ToneCheck: Language, Technology and Philip K Dick

July 25, 2010

There’s this product that checks the tone of your e-mails: ToneCheck

An example on the home page shows us how it suggests to the user to change “it has been annoying me for some time” to “it has been concerning me for some time”. Somehow that’s an improvement. Is concern really the same thing as annoyance? When we’re at work, are we only allowed to be annoyed as long as we bury that annoyance deep in our hearts where it’s likely to cause a coronary?

It reminds me of The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. In this alternate history, the Japanese have taken over America after the second world war and citizens must remain polite at all times. The upshot is that civility is enforced so sarcasm and passive aggression are utilised instead.

I often feel that this is what businesses do to us now. They don’t expressly ban words or ways of talking, but it’s often implied that there is a correct way to talk and you won’t have much of a future if you don’t do the same.

As an example, I was recently asked to write a document that laid out for staff what they could and could not do. It was returned to me and I was asked to modify it so it was less “negative.” It had the word “not” in it a few times where I had listed what they couldn’t do. I think it’s worth noting that the criticism wasn’t that the document was inaccurate or hard to understand; the problem was it was too clear by far. The things I said we did not do, we did not do – I just wasn’t allowed to say so (or at least not in a direct and honest way).

And people wonder why the language of business is unclear and hard to understand. We can’t be direct because speaking directly is the enemy of PR and we’re all PR people now.

Anyway, back to ToneCheck and what I feared was the coming apocalypse of business language. Quite honestly I needn’t have worried.

I installed the application and ran it through a few tests. I tried :

You’ve got to be having a laugh.

Apparently that’s OK and is no way aggressive or impolite. But then maybe that’s a colloquialism and is an unfair test. So I tired:

You are a joke

That’s fine too. I tried this:

I’m going to come over there and cut you up!

That’s fine as well. In tribute to the Jessi Slaughter debacle I tried this:

I’m going to put a glock in your mouth and make a brain slushy!

That’s fine too. How about this:

I slept with your mother last night. Her rates are very reasonable.

Fine and dandy. At this point I was wondering if the plugin was working at all so I just went straight out and said it:

Fuck off!

Ah, apparently that’s angry.

tonecheck angry.png

OK fine, let’s try something trully appaling that would make a viking blush:

I’m going to burn your house down and rape your children

That sets off the filter but not for the reasons you might expect: the tone of that sentence is Sad

tonecheck sad.png

I’m probably being unfair. This is a product aimed at business people not Mel Gibson.

But what if the product worked as intended. Could we look forward to this sort of thing monitoring what we put in our word processors? Is this what business desires?

It’s not hard to imagine a company using such an application to monitor their staffs outgoing mail. Their staff would be scored for tone and anybody who scored high for aggression could expect a meeting with their manager to explain themselves.

A chilling idea worthy of Dilbert or Office Space.

Let’s hope the technology remains totally useless.


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