A few months ago, I stumbled onto a new way of writing. I don’t mean an unusual literary or textual style; I mean a new physical method for the painstaking task of chiselling the formless geologic schists inside my brain into words and sentences crisp and coherent enough to please at least a few of my fellow human beings.
Here’s what I do: Instead of writing, I speak. When a notable thought strikes me — I could be pacing around my home office, washing dishes, driving or, most often recently, taking long, aimless strolls on desolate suburban Silicon Valley sidewalks — I open RecUp, a cloud-connected voice-recording app on my phone. Because I’m pretty much always wearing wireless headphones with a mic — yes, I’m one of those AirPod people — the app records my voice in high fidelity as I walk, while my phone is snug in my pocket or otherwise out of sight.
And so, on foot, wandering about town, I write. I began making voice memos to remember column ideas and short turns of phrases. But as I became comfortable with the practice, I started to compose full sentences, paragraphs and even whole outlines of my columns just by speaking.
Then comes the magical part. Every few days, I load the recordings into Descript, an app that bills itself as a “word processor for audio”. Some of my voice memos are more than an hour long, but Descript quickly (and cheaply) transcribes the text, truncates the silences and renders my speech editable and searchable. Through software, my meandering memos are turned into a skeleton of writing. The text Descript spits out is not by any means ready for publication, but it functions like a pencil sketch: A rough first draft that I then hammer into life the old-fashioned way, on a screen, with a keyboard, lots of tears and not a little blood.
Writing by speaking has quietly revolutionised how I work. It has made my writing more conversational and less precious. More amazingly, it has expanded my canvas: I can now write the way street photographers shoot — out in the world, whenever the muse strikes me (or more likely, when I’m loafing around, procrastinating on some other piece of writing). Most of my recent columns, including large portions of this one, were written this way: first by mouth, not fingers.
There is something more interesting here than a newspaper columnist’s life hack. I began writing-by-speaking as part of a deeper exploration into living inside what I call the “screenless internet” — which may well become the internet of tomorrow, for better and worse.
Late last decade, smartphones liberated computers from our desks, which was thrilling until we realised they were also shackling us into a distracted, addictive existence ruled entirely by multitouch glass. Now, as we reach the heights of Peak Screen, it is becoming possible to see the outlines of a less visually arresting path ahead.
New advances — like smarter and more ubiquitous voice assistants; better text-to-speech synthesis; easy-to-use audio and video production apps like Descript and Anchor; and gadgets that burrow the internet into your ears, like Apple’s AirPods and Amazon’s reported forthcoming AirPod clones — point to a profound shift in computing. Soon it might be possible to conduct a large slice of digital life, including work, without being glued to a screen. What will that be like? In what ways will it be better than what we have today — and in what ways worse?
To begin to understand these questions, I’ve been trying to live without screens. Two or three mornings a week, I’ll put on my headphones and some comfortable walking boots, then I’ll head out to the beaten sidewalk. My aim is to see how much I can get done with my mouth and my ears, to understand how interacting with computers mostly by speaking and listening might change computing, and how it might change us.
Now, I’ll grant that my “work” is unnatural and a little bizarre. Still, I was surprised at how much of it can be done without a screen. As a columnist, I spend large chunks of the day ingesting and analysing information. I’ll read the news, read magazines and books, and try to find sources and experts to talk about whatever I find interesting.
At my office, I’d do all of this on a screen. But I can now find just as much news and expertise on the screenless internet. Indeed, in many ways, screenless content is better. Podcasts and audiobooks offer the sort of intimate peek at expertise that I remember from the amateur blogosphere circa 2003: a nuanced, serious, ongoing conversation about the news, one that feels more intimate, less clickbaity and less reflexively partisan than today’s visual web. And it’s efficient, too. Listening on double-speed, I can power through news and audiobooks in no time, and without distraction. When information is coming through my ears, I feel less anxiety to constantly look for something new, the way we are encouraged to do on the pull-down-for-more touchscreen internet of today.
There are readers who’ll say this experiment sounds silly, that the pull of screens is so strong it is folly to imagine a world without them. Others might suggest that the screenless internet, if it comes, will bring its own peculiar horrors: Picture dead-eyed AirPodders mumbling incantations to robotic assistants as they amble zombielike through Times Square (directed by Jordan Peele).
I’m wary of such dangers (and others yet to be imagined). Yet, the more I write by speaking, the more hopelessly I fall for a screenless future. The bottom line, for me, is how magically even my jury-rigged method collapses the distance between my thoughts and the computer.
As this distance collapses further — as computers begin to understand our speech and then our thoughts with high fidelity — the internet will cease to be stuck in glass. It will come alive, all around us, and that could be amazing. (Or, you know, the worst).
— New York Times News Service
Farhad Manjoo is a noted American columnist and author.