This is one of a series of posts on Digital Lives: Three Themes … Formats, Privacy, and Presence.

This may seem like a strange topic in the context of our digital lives, but just think of all the ways our tools helps us format-shift for convenience:

  • listening to a book rather than reading it because we’re driving to work, but will switch back to reading at bedtime
  • watching Facebook videos with subtitles on to avoid disturbing people
  • making voice-to-text memos because its easier on fingers/thumbs than typing, and we can do it while walking
  • recording voice messages on WhatsApp because it conveys emotion/mood better and might be faster

Whether we are just consuming content or preparing it for others to consume, I love  that the sender can encode a message in one format and the receiver can decode it in a format of their choice.

Accessibility is a hot topic right now, and it really has come of age. Its so useful for people to be able to format shift, for reasons of sight, hearing, fine motor capability, cognitive processing and behavioural preferences.

Years ago I recruited Jonathan, a skilled content editor with impaired hearing and a wry sense of humour. He had a stenographer come to our organisational briefing meetings and I loved watching the slight delay between the Chief Exec making a “joke”, the words of the joke appearing on Jonathan’s laptop screen and his sarcastic hmphhh. These days we could switch on the google transcribe app on my phone and the attempt at a joke would be machine-translated. Hmphhh.

I am surprised that Mcrosoft hasn’t realised the flaw with pushing Cortana voice-activation in the workplace. So many of us work in open plan offices: do we really want colleagues to overhear us scrambling about to find the document we lost, or to know we don’t use the specialist software we clearly haven’t used for ages. I’ll type, thanks.

There’s also something going on here about multi-tasking. I like to listen to Medium articles through a text-to-speech reader while I wander about the house sorting out washing. I completely understand why someone would want to re-listen to a lecture recording while cooking. Yes, I know that the evidence says we’re not as good at multi-tasking as we think.

Which leads me also to captions/subtitles. Apparently the use of subtitles is rising steeply, and not just amongst the hard-of-hearing. As well as the need to sometimes watch videos without sound, another scenario is that visual/audio alone isn’t enough to hold our attention but subtitles as well might just keep us looking at the screen. We can use subtitles as an attention management hook. I know I do: sometimes its all that keeps me from playing klondike solitaire while I’m watching a film.

Three cheers for format shifting: what’s not to like?

This is one of a series of posts on Digital Lives: Three Themes … Formats, Privacy, and Presence.


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