Subtext

There is a wonderful scene in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” where the two main characters, who have just met, are provided with subtitles. They are both attracted, but have no idea how to talk to each other. As they natter on awkwardly, trying and mostly failing to hold a meaningful conversation, the subtitles say what each is really thinking, to hilarious effect.

One day, perhaps far in the future, the technology may exist to make those subtitles. Your wearable device will analyze your partner’s body language, facial expression, eye saccades, tone of voice, slight pauses, and any other available clues.

This data will be correlated in real time with a vast database in the Cloud, then run through various machine learning algorithms, together with techniques for rapid language parsing and synthesis.

The net effect will be an interpretive stream of words that appears to float in space between you and your friend, telling you what the other person is really thinking and feeling.

And here’s the weirdest part: The people who grow up with this technology won’t have the faintest idea why anybody would have a problem with it.

3 Responses to “Subtext”

  1. Phil H says:

    I’m afraid I disagree entirely, Ken.

    I’m British, and we have a particularly over-developed capacity to avoid mentioning the obvious. Heaven forbid you should let what you’re really thinking emerge from your mouth!

    But we do, in fact, have words. If we wanted to communicate a concept to someone, we have the capacity to do so. We choose not to, because we would rather spare someone’s feelings, or because it is impolite, and this transfers to propriety being an indicator of status and upbringing. Nice people don’t speak like that.

    Unfortunately, if such a technology was developed, I think we would develop ways to confuse it, or avoid contact entirely with people who wore such devices; the problem is not that we are incapable of communicating but that we desire not to do so.

    Every generation of teenagers arrives with the built-in assurance that they are the first generation to really know what the world is like, that they won’t be bound by the limitations of their parents’ thinking. But witness the flirting of the modern teen; endlessly trying to work out, even as a team, how to convey that they like someone without seeming desperate, that they are willing yet casual.

    Picture the scene; you walk into a review with your boss. He sees ‘guilty’, ‘unsure’, ‘nervous’. You see ‘concerned’, ‘dominant’, ‘defensive’. Are you going to negotiate well today? What is a poker face, if not an attempt to control the usually-free expressions that would give you away?

    No, such a technology will just invite an arms race of technology designed to reveal and to conceal. Makeup that hides blushes, masks that hide emotions, voice changers that confuse audible stress indicators, smart drugs to control your heartrate or mop up adrenaline, pupil dilators to make you look interested, pupil constrictors to reverse the same.

    Society cannot function in a world of free access to intimate truth; we end up limiting our communication to that which is permitted, or limiting our social groups to those that conform.

    Subtext is the basis of much comedy, particularly as you point out in mate selection, because it is the thing you think but cannot say. My hypothesis is that the factors driving this would be unchanged, so the result would be a hypertechnological recreation of the same.

    You propose the emotional equivalent of x-ray spectacles, I propose society’s response will be lead-lined pants rather than nudism.

  2. admin says:

    Ah, I love your analogy: The response to x-ray specs is not nudism, but lead-lined pants. Brilliant! :-) :-) :-)

  3. My mentor at the RAND Corporation, now deceased, used to tell me the following story. A disciple goes to see his guru. Master! I understand! Honesty, honesty is everything! The master just looked at him and said: Well, almost, honesty plus tact is everything.

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