Internet Stenography, 2012, Allen Riley

Internet Stenography

is a performance in which a stenographer, listening from a remote location, transcribes everything heard in a room and then broadcasts the transcript back to the room as subtitles in a closed-circuit live video stream. The transcript is produced in real-time and is certified to be verbatim. This creates the effect of a spatial, human-relayed chatroom. The performance took place from 7-9pm on April 21, 2012. View complete transcript.

The room is prepared with two monitors (one to show the stenographer; one to show the live video and transcript), a video camera, a video mixer (which combines the transcript with live video), two computers, and a microphone mounted on the ceiling. The stenographer listens to the audio in the room over VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) and the transcript is pushed to HTML.

This minimal arrangement stages a process of curiosity and discovery for visitors: upon entering, they are initially unaware of the surveillance. As they talk and explore the space, they eventually realize that the text is a live transcript generated by the person on the screen across the room. In this realization, the visitors are provided a visual and emotional link between the production of digital information and human labor.

This work is a collaboration with Mirabai Knight, a Communication Access Realtime Transcription (CART) provider and stenographic technologist. She is the founder of Plover, an open source steno engine. Mirabai specializes in providing transcription services for deaf and hard of hearing college students and professionals, but she also champions steno as a useful tool for writers and software developers.

To be certified realtime and verbatim, a stenographer must be tested to transcribe two voices at 225 words per minute with 95% accuracy. To reach these speeds, stenographers use a "chorded" keyboard that minimizes hand movement by allowing characters to be typed by pressing combinations of keys. Words are written in a phonetic shorthand (for instance, the word "parenthesis" might be written by typing "pren"), that allows faster typing than with a typical keyboard.

Chorded keyboards were invented in the same era as the QWERTY layout, which was first created for typewriters and is still used computers and smartphones. One was also incorporated in the prototype of the personal computer graphical user interface demonstrated by Douglas Engelbart in 1968, which also introduced the computer mouse.

Internet users, seeking communication, are often unaware of their physical involvement in the production of information. However, they are information laborers in a way that's analogous to stenographers: both transform the raw material of speech and expression into the industrial material of the information economy.