04 July 2014

Language Prosthetics: After Life in the Digital Never Never

Media technology used to be thought of as simply an extension of the human sensorium. Now it will become an extension of our entire existence.

Back in the 1960s, media theorist Marshall McLuhan expounded a simple story about the evolution of media technology: (alphabetic) writing, print, photography, film, radio and TV are all extensions of our natural sensorium. Alphabet technology, for example, along with Chappe’s telegraph and similar devices was a visual (hence inspectable) extension of human speech’s natural capacity to produce aural verbal messages. TV (along with microscopes, telescopes and X-rays) was another extension of our visual capacity to view events, while radio and telephones were an extension of our mouths and eardrums to distant contacts.

In this tale, the history of technology recounts the gradual extension of a sensory apprehension of the world into a hardware amplifier. Since the senses are few in number, McLuhanites had to produce complicated work-arounds to save the theory. For example, the post-electric world (yes, McLuhan rarely used the term ‘electronic’ to identify the microchip revolution happening around him) would be one of “secondary orality” – in the 1970s we were gradually shutting the library door on linear visual written knowledge, and gathering together in a tribe around the oral/aural campfire of CB radio and rock, and the promise down the road of podcasts, always-listening smartphones and speech translation.

Remember The Who’s song entitled “Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy” in their Pinball Wizard rock opera? Human sensory disabilities have systematically offered premonitory probes into the art of the technologically possible, and McLuhan’s ‘extensions-of-the-senses’ story became even more complicated when it engaged with disability.

Braille, for example, becomes a tactile extension of an alphabet which is itself a visual “extension” of spoken language. Yet in prehistory (i.e. before writing), sightless people would not have needed such a media – they would have developed acute hearing to catch the semantic grace notes of the ambient aural world. Today, though, the auditory/oral channel enabled by smartphones as an “extension” of the ear is becoming a far more powerful communication medium than Braille for the visually handicapped.

Now take the theory of media extensions into the digital world in which we live - and will increasingly die. McLuhan’s “media” have morphed into technologies (or apps) that we can use to extend our digital lives and surmount our physical failings. Braille was once a wonderful tool for accessing knowledge for the visually impaired. But now we can extend spoken knowledge to the terminally sightless, and give a plausible artificial voice to those struck dumb.

And, more grotesquely but also more touchingly, we can give the primi inter pares disabled – i.e. the truly brain dead - a new voice. Hallelujah. McLuhan had not expected the electronic nexus to afford room for the physically injured, the congenitally handicapped, or the terminally moribund.

Digital now allows us to extend our “lives” into the virtual, and broadcast our “voices” far beyond situated friends and family into the deep echo chamber of forever.

In the best of possible worlds, text-to-speech technology can invent voices for the congenitally mute. Such voices will probably be built from a cunning mix of real recorded voices chosen from a digital pool and totally artificial voices crafted into a unique timbre for someone who has become or always has been voiceless. But it raises the interesting question for a dumb speaker of which voice to choose: so watch out for “voice design” on your tech radar, especially for those who have always disliked their recorded voice.

Literature and historical movies give voices to dead souls. And we find it perfectly natural that Moses, Caesar, Elisabeth I, Catherine the Great and Mr. Bojangles have “spoken” to us from the stage or screen – the Greeks called it prosopopeia. Yet a newly crafted voice for a dead soul will eventually have to pick its way through the voice biometric devices that will underpin our online security systems.

Will these guard-dogs in future be able to handle artificial voices of real (yet currently speechless or even dead) humans? Or in the even longer run, the weirdly synthetic human voices of artificial beings – robotic avatars of the long gone?

Lastly, in a social media culture, who exactly will we be (with our digital identities and social graphs) when we shuffle off the mortal coil and go permanently virtual and post-human?

Will there be a sustainability app that keeps up our online presence as an eternally young speaking avatar (rather as actors tend to play Queen Elisabeth 1st as a forceful young woman when she was actually in her early dotage)?

Maybe this app could use intelligent methods to analyse what messages are sent us after our death, and by mining data from our previous content stack, guess what message we would have sent back. But can we or should we age that voice from spritely youth to creaky old age when we use it (post-mortem) to answer the phone? Or should we think about personality cosmetics?

My digital being is necessarily a virtual “extension” of the physical me. And analytics will inevitably characterise and embody me as a plausible avatar, sending out social-media messages digested by a smart reader with the kind of stuff I had blogged, uttered, You-tubed, tweeted, emailed, or merely “written” before.

Having an agent mine the web and automatically generate new in-genre content, I (but is it “me” any longer?) could extend my life almost indefinitely, by virtue of the smart robot that parses my old words, and keeps churning out simulacra variora of my textual life.

This is a big leap from McLuhan’s media vision. Digital media do not simply extend the reach of my senses; they transform my very persona (remember that etymologically this word means “sounding (sona) through (per)” –for example through a mask in a stage performance). Today, the irony is that I don’t have to die first. Theoretically I could sit back and watch my digital after-life evolve as an avatar of myself – and why not several different digital personae while I’m at it – and in a Joycean moment pare my fingernails from a stance of digital silence, exile and cunning. Perhaps I wouldn’t even need a “voice”.

Remember the old joke: you can never tell whether someone’s a dog on the web.

Woof woof!