Short Cuts

John Lanchester

Just over ten years ago, on 9 January 2007, Steve Jobs stood up on stage at the Moscone Center in San Francisco and announced that Apple would be bringing out three new devices: a ‘widescreen iPod, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough internet communication device’. The punchline: ‘These are not three separate devices. This is one device.’ That was the launch of the iPhone, which went on sale six months later.

Jobs’s demonstration of the new phone, which you can see on YouTube, was a tremendous piece of salesmanship. It’s all the more impressive in retrospect, because we now know that the iPhone was nowhere near ready. The music player had a tendency to conk out mid-song, the battery died at random, it would let a user send an email and surf the net in that order but the reverse sequence would crash it. Phone reception was a weak point (it still is) so AT&T set up a special tower to boost the signal; also the phone Jobs used onstage was rigged to display five full bars of signal at all times. He had done what seemed like a hundred rehearsals and things kept going wrong. During this process he was, according to one of the engineers present, relatively restrained. ‘Mostly he just looked at you and very directly said in a very loud and stern voice, “You are fucking up my company,” or, “If we fail, it will be because of you.”’[*]

They didn’t fail, and the result was a rare, arguably even unique, example of a technological innovation which lived up to the hype of its launch. The iPhone started the smartphone revolution. The current estimate is that there are 2.6 billion smartphone users in the world today, most of them running Android, Google’s iPhone copycat software. It might be too strong to say that the devices have changed everything, but they have certainly had a huge impact on all sorts of behaviour, from how people communicate to how they consume information and entertainment, as well as how they do their banking, how they navigate, how they buy things, how they monitor their health and organise their social lives, take and share photos, meet sex partners, even how they decide to overthrow their governments (the Arab Spring).

Smartphones have also had an extraordinary impact on behavioural norms. In between the first two paragraphs of this piece, I went out to get a coffee. There were ten people in the café and nine of them were on their phones, undertaking activities which, a decade ago, didn’t exist, or did exist but couldn’t be done over the internet. Not one of them was reading a book or a newspaper or talking to anyone physically present. This is the case everywhere you go, everywhere you look: people with their heads down over the phones. I wonder if any technology in the history of the world has ever changed how people behave in public as fast as these devices have?

Still, for all the impact that this technology has had, it’s also the case that if you’ve had a smartphone for a while, its role in your life has probably not changed much for a number of years. The phones have new tricks, but their form and function now changes only incrementally. My new phone’s main difference from my old phone is that it is waterproof, which will come in handy if I ever drop it in the loo, as I sincerely hope never to do. Otherwise, its uses are the same. Something very similar has happened in computing. My current computer does the same things my old computer did, and that in turn did the same as the one before. I’m struggling to remember the last feature I saw on a laptop which was in any substantive way helpful. The computers are smaller and lighter, which is nice, but not transformatory. This lack of fundamental change means we’re hitting a limit on how much time we spend on our devices. Nothing that’s happened to phones or computers in the last few years is making us use them more than we already did.

That’s why there is so much interest in the new thing to happen in computing, which concerns voice. It’s hard to imagine spending much longer at keyboards and screens than we already do, but there are many other hours in the day, and tech companies would like to be making money from that time too, thank you very much. Voice interaction – simply being able to talk to a computer – has enormous potential from that point of view. It means we could still be on the computer, even when we aren’t still at a screen. More consequentially, it also has great potential for people who would benefit from being able to use a computer but who struggle with using a keyboard. If we add to voice operation the ability to use ‘natural language’, to talk to the machine normally and without obeying specific conventions, then that really is a big opening up of access to many millions of the ‘digitally excluded’. It may sound like a luxury, rich-world problem, but in fact it is the poor and old who at the moment suffer most if they can’t access the net, especially as more and more government services go online.

All the big tech companies are working on voice, but the first popular hit in the area has come from Amazon, with a device called Echo. This is a black cylinder, about a foot tall: the first really functional voice-operated computer. I bought one when it was launched in the UK in September, mainly because I was wanted to see if it would be useful for a relative. I soon found myself using it much more than I expected. My first use-case, as the nerds call it, and still by far the one I use most, was voice-operated radio. This may sound like a small thing – indeed, it is quite a small thing – but it is convenient and cool to be able to turn the radio on and off and change channel and volume just by saying so. This is a big improvement on the old radio which was sited in the kitchen and often went untouched because I was at the stove or at the table and my hands were wet or dirty or full. Being able to switch station during Thought for the Day, even when you’re at the other end of the room, is genuinely life-enhancing.

