From the Archive

In which Steve Jobs whisks us into the future

August 3rd, 2010 at 8:19 pm ET

photo.PNGJohn Scalzi’s post last week about living in the future (not to mention Scott Adams’ reminder last December that we’re all cyborgs now, now that we’re carrying our exobrains around in our pockets) has got me thinking about the same thing. I joke about wanting the Internet in my head, but if you get a drink or two in me, I’ll confess that I’m pretty damn impressed with the stuff we’ve got already.

The latest entry in the “hey, when did all this stuff happen?” sweepstakes is Voice Control on the iPhone 4. Press and hold the home button for a minute, and your personal digital assistant waits for your command. “Play artist Alison Krauss,” you can command. Or, “What song is this?” Or, “Call Martha Jones.” And it actually works!

Yes, I got an iPhone 4 this week (somehow all the queues and secret lists and 24-hour windows are now yesterday’s news; I walked into the Upper West Side Apple Store and had one in 15 minutes). And yes, I’m amazed — FaceTime and the super-sharp screen and the two cameras and all that stuff, it really is remarkable. Video, with editing right on the device! Multitasking! I can listen to Sirius XM radio while converting between ounces and grams! (And it comes with a free iPod Touch, in the form of my defunct iPhone 3G, which still works perfectly well via wireless and continues to do everything it ever did, except make phone calls — which I don’t do much of anymore anyway, and neither do you, but I digress.)

But the innovations are turning up fast and furious these days. Take Dragon Dictation, which is available for iPhone and iPod Touch and iPad and BlackBerry, and soon for your toaster and electric toothbrush. I like the idea of voice-to-text, but I type fast and accurately, even on small devices, so the value hasn’t been evident. But Dragon’s accuracy is now so good that, for certain situations in certain circumstances, I could imagine choosing to use it. Look at these two passages I dictated last night (in the first, I was just riffing, in the second I was reading from this story on The Awl about freelancing, which you should read anyway):

Once upon a time there was an angry dragon. The dragon was very, very angry.
One day, the dragon was walking down the street, and he came upon the lion. Lyon, he said, what say you?
John, said the lion, I am very happy to see you.
And thus ends the lesson.
***
But the sword of Damocles isn’t what’s most toxic to the freelance experience. What’s worse is that, in order to be a freelancer for very long, you have to think of yourself in certain ways. You know what they say about beautiful people? That every pretty girl or gorgeous man is someone’s ask, was too much hassle for someone.

This is raw and unedited. Everything came through as I intended. The punctuation. The paragraph breaks. It got “thus.” It got “freelancer.” It got “Damocles”! The only problems were “Lyon” for “Lion” in the first passage, and “ask” for “ex” in the second. That is a level of accuracy I can live with.

Or try SoundHound. Nevermind holding it up to the radio speakers to identify a song; that’s kid stuff. It identified Nessun dorma from my humming. And I’m no Pavarotti. This isn’t beyond incredible?

(And we’re nowhere near the bleeding edge. Have you heard of Google Goggles?)

Think of the last cellphone you had. Not the first one — just the last one. (Or, if you were an early iPhone adopter, the one before that.) The one I had was a Nokia e62, running Symbian — which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, I detested every moment my fingers were on it. It did hardly anything except make phone calls, download my email, and make me wait while it swapped data in and out of RAM. Put it next to the iPhone 4, and it’s like setting down a lawnmower next to an Audi TT Coupe. If not for the fact that both of them make phone calls (something which fewer and fewer of us bother to do), they might as well be the products of parallel UI evolution on distant planets. And I carried that thing around in my pocket all day, every day, in 2007! I think I have mayonnaise that’s older than that.

So, if on some day in the distant future, when you are an old, old man, a little child asks you when the past ended and the future began, you can tell them with confidence that it was yesterday, August 2, 2010, when Rich Mintz got his iPhone 4. Or something like that.

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