“Dad, you know, you’ve done so much. You’ve been involved in so many things. You’ve met so many people. You’ve lived your life in two continents and spoken three languages.” That is what I was thinking, but could not say it. Instead, in 2006, when I visited my father in Greece I have him an MP3 player about the size of two flash drives end to end, with the capacity to record two hundred hours of speech.
So I said something like this: “I found this nice gadget at the airport. It’s like your old Olympus micro-cassette recorder, but does not use a tape. It has a built in memory. While you’re here in Greece and catching up with everybody why don’t you dictate into it? I want to write a book.”
Much as my father liked giving gifts he struggled to receive them. I had to open it for him and showed him how to record some dictation. I knew he was no stranger to dictation. Dictation is a dying art. When he started a recording he would greet the secretary who would be typing. Sometimes he would sketch the scenario: that is was for a fundraiser, or concerning Greek Federation’s next meeting. Then he would announce the format of the letter, the title and address if needed. All this was performed quickly and without pause usually. Then he would dictate the letter. There would be pauses. He might refer to some notes. He would play it back, then speed it forward, sometime delete the whole body of the letter and start all over. When it was complete he would announce what type of closure he needed.
I recorded “testing one two three” and placed the recorder back in its box.
We chatted a bit after that. We were sitting in the kitchen in the village house. Imagine if that house could record the voices that passed through, and the stories I would listen to on this magical recorder.
The artistry of dictation continued with the typist. She would load the cassette in a player, place headphones over her stiff lacquered hair and control playback with a foot pedal. If it was a standard letter the golf ball would whir and twist rhythmically, like some Flamenco dancer as the fonts appeared instantly one by one on the textured paper. All that was missing was a burst of steam as the die branded the paper. Most times the paper would have been loaded in duplicate, and typed without any mistakes. When it arrived in my father’s inbox it was a pristine piece of work, you could almost feel the typed words, slightly indented into the paper.
That was art. Using a word processor is not art. Using voice recognition is even further removed. I cannot do any creative work using voice recognition, even though I use it extensively at work.
A few years later I found the digital recorder I had given my father at home in Alberton. It was still in the box. Hope rose in me as I opened the box and switched it on to hear some stories.
All I heard was my “testing, one two three.”