A number of the useful things Echo does are in that same category, of voice-operated audio. It can access most podcasts; it can access pretty much any audiobook in existence, thanks to its hook-up with the dominant source of downloadable audiobooks, Audible (which is, uncoincidentally, also owned by Amazon). That is a big asset for anyone who likes audiobooks, and a huge deal in particular for the partially sighted. You can dictate items to a shopping list, and then have the shopping list go with you on your phone when you go out (or, if you have restricted mobility, when the person who does your shopping for you goes out); you can add items to a Google calendar, and ask your Echo what’s in your diary for the day; you can ask it the time, ask it the weather forecast, ask it to tell you a joke (but don’t, they’re all terrible), ask it to call you a minicab, ask it to do sums, ask it the exchange rate, ask it to read any Wikipedia entry, ask it the news headlines, ask it to read the Guardian to you. (The Guardian starts with the news headlines and offers you subheadings in Review and Sport: you choose which article, and then it tells you how long reading the whole thing will take.)

There are two main functions for the device that I haven’t used. You can order deliveries with it – this is Amazon we’re talking about, of course you can – but I don’t, partly to keep it local and partly because there’s something uncanny about just being able to raise your voice and spend money. A six-year-old girl in Dallas covertly ordered herself a dollhouse from Echo. Amazon, to her parents’ surprise, delivered one costing $170, as well, mysteriously, as four pounds of sugar cookies. Then a TV report on that story in San Diego caused other people’s Echos to order dollshouses of their own. Funny – but creepy, too. No voice ordering for me. Also, if you have internet-connected heating, lights etc, you can operate them via the Echo. This might feel futuristic, but again there are creepiness issues, and security ones too. A man in Springfield, Missouri who knew that his neighbour used Apple’s Siri to control his house, opened the locked front door simply by shouting: ‘Hey, Siri, open the front door.’ The home-owner’s iPad duly obeyed. Thanks, but no.

Overall, I’ve been agreeably surprised by how useful the Echo has been. Voice-activated technology is going to be very big. Whether it does the exciting things it could conceivably do in the area of improving accessibility, however, is less certain. You still need to employ a computer-friendly syntax when talking to Echo: all commands begin with the wake word ‘Alexa’, and the format for, say, creating shopping lists, is not entirely intuitive. People who haven’t grown up with computers, the ones who are currently digitally excluded, may find these aspects intimidating. Google’s forthcoming device, a similar cylinder called ‘Home’ (!), is said to be better at natural language commands, and better at searching for information. I wouldn’t be surprised if that turned out to be true, since Google’s voice-activated smartphone services are strikingly better than the competition.

All these devices are easier to use if you are familiar with the way computer technology works, not least the way in which it suddenly doesn’t. Restarting, turning gadgets off and then back on, getting used to bugs and malfunctioning updates and compatibility problems – the computer-literate are all well habituated to all those things, but to those who aren’t that, they’re highly offputting. About 80 per cent of the reason I bought the Echo in the first place was to explore the possibility of setting up Audible audiobooks for somebody else. After my trial run at home, I bought and set up this second Echo. But it let us down. Our Echo works perfectly, including Audible; the other Echo works perfectly too, with the sole exception of Audible. Amazon could do nothing to help.

That’s technology – the stuff which works, except when it doesn’t. A voice-operated computer device which crossed these thresholds to totally intuitive usability and complete reliability would be a miraculous thing. I suspect, though, that we’ll be left with an enhanced version of what we already have: devices which work really well for people who already know how to use them, and function 99 per cent of the time. They will be best suited to people who, like Steve Jobs on stage ten years ago, know all the little tricks and work-arounds, and have somebody else to blame when things go wrong.

[*] As reported in the New York Times on 4 October 2013 by Fred Vogelstein in the article ‘And then Steve said: “Let there be an iPhone”’.