Not satisfied with foisting predictive text and Smart Replies upon an unsuspecting public, Google rolled out a new Smart Compose feature for mobile Gmail two months ago that, like your significant other interrupting you, storms right ahead and puts words in your mouth. Like so:
Smart Compose is the result of Google AI doing a whole lot of machine learning (learning that is presumably overseen by subcontracted employees who are worked down to the nubs) so that Gmail can do an imitation of your voice that’s close enough to the real deal for you to go along with it. “‘See you later’? Sure, that sounds like me.” Tech media, as is their wont, went right ahead and salivated over the remarkably minimal potential upside of a feature people never asked for but will likely end up being too lazy to disable. Here’s CNET, in an article that featured a Google Assistant pop-up ad when I clicked on it:
Hate writing emails? Us too... Hopefully [Smart Compose] will eventually cut back on the amount of time you spend typing out mundane emails.
It risks leading to cookie cutter replies, but it could also save you time when writing perfunctory business emails or confirming a lunch date.
Here’s Workfront, featuring an inevitable cameo from Mark Cuban:
I find that it saves time to just hit Tab and complete a sentence. Since email is something that often gets in the way of the work I want to be doing most, it’s a welcome feature. Mark Cuban, business expert and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, agrees, saying “it adds at least 30 minutes to my day.”
And here’s The Verge:
The new ability arrived on Gmail today, moving us slightly closer to a future where we just use bots to replace our more mundane communications.
I am a supremely lazy man. I would always prefer that the ball be in someone else’s court. In fact, I’d prefer that no ball be in play at all. I don’t wanna send emails to anyone, and I’m not alone in that, given that social media and texting and apps like Slack have conspired to render email outdated, no matter what kind of flourishes Google adds to their product. In theory, Smart Compose was designed with someone like me in mind.
But I can write my own fucking emails. I do not need the email equivalent of the GPS lady ordering me around when I’m typing out “Happy Birthday!” to someone. I’m already doing the least I can do. I should probably not be angling to find ways to do even less than that. If Smart Compose can save me 30 minutes a day—the way it does for grandiosely self-important busyfolk like Mark Cuban—I would just waste that 30 minutes taking some other kind of AI-directed shortcut to nowhere.
There’s a pattern to those excerpts I plastered up above. They all imply that typing out a full email is busywork, which it can be. It’s “mundane,” “perfunctory,” and “gets in the way of the work I want to be doing most.” Those are all acceptable complaints about email. Smart Compose saves you time the same way reaching for an emoji does an adequate enough job of conveying your point to save you from shitting out a proper text message. But welcoming Smart Compose, whether enthusiastically or with a touch of seemingly obligatory caution, is basically an admission that it’s easier to just not be human.
Because being a human is a massive pain in the ass. You have to pay bills. You have to do work. You have to do chores. You have to floss your teeth. There’s allure in outsourcing as much of that tedium to a machine as you can, and modern industry is built on selling you myriad ways of doing so. Google Assistant has a whole “Make Google Do It” branding campaign—a good one—built upon that very notion. The pitch is that they’ll take care of all the bullshit, so that you have more time for all the good things in life. Your life will be distilled into its purest, most silken and livable form.
That’s a lie. I can’t believe Google lied, but it’s true. Google doesn’t want you to have more time for you. They want you to have more time for THEM. Like keeping their employees late at the office by plying them with free food and other goodies, tech companies hope that the more their services aid you, the more you’ll use them and rely upon them. [Bong hit] They WANT you to be machines. They want you to be as quantifiable and predictable as the algorithms they’ve designed to emulate you. Every new feature is designed to hasten that grim Singularity. Your data is not enough. Lord knows that Smart Compose represents an effective and invasive way of learning all about you and your tendencies, but that’s hardly the end of the con. They want you to give all of yourself away. And so this’ll hardly be the last time they design a feature or an app that’ll prove such a viable substitute for you that you can push a button, let the artificial you take care of it, and then just continue to sit there like a bag of crackers. By opting for the cookie cutter reply over and over, you become the cookie cutter. That’s the rabbit hole they’re beckoning you down.
There’s not gonna be a ton of active resistance to this. This isn’t some Skynet shit; the machines won’t have to wage war on mankind to get it to submit. I’m already an old man for bitching about all this. I know it. I’m not gonna dam this river on my own. I turned off Smart Compose but I still gleefully use Gmail and Slack and tons of other services whose mission is to have more of me be left to the cloud than not. I am aiding them in their efforts. But I’m still willing to hold out and do SOME things on my own, even if it’s rote nonsense like replying “I’ll see you next Wednesday!” to an acquaintance.
That roteness IS life. That is part of what goes into your identity. There is an intangible joy in such mundane rituals, aggravating as they may be. If you skip all those rituals, you skip the bulk of existence. There’s a fucking Adam Sandler movie with this lesson, it’s so obvious. Take enough autopilot shortcuts and soon there’ll be no you left. Mankind is engineering its own obsolescence and Smart Compose is a tiny but grating example of those efforts. Fuck that and fuck Google. I got enough people telling me what to do as is. Last thing I need is some goddamn email window doing likewise.