I got the IPhone 4 in my first year of university; a novelty to top off a year of novelty. It didn’t flip or slide. There was no stylus or keypad. You could connect to the internet in seconds at a time when hand-held internet access was still something of a novelty. It was not so many years before that a friend had been the first person in high school with mobile internet. We had crowded around his small Motorola to watch in awe as a grainy photo of Pamela Anderson loaded pixel by pixel.
While writing this, I saw a used 16 GB Iphone 4s for $19.95 on Ebay. Back then, I agreed to a two-year contract which sent an imprudently large proportion of my student budget to Vodafone each month. Siri was a big part of the pitch. Calling and texting were about to go hands free. I was entering a world where I could fire off messages as fast as I could dictate them. I imagined the modern equivalent of a small cherub floating above my shoulder, with parchment and quill at the ready.
Reality was considerably less baroque. Hands-free dictation was somewhat undermined by needing to press the home button to activate Siri, at which point you were already halfway to writing the message by hand. Even once (s)he had been activated, my hybrid US-Australian accent meant I spent most of the time repeating myself. I quickly went back to typing.
That was 2011. Voice assistants were about as useful as a Palm Pilot. My expectation had been set, and despite every subsequent phone coming with voice control, I never even bothered trying them.
Sometime in 2018, I was sitting in my housemate’s room chatting, when she stopped, turned her head, and asked Google to play the album we had been discussing. We were suddenly listening to music. There was no button, no long pause, no garbled query. It was the seamless call-and-response of a gospel choir.
Today, a squat pod in the corner of my loungeroom plays music, sets timers, and adjudicates debates. It has no problem with my now fully Australian accent.
I would have got to enjoy this earlier if my expectations had not been so slow to change. If technology was not evolving faster than my expectations.
Why did my expectations about technology shift more slowly than the technology itself?
Part of the reason is how my expectation insulated me. Even as voice technology improved, my expectation that it was useless meant I avoided interacting with it. I had put up barriers to those experiences that could have updated my expectations. They were self-perpetuating.
I had also adapted to those situations where voice control could have been useful. I become a faster typist. I improved at typing with one hand, or one finger. I fashioned a new grip for holding my phone steady with one hand. These adaptions became self-sustaining habits that limited my need to change.
Not only did I need to learn to use new technology, I had to unlearn old technology.
The lesson? I should have spent 5 minutes with each new phone to test whether voice activation was as useless as I presumed. More broadly, it recommends a tapas approach to technology and life – constant grazing.