Speak and Spell

My children have grown up during an interesting time with technology evolving at a breakneck pace and the educational system trying to stay somewhat up to date and relevant. They grew up with computers, tablets, smartphones, and, of course, the Internet, which brought both the best and the worst of humanity to every home. As the technologies surrounding them evolved, so too have they and their habits: every screen was expected to be a touchscreen in the era of tablets and smartphones, and the concept of “saving” a document was long gone in the age of cloud computing. 

Along the way, I noticed a fundamental shift in what was taught at school in their early years. The art of handwriting – and particularly cursive writing – was dropped from the curriculum as the educational system argued that it was an outdated skill. When, “they” reasoned, would this generation need to write more than a few words if a smartphone or similar device was always within reach. It could be a valid point, but I’m reluctant to admit we are at that stage of our technological evolution yet. Indeed, the surge of interest in pen-based input for such uses as taking notes does question that earlier logic. 

But let’s continue with the overall premise and consider what’s next. As voice-based interfaces such as Alexa and Google assistant grow more pervasive, the younger generation will embrace it. Yes, I know that, to an extent, they already have, asking Alexa to keep track of the weather, jokes, music, and more. But we can expect that, within a few short years, these voice services will be smart enough, and pervasive enough, to replace previous data entry solutions such as keyboards and even touch screens. More and more consumer products will come with a voice interface; fewer and fewer keyboards – even, perhaps, touchscreen based keyboards – will be incorporated into products as OEMs strive for elegance in form beyond today’s functionality.

At that point, I have to wonder, do schools need to teach our next generation to spell? After all, if the future interface is a voice-based one, phonetics wins out over the basic skill of spelling. Think of how the art of reading has changed, for example, with audiobooks becoming so popular, rather than e-books or a good old-fashioned paper book. And we can expect audiobooks to evolve as AI drives more innovation, with more focus on an interactive story rather than the current linear path.

As a writer, I hope we continue to learn these basic skills: there comes a point when we have to acknowledge that leaning too greatly on technology may be a bad idea. It’s not that I’m trying to be an old curmudgeon (perhaps) but I do feel that some basic skills should always be a fundamental part of our human portfolio. Navigating a city, for example, still requires the ability to read street signs… at least until augmented reality becomes more of a thing. As Damon Albarn sang, “I switched my robot off. And I know more. But retain less.” I’m okay with that. 

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