You’re probably used to a life of untrammelled ease, these days. You text your Significant Other to say: “Just missed teh train!” and your phone’s smart software changes that pesky “teh” to “the” without you hardly even noticing. Your recipient certainly won’t. Yes, autocorrect can be pretty useful.
Sometimes, your phone’s software knows what you want to say even before you’ve said it. If that train is one that regularly pulls out of the station without your presence, you might start typing:”Just missed…” and the invisible oracle that lives in your phone will helpfully suggest: “The train?”
‘Twas not always thus.
When our phones developed the ability to send an SMS (Short Message Service), back in the 1990s, the technology felt like nothing short of a miracle. You could send someone a message INSTANTLY. Tell them about that wretched train so they weren’t waiting hopefully at the station expecting you to be conveyed on it.
Well, you could send someone a message… but only if their mobile phone was on the same network as yours. In the UK, it wasn’t until 1999 that this restriction was lifted.
You could say anything you liked. Well, as long as you said it in 160 characters, the maximum length for an SMS. Including spaces. (That’s why the train was sometimes L8.)
And, well, not quite instantly, either. You would have to tap out your message on the alphanumeric keypads of the time letter by single letter.
The trouble was, on the standard E.161 layout, that meant you had to press keys more than once to get the letter you wanted to appear.
A was easy. You pressed the ABC key once. For C, three times. For P, press the PQRS key once. For S, press four times. You’d have to be quite quick, too, otherwise the phone would assume you were happy with whatever letter you’d managed to reach and move blithely on.
Now, we are not defined by those limits.
Your current phone’s software comes with a basic list of words and sequences of words. It uses these to predict what you might want to type next. As you interact with this software, the words and sequences of words that you type get added to this individual word list. The oracle knows whether you are likely to complete the sentence “This is so…” with a cheerily positive “cute” or “good” or a rather more savage “terrible!” or “TOTALLY insane!!!”
Predictive text reminds us of the simple fact that all of us, all of the time, are fairly predictable. Back in the 1990s, though, we were Unpredictable. That’s what made us so… cute? TOTALLY insane?