When the interaction is with the written word, it's pretty straightforward. As the playwright Tom Stoppard put it, "Words are innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that." That doesn't mean that words have no power. With them you can make love or start a war, and even do both with the same ones strung together differently. Or as Stoppard continued, "If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little."
But the words you get online generally don't nudge the world, just you. Call up a recipe or a do-it-yourself repair or a list of hotels and, as Sargent Joe Friday used to say on "Dragnet," you get "just the facts, ma'am." It's up to you to parse and evaluate the rundown based on whatever factors are important to you. Is there a pool? Does the project require a circular saw? Does this banana bread have chocolate chips?
It's no different with driving directions. You may prefer Waze or Google, but it's somewhat a distinction without a difference. In either case you punch in where you want to go, and in seconds are given a dispassionate set of directions showing how to get there. While there is usually a highlighted route, it is generally based on optimizing time and distance. It leads until you lead, then it follows. If it says to make a right and you go left, it simply adjusts. The screen doesn't erupt with "Hey! Idiot! I said go RIGHT! Are you deaf?" All you get is a notice that it is recalculating based on the new information. We could all take a lesson.
However, as we make the transition to spoken interactions, it is getting a little trickier. The coders have worked really hard to carry over that same neutral affect in the tone of apps and assistants. Yes, you can get celebrity voices and alternative accents. But in general they have defaulted to the female gender and aimed for NPR Newscaster, avoiding haranguing girlfriend, whining daughter and unapproving mother. ("You missed that turn. Your father and I are very disappointed in you.")
However I noticed a small break in the wall in the latest update to Google Maps. If I'm in a busy area, I've gotten into the habit of using it even when I know where I'm going, as the program accounts for traffic. Recently I set it to navigate home coming out of the city. As I got off the highway, I realized I needed to make a detour to get gas, so I went left versus right. Rather than just recalculating and then giving me a "turn right" at the next appropriate place, she said "OK." Then a pause. Then the directions.
"OK." Just two letters. An acknowledgement that something had changed. But it was more than that. I actually changed directions to see if it happened again, and indeed it did. Maybe I'm just reading into it, but it also sounded like she disapproved. What came out was "OK, turn left." But the subtext was "O. K. You don't want to listen to me. But you're in charge, so if that's what you want, I'll crunch the numbers and come up with a better way. But this one's on you. Turn left."
I turned off the program and continued on my way. I got gas and headed home, wondering if maybe I was being oversensitive. When I got home I told my wife about a new project that would require me to be out of town on our anniversary. Her response? "OK." Hmmmmm.
Marc Wollin of Bedford still prefers typing to talking. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.