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Write the Surface

File under tools for writers: Swype has come out with a gesture-based text input for touchscreen devices. Words are written by tracing consecutive letters on the keyboard without lifting your finger. Someone has even used it to break the Guiness World Record for fastest texting. When I tried it on my friend’s Android mobile, it didn’t simply predict words appropriate for business exchange (e.g. “See you at the meeting”) but was 100% accurate with more poetic text (I tried “Curling lip exchange”). You have to see it to believe it:

Reminds me of Picasso’s drawings with light:

Picasso draws with light
Via ffffound.com

How will what we write change when we can record words as fast as we can think them? Will we more accurately capture a flash of inspiration? Unlike putting pen to paper, when typing on a keyboard (whether typewriter or laptop) the physical motion of writing “a” is virtually the same as for any other letter. Could interfaces like Swype bring us a more intimate relationship with the letters we write? Do we even care?

My one criticism is that Swype should have gone even further–why stick with the QWERTY keyboard layout? Why not have custom keyboards for individual users (recognizable by fingerprint)? Since Swype can theoretically work on any touchscreen of any size, not just the ones on tiny mobile devices, we should expect such interfaces to become more common. The speed and motion of recording ideas in words is changing, and I hope these changes will also bring some interesting (and even unintended) effects on the literary quality of what we write.

6 thoughts on “Write the Surface

  1. I’m always excited about new transcription technologies, as having a variety of means can lead to a variety of results. (I write differently by hand than I do on computer, than I do on typewriter, and so on. Heck, even writing in print or in cursive often produces different results.)

    Seems like some of the fun with Swype would be using it with one’s eyes-closed. And does it come with an “auto-finish” option? (Guessing at the word or phrase you’re typing?) That would really push it over the edge—you could have some real fun with that.

    I wanted to point out that speaking aloud (into a recorder or to someone trained in shorthand) allows one to write at thought-speed (well, speaking-aloud though-speed—articulating does slow down thinking some—but it’s still pretty fast). (You have to transcribe later, but you’ve recorded your thoughts in a pretty fluid state.) Writing in shorthand oneself also works. And a good typist can record words at near thought-speed. I’m a mediocre typist (~50 wpm), but I’ve found that if I don’t worry at all about errors or precision, I can keep up with my thoughts using a computer keyboard (and even on a typewriter if I use large or connected sheets of paper). I’ve found freewriting on a keyboard very liberating and satisfying, whereas freewriting by hand can get frustrating (not to mention painful).

    About ten years ago I played around a lot with voice recognition software, and found it delightfully inaccurate, especially if I didn’t really speak into it—if I mumbled or shouted or spoke gibberish.

  2. thanks for the reminder about audio–it’s so often overlooked (or is it just my bias?). i think that Swype has the potential to offer an adept user even faster transcription that speech. and yes, Swype does “auto-finish.” in fact, it can predict the next word after the one you’re currently swiping (guess i can’t say “typing”).

    voice recognition is notoriously inaccurate, especially for children. i read recently that computers have more difficulty interpreting male speech. i find i use the voice recorder function on my iphone to record ideas when i’m out and about, because typing is so frustrating.

    1. I used to use audio a lot about ten years ago, when I had a car and was driving. It’s great for writing while on long trips.

      One reason I’ve thought about getting an iPhone is to have a recorder with me. I sometimes carry around a cassette recorder, but it’s clunky. (I use it mainly to record song ideas…which I then never do anything with.)

      Recently I noticed that my recorder is getting long in the tooth, so it records everything too slowly. So I have a half a cassette with really garbled song ideas. It also doesn’t seem capable of recording certain pitches any more. I must have dropped it too many times…

      When I used voice recognition, I really delighted in its inaccuracies. I don’t think I have any of those texts any more, but I found it ridiculously easy to make word salads with the software.

  3. The son of Albert Tangora is a friend and today he has been informing us as to his father’s adventures as a professional speed typist. For years Albert worked for Underwood and then Royal, traveling around the country giving demonstrations to typing classes in high schools and business schools.

    Albert Tangora – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia http://bit.ly/bz4cVQ

    1. Awesome! Thanks for this, Gabriel!

      …How’s his son’s typing? (I’m sure he gets asked that all the time.)

      To tie this over to the intermittent conversation about video games: humans love records, finding the fastest, slowest, tallest, shortest, biggest, smallest, etc. At some point, I think this is an artistic impulse, or that the two are very closely related.


      At the very least, it’s related to the “explorer’s impulse” that constitutes some portion of artistic effort.

  4. I also find the mind-body transcription connection fascinating and I am w/ Aya in wondering where these technologies will lead to in literary and cultural ways.

    Albert Tangora’s son is a professor of mathematics and claims that w/ 2 fingers he can type 50-60 wpm. Though his typing is slow his math is fairly intense, somewhere off in algebraic topography.

    In the case of the manual typewriter, and someone paid as a professional to wander around the country giving speed demonstrations it mythologizes technology along the lines of John Henry racing the steam hammer. It was also very much wrapped up in gender politics as boys were discouraged from taking typing, girls were encouraged so that they could become good secretaries, and it was a man as a father figure that provided the public ‘speed’ model.

    If typing fast, and a narrowing of the time it takes to transcribe in the mind-body connection were the only barrier to creative output it would be remarkable, though I am of the persuasion that speeding up the transmission does not necessarily improve the output of the mind. Even in the case of audio transcription and the entertaining ‘errors’ that result I think the tendency is to sit back and observe the results and then to make relatively slowly thought-through edits and selections.

    Talking about driving… for 12 years I drove 5 hours a day alone. I did not use a recorder per se, I would work through and remember my small stories and when I got to wherever I was going I would sit down and quickly enter them into a word processor. People did not wonder at the speed of my entry, which was not particularly remarkable, but they did wonder how I had come up with the substance of a full blown story so quickly and so often.

    My smart phone has an audio recorder… I mostly use it to record ambient noise like birds, diesel locomotives or dogs barking in a valley with the very rare occasion to record voice notes.

    In business I write notes by hand, particularly to record phone conversations — entire phone conversations. Not that I need the notes, but the act of writing them out by hand reinforces my remembering the pertinent details of a conversation. Remembering gives me an edge of higher-clarity, sort of like the higher moral ground in being precise with details, in an ongoing business engagement. I rarely if ever go back and look at my notes. Eventually I throw them away.

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