Texting is forcing us to confront some uncomfortable truths about our weird personalities

Predictive texting can show us a whole new side of ourselves.
Predictive texting can show us a whole new side of ourselves.
Image: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom
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A friend of mine had a baby a little while ago, her second. Her brother texted me a photograph of big sister Anna (one year old) staring at little brother Quinn (one day old) with the most incredible expression on her face: this mixture of excitement and happiness and utter bewilderment, and, somewhere in there, a look of dawning realization that her life was about to change, hard. This is a lot to project onto a one year old, but it is what I saw.

I started typing a reply, and got as far as the words “Oh my god what a” before a set of alarming predictive text suggestions appeared: the words “savage,” “legend,” and “LEEEEGEND.”

This was about a month ago, and I still can’t get over it. My phone knows what is in my head, and what I am going to say next. It knows which words I use too much, and when, and as a result it’s revealing a whole lot to me about the way I speak. Predictive text is reading my mind—and I love it.

I had meant to write something like “What a sweetheart,” or “what a nice picture.” Something normal that a normal person might say in response to a photo of two tiny sweet children. But my phone knows me better than that. I am much more in the habit of using words like “savage” to describe almost any situation and calling people legends with no provocation. It also autocorrected “oh my god” to “oh my GOD.” “Christ” goes to “CHRIST.” I take the Lord’s name in vain on a more or less constant basis, and my phone likes to remind me of that. If I type the word “oh,” my phone likes to remind me that the next word will likely have something to do with Jesus.

It’s bad. It’s also incredible. However hard I might try to abide by social norms, my phone knows that I am prone to exaggeration, that I am overexcitable, that I am ready make a big deal out of just about anything.

I am a grown up now, sort of. I am like a damn teenager with my phone though. I cannot leave the predictive text thing alone. I sometimes like to write one word and then just mash on the buttons and see where it takes me. Here are some I just did:

“Why do people have this one thing and then you just think about how much they love you”

“How are YOU and why is he not harassing me”

“Do you know how to get a job”

“Hello my dogg”

“What do you think you need for this article”

“You know what I gonna say to you after that lol looooooool”

“I feel like literally everyone just got pushed out the herd”

It is overall nonsense, but there is something in there, no? Some indication of my preoccupations (am I working hard enough, am I working too hard) and patterns of speech (long, drawn-out vowels, very little real awareness of the rules of grammar, very little interest in what the word “literally” means).

Now that we are living in the age of the introvert, it seems almost expected that we are all given to great sustained periods of introspection, that we are all taking our mental temperatures 24/7. Not me. I shy away from introspection at all costs, and have only the most rudimentary understanding of myself, which predictive text is now revealing to be misguided.

I like to think of myself, for instance, as a fairly even-keeled person, but predictive text reveals this not to be the case. It shows that I am a person of extremes, apparently. I am constantly amazed by this world (if I type “this is so,” one of the next predicted words is “INCREDIBLE”, and the other one is “terrible”). I fondly imagine myself to be an easy-going, freewheeling type of person, but again, my phone shows me that this is not do. I worry about EVERYTHING, ALL THE TIME: work, relationships, about what other people are thinking.

I cannot believe that this technology exists and that we can access it just whenever. I am told that people find it irritating, and that lots of them turn it off altogether. I myself would never take such a step, but I do see the downsides. Predictive text reminds us that we are often predictable, that we say the same things over and over. This is of course dispiriting. But we can take heart in the fact that predictive text will never fully be able to anticipate people’s weirdness, their multitudinous quirks.

There used to be this huge billboard that I’d look at every morning on my way to work. When I say “look at” I mean glance dazedly at it as I drove past, tired and reliably running late. It took up the whole side of a building, and featured a famous man (I want to say Samuel L Jackson) holding a glass of famous alcohol (I want to say Jack Daniel’s), and staring confidently into the camera like Here I am, world. He was maybe winking. These details are a bit vague, but what I do remember very clearly was the copy: TIME IS MONEY, in big shouty lettering. It stressed me out. I’d drive to work thinking Oh God, what if time actually IS money. What a horrible idea. Why does this hateful expression exist. It bummed me out every day, and then my mum came to visit. In the course of running errands, we drove past the detested billboard and my mum looked up at it and said “Time is monkey? What the hell does that mean?”

Why would, I began, and then trailed off. Why would it… Mum why would it say time is MONKEY as opposed to the popular and apt expression Time Is Money, the one which is so familiar to us all. She looked at me and shrugged. I don’t know, she said, what goes on in other people’s heads. Someone might have thought that was a fun thing to say.

This, I think, is reassuring. Predictive text would never say Time Is Monkey, because predictive text is only a robot, and can only go so far in predicting or understanding our behavior. It has shown me a few things about myself, and for this I am grateful. But people are far too strange to be predicted, really, and for this I am grateful too.