There aren’t many people still working who remember passing instructions to machines via punched cards. But that’s what we used to do. Humans would go to great lengths to translate a problem into a format a machine could understand, encode it in punched cards, and ensure the machine had the contextual information it needed to produce an answer.
Since this time, our instructions to machines have become progressively less explicit. With the WIMP (windows, icons, menu, pointer) era we started to click on what we wanted and let the machine (and the developers) do the work translating commands into easily-recognisable icons.
This moved further in the touch era, with machines applying their growing power to interpret touches from our fat fingers into recognisable commands. Now with voice, we have reached a point where huge amounts of processing work goes in to make sense of our voice commands, and does it surprisingly well.
What is also clear with voice is that the return channel is also lower bandwidth. Where the 19in screen on my desktop PC offered a huge amount of real estate on which to display a response, and hence could give me choices, a voice interface can comfortably only really offer one option.
This again is the progression of a trend: building experiences for mobile devices has always been about maximising the value of a limited amount of screen space. Part of the value of personalisation technologies in a mobile context is that they can increase the chance that what is displayed on the screen is what the customer might actually be searching for.
The impact of this is that we are relying on machines to make more decisions on our behalf. We are trading choice for convenience, or trust that the answers being offered to us are right for us, and not the best answers for the provider of that information, service or product.
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal there has been lots of discussion about what happens to our personal data, albeit it has little effect on people’s actual behaviour, as I predicted (with help). There has been lots of discussion about the narrowing of our circles of influence as we are increasingly targeted with search results and news articles that fit our existing views. But I’ve seen very little discussion of the levels of power we are giving up over our buying decisions. And I think it’s definitely an important conversation.
This article is based on a talk I’m giving at the EpiServer Ascend London 2018 event. If you would like access to the full script and slide deck, check out my Patreon campaign at patreon.com/bookofthefuture