Essays on Technology and Culture

My iPhone Talks, I Listen

Like many nerds with blogs, I have a very large Instapaper queue. It got to the point where, at the start of the new year, I gave up, declared bankruptcy, and deleted anything older than a week. This included, of course, an article on “How to Rebuild an Attention Span” that sat, partially read, for a good three months. You can write your own joke.

Then, I came across M.G. Siegler’s piece on using text-to-speech to get through his reading backlog. There was some initial skepticism on my part. Sure, I listen to a lot of podcasts, and I try to listen to audiobooks, but text-to-speech to get through my Instapaper backlog? Surely this is madness. But, dang it, M.G. was convincing enough that I had to give it a try. So, one ride home on the subway, I kept my headphones in, and had Instapaper read back a couple of articles to me.

Well, it’s been two weeks, and right now the oldest item in my Instapaper queue is… three weeks old. But that’s a video, and I should probably turn it into a podcast instead. Aside from that, and an article on a new way to do responsive HTML email that isn’t really suited to audio, I’ve maintained a steady turnover of Instapaper articles. But text-to-speech on the iPhone isn’t just limited to read-later apps. M.G. shows how to turn on speech as an accessibility option, so your phone can read anything to you.

I’ve taken to having Alex, an optional text-to-speech voice, read my email newsletters on the ride into work in the morning. I love reading Dan Lewis’s Now I Know, and I love having it read to me even more. The text-to-speech feature isn’t dependent on an Internet connection, so I can listen underground with no cell service, leaving me free to keep my phone in my pocket, or more often, play a few rounds of Threes. There’s probably more I could do with text-to-speech—I haven’t used it with the Kindle app or iBooks, but some testing as I write this shows that it does work, at least with some books. I’m sure it would be useful in plenty of other apps too.

Oh, sure, it’s not as good as an actual recording with a human narrator. Alex—and the default Siri and Samantha voices—often stumble on names and get confused by homophones. Their cadence is a little stilted and weird, and the simulated breaths Alex makes before starting a new sentence are a bit of an uncanny valley like audio skeuomorph that I’m still not used to. On the usability side, the two-finger swipe to start speaking often takes a couple tries to get right. Also, Instapaper’s speech playlist feature doesn’t play well with its Apple Watch app, which is probably among the most First World of First World Problems.

Quibbles aside, it’s been a great way to keep my queue of web reading manageable. If you’re suffering from the dreaded Instapaper Overload Syndrome, consider giving text-to-speech a try for powering through it. Honestly, I’m amazed the idea never came up sooner. To M.G. Siegler, I give my thanks, and to Alex, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship. Well, maybe not a friendship, but a beautiful reader-audience relationship. I hope he figures out homophones better in iOS 10, though.