Windows 10, Autocorrect & COVID-19

 In Blog

Previously published in Silver Sage Magazine, April 27th, 2020

When I first learned to type a letter in the Commercial Studies room at high school, we used manual typewriters and little strips of white powder-coated correction tape to fix our errors. We backspaced over the word, held the tape next to the typed page to re-type the error, banging out white letters over the black. Then we backspaced again to re-type the word correctly in black. The next generation of typewriters included not only a typing ribbon but also a new feature:  the correction tape ribbon. This was a sticky ribbon that lifted the ink off the page when you backspaced over the typo and re-typed the characters. Correction tape ribbons were state-of-the-art, especially for those of us cranking out long essays at university. And as a way of righting wrongs in an analog era, they were predictable—if I made a mistake, I fixed my mistake.

On to the digital age. In the world of now, something as seemingly simple as typing a letter takes on a life of its own. Windows 10 is one of those ubiquitous tools of communication today that I believe you either love or despise. There’s no middle ground. I am not a tech geek, and for me, Windows 10 is a constant irritant. My list of complaints includes being forced to do updates at inopportune times (always when I’m in a rush), the incompatibility of the program with perfectly good but older hardware (that forced me to buy a new printer), the way it slowed down my computer speed, the way it changes settings and installs apps without warning and, mostly, the erratic cursor that jumps around indiscriminately. In truth, what really irks me is my loss of control over a piece of equipment that I bought, that I paid money for, that lives on my desk, and that had worked very well before the newest version of Windows. It all comes down to my approach to change, really.

There is so much change in our lives, and I miss having a sense of control. And to keep myself sane as someone who has gone from using first a manual and then an electric typewriter, to programming a computer (not well) in four different coding languages, to a small handheld device that I carry with me everywhere, I am trying to challenge myself to appreciate the change in the technology around me. And, perhaps more importantly, to see the fun in some aspects of what comes with it. Which brings me to the (often absurd) world of autocorrect.

The other day, I sent a letter to someone I do not know well but wanted to congratulate nonetheless on a new literary venture. At the end of my brief, modestly worded note, I added “Best of luck in your new adventure!” I was about to hit send when I glanced at the screen and saw that autocorrect had somehow changed the message for me, which now read “Best fuck in your new adventure!” I have no idea how this happened. The “l” key is typed with the right hand, while the “f” key is typed with the left, so there is little chance that it was a typo. I tried retyping the entire sentence to see if the autocorrect elves would change the word again, while I watched, but they somehow knew that I was onto them. My message remained polite and innocuous.

That experience, although potentially embarrassing, made me laugh and also made me remember two previous autocorrect experiences. A former colleague in education was preparing for an important interview and, in the spirit of wanting to be helpful and encouraging, I sent her a text urging her to remember to mention “CRP” (culturally responsive pedagogy) in her responses. She did not acknowledge my note, and when I looked at my text later that evening, I saw that the mischievous elves had altered the message to read “Remember to highlight your CRAP work.” No wonder she hadn’t responded.

A friend of ours is an amateur astronomer, with a powerful telescope that he can somehow connect to his phone to take pictures of the night sky. One night when the planet Venus was particularly bright, he was excited to have taken a rather good shot of it, which he enthusiastically shared with a number of friends. Unfortunately, his accompanying text was altered by autocorrect to read “Pleased to show you my Penis picture.” Needless to say, folks were a little alarmed and quite reluctant to view the image.

All of us are now living through the horror that is COVID-19, which has dramatically altered, among other things, the basic habits and routines of our lives. What comes to me at this terrible time is that, however trivial or inappropriate, I can use some aspects of my experiences with computer software and autocorrect as a metaphor to help me re-evaluate those things that I hold dear at this unsettling time. For one, I can no longer convince myself that I am the central force shaping my decisions and day-to-day life. None of us knows what the lasting impact of this scourge will be. In addition to the tragic loss of life, it is clear that there will be massive economic hardships as well as restorative climate gains.

Our lives will likely not be the same as they were. Our working lives will be different. Our socialization will be altered. Our shopping and entertainment options will change. I know that, for me, raging against those changes will not be nearly as helpful as looking for the bright spots. The most basic difference between changes in software or the addition of autocorrect to communication technology and COVID-19 is that the former was at least intended to improve lives, while the latter has a terrifying life of its own. In relation to my small place in the world, however, both highlight the absolute necessity for me to adapt to the world as it is, and to make the best of that which I cannot control, for myself and for those around me. Stay safe.