Why Google’s “Smart Reply” Is So Annoying

How Google thinks I email

I opened my Gmail account this morning and my emails started writing themselves. As I typed just a few words the next words appeared before I even thought of them. The screen told me I could hit tab and there they would be, like graven type, ready to send. That they weren’t the right words at all didn’t seem to matter — it was mind-reading magic! Shitty, annoying magic. I turned off Google’s auto-suggestions as soon as I could. (Apparently some people have had this feature for a while, but the plague just hit my inbox.)

But we live in a world of digital suggestions at the moment. They bombard us with things we might want at a speed we cannot possibly consume them. It’s not just display ads with Amazon products we already bought anymore. It’s the next song on Spotify, the next YouTube video. “Search for something or check out what’s happening,” Twitter suggests as soon as I open the app with a bright-blue alert that I can’t seem to make disappear. Yes, I know what the magnifying glass means. I’ve been on the internet for decades.

It’s even present in our text messages, which have come to feel like one of the more private spaces in online communication. Apple has slowly shifted how iMessages appear — I’ve noticed that using the dollar-sign turns any text into a link to send that amount of money and the names of musicians links to stream said artist on iTunes. This is less convenient than manipulative, pushing users toward in-house products through the medium of our own words.

Google itself seems to want to replace my brain wholesale. Gmail tells me when to reply or follow up to emails with blaring orange text — it’s been three days since this person didn’t email you back!!! This would be more helpful if I actually expected a response or we hadn’t finished the conversation on some other platform, text or Twitter DM or even IRL.

The company calls its email mind-reading feature “Smart Compose.” It follows the “Smart Reply” feature, which uses AI to analyze the emails you receive and suggest appropriate responses in batches of choices, which usually look something like “Yes!” “No!” “Maybe!” “Have a good weekend!” The options appear in cutesy bubbles, along with the rest of Gmail’s nightmare redesign, that resemble the conversation options in a choose-your-own-adventure video game. Smart Reply is a Magic Eight Ball based on the data of your previous language and the crunched-up text of everyone else who has ever used Google products.

I can imagine a world in which this is useful for someone, I guess. Say, if you have to agree to several dozen meetings a day or have to maintain the illusion of your bullshit job through the exchange of pointless email — so pointless that it can literally be written by robots. I would prefer to opt out.

I want to ask the same question of these suggested words that I now ask of YouTube or Spotify recommendations: are these really my thoughts, taste, or desires, or are they just an algorithm-generated facsimile of what was once more organic reality? Sure, it’s more complicated than that. But when The Platforms are treading directly into your personal communication, intercepting your sentences and subtly redirecting them, maybe it’s time to rethink the tools we use.

After all, the word “suggest” in psychology means to slowly guide a subject toward a particular feeling or idea that isn’t already present — an artificial implant. By using these tools we surrender ourselves to the suggestion of machines controlled by companies that already only want to sell advertising. Wait, did I really mean to write “meet you by the Starbucks All New Cold Brew near the Apple iPhone XS Max store!”?

We should question the idea of the “automatic” in auto-complete. For Surrealist artists, Automatism meant giving the subconscious free reign. It was writing or drawing that emerged uncontrolled, an artifact of whatever made the artist a unique human being, expressing the individual psyche. Instead of letting the robots write for you, just remove all the mental filters and write whatever comes to mind. At least it’ll lead to a more interesting future instead of the homogenized, sanitized mono-platform existence we’re heading toward.