Will Siri change us or will we change Siri?

Following the announcement of the iPhone 4S and Siri, much has been written about the awkwardness of voice interaction. We’ve documented the clever rebuffs carefully crafted by Apple’s designers. Casey Neistat tested Siri’s ability to answer the questions that really matter. We also discovered Siri can’t really understand thicker accents.

My major question regarding Siri is this: will Siri conform to us, will we conform to Siri, or will Siri fail? In other words, will we adjust our behaviors to meet Siri’s limitations or will Apple’s designers adjust Siri to meet our own. If either of these are not met, we simply won’t use Siri.

Audio interfaces (and interfaces at large, really) have a nasty habit of constraining those that engage with them. Media like vinyl, magnetic tape, and MP3s each limit the range of possible behaviors and standardize those that use them; each in their own unique way. Mark Katz wrote about the limiting effect of vinyl in his book Capturing Sound, which the blog Word Hoard summarizes quite nicely:

Violinists soon discovered that the throbbing pitch changes of vibrato projected sound into the acoustic horns better than a steady pitch. This allowed them to record without sticking their heads inside the horn, and so the technique spread rapidly in recording studios. As records– as opposed to concerts– became the main way listeners accessed classical music, they came to expect vibrato in concerts, too. And before long, classical music was dominated by continuous vibrato on the violin. None of us alive today have heard it any other way.

What’s interesting here is that violin vibrato was spurred by the limitations of vinyl, but has continued to dominate over the past century of magnetic tape, compact discs, and MP3s. The limitations of vinyl produced an artistic quirk which became an adopted style. It was learned as desirable behavior even in the absence of noisy vinyl. Performers changed to meet vinyl’s limitations and never went back.

Vinyl’s limiting effects were not limited to violinists. Singers adopted brasher stylings to be heard above the static of early vinyl1. But unlike violinists, vocalists’ constrained style didn’t live beyond noisy vinyl cylinders. In fact, some singers couldn’t wait to break free. Bing Crosby is perhaps the best example.

After Bing Crosby was introduced to magnetic tape, he embraced the medium as a competitive advantage. Because magnetic tape produced a recording that was more crisp that radio Crosby was able to convince station managers to play recorded performances, which they wouldn’t allow with vinyl.

Further, Crosby’s signature style of ‘crooning’ could not be captured to noisy records. Without tape, he was limited to live radio performances. With tape, he could whisper into microphones and be heard across the nation without leaving his hometown2.

Early vinyl limited what music could be until tape freed it a bit. But tape had it’s own quirks and limitations and it gave way to new forms. Whatever the musical medium it will always shape sound. Today, music is ultra-compressed (meaning there’s less volume difference between the loud and quite parts) so it sounds good when played with a small audiofile and small earbuds. Tomorrow we’ll deal with a new set of constraits.

But Bing Crosby’s story helps us address the original question: will Siri shape us or will Siri be shaped by us, and are these effects permanent? Will we be like violins and change our style permanently to match the medium or will we be like Crosby and change with every software update?

Personally, I wouldn’t place bets on human communication stagnating. My money’s on Crosby.

  1. When it comes to determining a vocalist’s ‘brightness,’ Musicologists have to supplement early recordings with in-person reports, as the medium is unable to transmit sounds above 4000hz. 

  2. Crosby was so ecstatic about magnetic tape that he invested $50,000 of his own cash in the struggling startup Ampex.