I recently listened to a podcast with Elon Musk where he described one of the obstacles to the advancement of technology and communication.
“Your phone is already an extension of you. You’re already a cyborg. But the data rate at which communication between you and your phone happens is very slow. It’s like a tiny straw of information flowing between your biological self and your digital self, and we need to make that tiny straw a giant river; a huge, high-bandwidth interface. It’s an interface problem, a data-rate problem.”
Musk’s musings are existential and futuristic, as expected. He believes the problem lies not in the inefficiency of technology, but of the human brain. One problem he sees is that we can create elaborate pictures in our mind, but these pictures are far too complex for us to explain them in perfect detail. Put simply, our brains are like incredibly powerful computers with bad internet connection. He set up his company Neuralink to work on this problem; to improve our brain’s bandwidth.
However, Musk’s comments made me think less about brain power and more about my phone. I use my phone to communicate more than I use it for anything else. Every day, I manually type out hundreds of texts and emails, but this method of communication is objectively slow and inefficient. We have the option to send each other images, videos, voice messages, our location, and so on, but most of the time we opt to send small pieces of text. These text messages often lack context, inflection, punctuation, or any of the number of the things we require to communicate effectively with one another. Still, it remains the primary form of communication for most of us.
Texting each other perpetuates the problem that Musk describes. We have to choose a recipient, type out a text message with our thumbs, and hit send. I often find myself taking screenshots of web pages, and texting them to friends, even though screen-sharing technology already exists. The rate at which people communicate with their devices is far slower than the rate at which those devices are capable of communicating with each other. Using Musk’s approach, we need to take the tiny straw through which we communicate, and turn it into a giant river. It’s an interface problem, a data-rate problem.
A huge part of this interface problem is the QWERTY keyboard. We’re obsessed with it, and we outright refuse to adapt to any improvements that have been made in recent years. We often overlook just how old this keyboard technology is; created for Remington typewriters in 1873, it predates even the first phone call.
The keyboard is a reasonable way of communicating if you’re using both your hands and all of your fingers simultaneously, like on a laptop. However, it simply doesn’t work as well on a 3-inch-wide smartphone screen, reducing the number of moving parts to your two thumbs. I decided to test my typing speed online. On my laptop, I could type 110 words per minute, at 94% accuracy. But on my phone, that number was reduced to 58 words per minute, at 74% accuracy. It’s clear that this keyboard is slowing down my ability to communicate. So why do we reject even the slightest modifications to the keyboard, like the DVORAK format? Or apps like SwiftKey, which integrated predictive text with touch screen technology? Our obsession with QWERTY keyboards is rooted in the fact that we already know how to use it, and our reluctance to adapt and change is a classic human flaw.
So if the future of communication doesn’t involve a keyboard, what does it involve? We’ve seen a recent shift in focus towards voice control (Siri, Alexa), but speech-to-text wouldn’t work in public spaces when we want to disclose private information. It seems to me like Snapchat is moving in the right direction.
Despite its recent fall from grace, Snapchat has been pioneering quick communication for the last number of years. They do this by paying attention to the data on our phones. One such example is Snapchat filters. These filters are customised, based on your location, the weather, your battery percentage, and so on. This data can be instantly thrown on top of any photo or video taken in the app, and sent to as many or as few of your contacts as you want. In doing so, Snapchat saves us the effort of typing out a text that reads “My battery percentage is low, I’ll text you later”, or “It’s really hot in Boston today”, or even “I’m on the 3rd floor of O’Neill library”. There’s even a filter you can use if you’re in an Uber, which displays your ETA.
However, this isn’t all that Snapchat is doing. According to TechCrunch, “Snapchat wants its camera to become the new cursor — your point of interface between the real and digital worlds”. They’re trying to make their camera an Augmented-Reality interface of sorts –– and it’s working. Young people use the Snapchat camera to send texts, photos and videos to each other, but they can also check each other’s locations on a built-in map. The same camera can be used to identify whatever song is playing in a room. As of this week, it can now identify a variety of products, and provide links to buy them on Amazon. All of this information can be shared across Snapchat without typing anything. If texting is comparable to using a straw, and Musk’s Neuralink is the giant river he speaks of, perhaps Snapchat is a faucet or a garden hose.
Snapchat has a wide user base, and even if they don’t have much of a future, this type of communication definitely does. As people get more used to sharing data in new and creative ways, the communication straw slowly transitions to a giant river. And with headphone jacks and home buttons disappearing at an alarming rate, I think it might finally be time to ditch that god-awful QWERTY keyboard.