The Future of Overhearing Conversation

-a prediction for the future of technology & language (as imagined at Home Depot, during a bathroom-painting/heat-wave-inspired delirium)

It was at least the second time (of three, or four) I’d found myself at Home Depot that week; amidst a painting project, aimed to turn a beige bathroom, peach. The fact that I painted the bathroom a peach, that came out pink, and repainted it a peach, that did, in fact, show up as peach, all within a few 90º+ days, makes it difficult for me to recall exactly which trip to Home Depot I was on, when I had this premonition.

Difficult to be certain, because the waking hours of that week all melt together like a mushy blob of candle wax; spent, either breathing paint fumes within a tiny, skin-tone-shade-shifting, air conditioning-free bathroom, or dragging myself through the sour-smelling, rain-forest climate of Home Depot, in scant shorts, drawing the looks of dirt-covered contractors, there to collect materials for their endless projects. A peachy/not-so-peachy blur.

It’s these men, who caused me to have a flash of the future. Each group of men — groups of men of different shapes and sizes and ages, wearing different evidence of their work on their work-wear, each speaking a different language — looked at me (me: one of the only women in the store, wearing something more appropriate for the temperature, than the crowd at Home Depot), and said something, low, to one another, as they passed with their metal sheeting;

their piping;

their insulation;

their wood.

I said to myself, smiling, “It’s too bad I can’t understand any of the complimentary things these men are saying about me. I bet it would really make my day.

But, I don’t speak any of the languages these groups of men spoke.

I understand English, and enough French. Enough, that some French men who once decided to talk about me, right in front of me, were met with a stare of shock and dagger-death. “YOU KNOW FRENCH?” one exclaimed. “Enough,” I said. Then, I left a very large, open space, for apology. He filled it, embarrassed. So, I kindly saved us further embarrassment, and didn’t tell my mother, who was also standing there, what he had said he wanted to do to me.

This kind of thing, happens to me a lot.

More generally, and importantly, as humans from different countries, spread across the earth, it happens to many of us — that people are nearby, speaking in other languages. If we don’t understand it, we are likely to ignore it, and keep to ourselves. It’s probably not about us. Or, you might imagine the worst is being said about you — or — if you are like me, and if the situation at hand is fairly harmless — you might imagine something great:

“Did you see her? She looked far too intelligent and sophisticated to be here, getting paint, to paint the same bathroom, for the second time in one week!”

“I agree!”

Perhaps the lecherous man-mumblings from contractors isn’t something I would ultimately like to unravel, but — imagine if the foreign language someone was speaking, didn’t bar you from understanding what they were saying.

I think soon, it won’t.

For as long as I can remember, I have heard people talk about the world all learning the same language — learning English — learning Chinese — or, some super-combination of multiple languages. That may happen, but that’s not what I am talking about. I think technology will outrun any language being learned, worldwide — at any pace faster than it is being learned, currently.

No: what I saw, in a flash, frying my way across the screaming asphalt, to my car in the parking lot of Home Depot, is a future where we utilize a piece of technology that has the capability of instantaneously translating foreign language, if we have asked it to. First, it will be something we wear in our ear — and then, it will likely be embedded.

The implications of technology that facilitates seamless communication between those who do not speak a common language are vast. It will not only make learning and teaching more possible, streamline diplomacy, and promote global science and tech collaborations, but I believe the ability to literally understand one another will foster the empathy that we feel is lacking in understanding different ways of life.

PERHAPS the treatment of women will improve, globally, out of this — even in small ways. For example: I won’t have to know 5 different languages, just to not have groups of men feel comfortable disrespecting me in public.

Obviously, still say your piece about my various pieces, if you must. But expect to be confronted by me, or a nearby ally. I am swinging a damn paint can, after all. Try me!

I will not speak to what else this piece of probable-technology might do — because gaggles of grimy contractors didn’t make me think of that. This premonition, is not about that.

I don’t know what active influence this technology will have on language. I think it could help you learn other languages. You could turn in on & off, asking someone to repeat a word or sentence. Who, at this point, will value actually learning another language, and for what purpose?

I don’t know about the voice you hear in your ear or head with this technology. Do you hear a voice in a tone like the person speaking, or is it always one voice, like Siri or your car navi? I do think this is likely just a step on the path to communication, sans speaking, using embedded technology. I suspect it will also become possible to read text in another language, utilizing embedded tech, without knowing the language.

What then, will verbal language or the sound of our voice play? The use of verbal language may fall out of fashion for basic communication, and evolve to different, specific or limited uses; as performance, in intimate situations, as craft, as tradition. Verbal communication is known to be a crucial part of child development — but if the thought could be communicated without speaking & be “heard,” would it be necessary to actually speak for proper development? Will children learn out loud, with speechless communication a part of adulthood? How will any of this effect the forming of our brains?

Will I be alive for any of *this?

I am kind of glad I likely won’t be. It sounds like it will be messy.

*this, being something that came to me between the checkout of Home Depot & the car, while beads of sweat trickled down the backs of my knees — not something I’ve actually read about, or know to be in development or anything so…

What would be nice, while I am alive, is the invention of technology that takes care of all of the horrible steps involved in the certain mess of painting a bathroom supposed-to-be-peach. And especially in repainting it actually-peach.

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