Language Police! IBM’s Watson Will Now Analyze Your Writing Style


Last week, IBM’s Watson project unveiled an experimental build of a new service called Tone Analyzer. In short, the service analyzes writing by “using linguistic analysis to detect emotional tones, social propensities, and writing styles.” Then it offers “suggestions to help the writer improve their intended language tones.”

You’ll remember Watson as the “computer” that routed Jeopardy!’s storied champions Ken Jenner and Brad Rutter in 2008. It was a controversial if decisive showdown, another expression of humanity’s masochistic desire to lose at games only algorithms can win. And “algorithm” is the right word: Watson was mistakenly thought, then and now, to be a computer. But “he” was never a machine. Even the globe avatar on Jeopardy! was just a stand-in for the real Watson.

So what is Watson? It is a “cognitive system” that enables a “new partnership between people and computers.” (Note the cold nefariousness of the word partnership.) And now that Watson is done putting humans in a trashcan, IBM is going out of its way to humanize it. According to IBM, Watson uses “the same learning processes that we have” but at a larger scale. “It is not programmed,” IBM contends. Instead, like “us,” Watson “Observes, Interprets, Evaluates, and Decides.”

Sure, but if you plan to license Watson to replace your editorial staff, just know that you’re hiring an optimized version of the guy in the office who sifts all language through a filter of vanguardist business jargon, a footsoldier in the crusade for “personal and business communications, self-branding, market research, public relations management and automated contact center management.” It’s no big surprise that the template used in the Watson’s demo is a business email.

A ruthless technocrat — a 21st century version of what William James called “an automatic sweetheart” — Watson segments your writing into three tones: emotional, social, and writing (?). From there, at least within the “social tone” category, it uses the infamous “big-five personality model,” (openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, etc.) to build a quantified appraisal of your written tone. Now is probably a good time to mention that the “Big-five” model was the standard favored by the Pentagon under Ronald Reagan and Bush I.

At this point in the piece, I’m obligated to make a number of moves. To begin with, I could enter my own writing, say the text I’m composing now, into Watson’s hellmouth. Or I could let Watson quantify the agreeableness of an historical document, like the Magna Carta. Another option would be to subject IBM’s own tone-deaf copy to Watson’s scrutiny.

Instead, I’ll avoid Watson at all costs, for it is nothing but another expressionless (if globular) face pasted over the inhumanity of Big Data. And I’ll refuse to enter any writing into it, lest IBM snatches it up as part of Watson’s dark, Spinozistic expansion.

Let me be frank with you: Watson is not a friend or servant of the writer. It is the enemy of the writer. Most of all, it is the enemy of the imaginative or literary writer. This is because, as Caleb Crain explains in his eloquent protest against algorithmic logic for Harper’s, it reduces interpretation to mere counting:

Today’s breakthrough in counting is at least as radical as the one that took place at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and we now find ourselves in the process of adjusting our social norms to the new transparency of our actions. We are also in the process of fighting over the terms of that adjustment….We haven’t yet had a good fight about the intrusion of counting into the life of literature, however. Maybe we should.

I recommending reading Crain’s essay for yourself — it also serves as a welcome defense of literary criticism. (I’ll add only that Crain’s argument is of a piece with Jacques Ranciére’s ongoing critique of the oligarchic foundations of such counting, from Plato to the technocratic present.) And I’ll conclude by reminding you that it’s counting — the heartless quantification of human life — that IBM is best known for. After all, Watson’s namesake won a medal for the counting he did in World War II…