.
Your communication gets lazy.
The canned responses are surprisingly apt. After all, most day-to-day workplace communication is already pretty robotic. Why not let Gmail take one more thing off our plates—and our minds?
But enabling these suggestions invites interruption. Our attention is under attack enough as it is—is it really a good idea to have a machine repeatedly derailing our lines of thought in this overly distracted age? At first, you’re responding mindlessly to something unimportant like ordering more coffee filters. Then before you know it you’re clicking “fine” on serious questions that deserve much more thought and nuance.
The prompts also make you vulnerable to the power of suggestion: I wasn’t going to write “Sounds good!” but, now that you mention it, I guess that works pretty well. You forfeit the original nuance of your intentions in favor of convenience. And as a result, you don’t make as strong a connection, or deliver as specific a message, as you could to the person at the other end of the line.
You stop sounding like yourself.
You could argue that shortcuts like this are the very point of the tech—and that the brief professional exchanges supplied by Google’s bots don’t warrant meaningful brain power. That would be a fair argument—even if it’s not one Google’s bots could make on your behalf.
But in doing so, you delegate your voice. And in life, what’s more important than your voice—and the relationships that it uniquely cultivates? It helps you to stand out, to charm and surprise, to accurately represent you and everything you stand for in life. Make a practice of abdicating it to the bots, and before long, you lose a crucial part of your essence—be it in an elevator chat, a company-wide presentation, or a heart-to-heart with your best friend.
From a macro view, the email bots learn and adapt their prompts from us, using machine learning. If everyone uses the same words and phrases, our language as a whole will homogenize, flattening out and failing to evolve. I don’t want to live in a world where our language is trapped, left to stand frozen in a digital echo chamber. I want the new expressions, forms, and resulting energy that only humanity can provide.
Your relationships are impacted.
Every time you connect with someone—even over email—is a chance to strengthen or weaken that relationship. You can do so with care and thoughtful intention. Or you can treat your exchange as another item on your to-do list. The latter is what Gmail auto-bot writing captures: people as functionaries, first and foremost.
This will only compound over time. Lazy communication increases overall apathy, just as much as thoughtful communication amplifies interest. Look, Gmail will keep getting smarter. It will begin offering you more options. More complicated sentences. More nuanced responses.
Then, one day, by scanning your past in documents and emails, akin to the bot in the movie Her, it’ll understand your back story well enough to play the part of you. But it’s not you—and as such, it will fail to support your growth and evolution into the wild future that your past can neither reach nor predict. Your future will stagnate…as will you. As will society.
Hang onto yourself
To think of people as functionaries is diminishing and destructive. At MarketSmiths, the creative copywriting agency I work for, we enforce the notion that companies are never solely about what they can do, but who they are. As a principle, we apply that idea through written communication—and we’ve seen it inspire and motivate our clients’ customers with quantifiable speed and consistency.
To paraphrase David Bowie, if you think you’re gonna make it—in your career and in your life—you better hang onto yourself. Think twice before hitting that “Sounds good!” button. Whenever you can, speak for yourself. Write for yourself. Don’t outsource your voice. Keep it strong, fresh, and original.
Again, this is only my personal opinion. But in a world of increasing automation, your voice is the one thing the robots can never take away from you. Until you let them.