Why Active Readback’s No Steno Man is Wrong

Some have seen this video. I got around to it. I have honest reservations about giving someone like him more press and attention, but then, my audience outnumbers him by a lot, so if you all have the data, it’s a force multiplier and family he doesn’t have. You can tell Readback is terrified of us because they don’t have the guts to leave the comments on and get called out on their lies. Let’s take advantage of their fear.

He likens court reporting to medical transcription. I made a short TikTok on that. I’ve spoken to Mitch Li from Take Medicine Back. Emergency room physicians are being pushed out for nurse practitioners in the same way big money is trying to push us out for digital. Guess what? The doctors largely don’t like that their scribes were pushed out, and the quality of medical transcription has been suffering because of its lean to automation. As a matter of fact, as a young reporter, I was getting requests to get involved with medical transcription (MT). That was only ten years ago. Nowadays the Association for Health Documentation Integrity says there’s a transcriber shortage.

Wow, sounds like the exact excuse they’ll use in court reporting.

It’s so bad that they STILL want to attract court reporters to do medical transcription. So how good was automation for MT anyway?

“Automation is so wonderful, please God send the court reporters to save us.”

Well, isn’t it interesting that jerks like no-steno man (NSM) created problems in an industry that they didn’t bother to stick around and solve? “Oh, people are dying from the reckless automation of something important? Exit stage left. Time to try court reporting!” Guess what? We’re not medical transcriptionists, and we’re not letting you destroy our industry without a fight, you jackalope.

Ultimately, I decided to eviscerate your puffery with cold, hard, facts.

His entire line about automating medical transcription and making it cheaper is fluff. What good is cheap, useless, garbage? And make no mistake that automatic speech recognition, natural language processing, artificial intelligence, or whatever fancy label we want to put on it, is just that. The objective science that exists today says that it’s 25 to 80% accurate from all the major players. When was the last time you had a 20% untran and called yourself “neartime?” This also kills his argument about the technology being revolutionary. He’s comparing our 99% real-world accuracy rating to AI’s 80-at-best average accuracy and calling it revolutionary. This is more like if Google maps led you the wrong way down a one-way street about 20% of the time. It’s not acceptable and we shouldn’t be forced to pretend that it is. If they’re not using full automation, they’re using human transcribers, and that means there are zero efficiency gains from a manpower perspective. This is a hide-the-ball trick of saying technology is better than it actually is to fool investors and consumers. It only fools people who have not seen the trick before.

Next strawman argument by the liar: Court reporting costs have gone up. In actuality, we’re working for less than we were 30 years ago adjusted for inflation. Let’s call this out for what it is, a ploy to get court reporters scared of demanding the rates and pay that they deserve. Less money in our wallets means less money for us to spend on our associations to fight for us. The push to get court reporters to accept less has been largely successful in the last decade, and it has been driven by low-intelligence businesspeople that look at the labor expense as something to be cut no matter who it hurts. There are over a million lawyers in the United States and about 30,000 of us. We’re a rare commodity and need to start acting like it — keeping pricing reasonable, but not abusively low.

Notably, NSM refers to the democratization of technology and talks a good game about how realtime is too expensive for the little guys to afford. Anir Dutta of Stenograph also referred to the democratization of technology in the Speech-to-Text Institute podcast. What does this tell us? This is a coordinated buzzword in whatever business circle they’re all playing in. They’re using democracy as transfer propaganda. Who doesn’t like the sound of democratization in a free society like the United States? This ignores that in actuality adopting his active reporting model would likely hurt democracy in the form of disproportionately hurting the quality of black and minority speakers’ records. We have put immense effort into ensuring everyone has an equal record. Are we willing, as a field, to allow technological snake oil to kill the equality we stand for every day in every proceeding?

The puffery in the advertising is on full display:

Active Readback gets several things wrong in their advertising.

This looks intimidating to a stenographic court reporter that doesn’t grill it a bit. First, questioning our accuracy. How dare they? I just gave the science. They’re not guaranteed accuracy. Nobody can guarantee accuracy. What happens if a word is wrong? Does everyone get the service for free? That would be a guarantee. Tellingly, they make no such promise. Audio available? Stenographers have been using audio for years. It’s called asking nicely or getting a subpoena. Lawyers don’t want to re-listen to depositions anyway, that’s why they hire us. Exhibit handling, stenographers literally led the way and trained clients on that after COVID. The rest of it, hey, we can give all that away for free too, but we like our businesses to be profitable instead of losing $13 million a year like VIQ Solutions. We need profitable businesses so that we can continue to provide the same great service we have for over half a century. NSM’s investors must have their mouths agape. He’s not charging what the market can bear, and that’s a recipe for low returns and disaster in business. I’m pretty sure I learned that in business 101. What’s this guy’s excuse?

The low, flat rate that he talks about in the presentation isn’t really that low, which tells me that this process isn’t automated. Just to break it down, there are stenographers working for less than $4 per page in New York City right now. Assuming 60 pages an hour, that’s $480 for two hours. Lawyers can get the tried and tested stenography for a little bit more than the brand new maybe-this-works-maybe-it-doesn’t Active BS. This isn’t a sell, it’s an embarrassment.

“Active Readback, charging 72% of what a stenographer charges for half the quality, guaranteed.” (Parody)

Final point I’ll address is his mention about the shortage and how the stenotype is “hard on its operators.” We’ve been cremating our shortage despite some of the biggest names in the business, Veritext and US Legal Support, actively sabotaging us. Additionally, our technology is a lot easier on the hands than the Mechanical Turk game that Active and others are probably playing. Mechanical Turk lets services crowdsource transcribers. When people buy into active reporting, they’re likely buying into inefficiency and hurting workers.

Stenographers, I cannot stress this enough: Hold your ground. Our industry is worth $3 billion and we control most of that. The people that are trying to convince you to give up and run away are not doing so out of the kindness of their heart. These are liars, nothing more. Now that I’ve peeled back the curtain and exposed some of the flaws, I hope you will follow the Protect Your Record Project motto of “connect, educate, advocate.” I hope you will follow the STRONG motto of “we are strongest together.” I hope that if you found this blog post helpful, you will take the time to donate below.

I also hope that Active Readback will come on here and comment. We do not cower behind censorship like them. Perhaps that is all the world needs to see to know whose version of events is truest.

The more money I make from my media, the harder I can fight.

One-Time
Monthly
Yearly

Donate Once:

Donate Monthly:

Donate Annually:

Choose an amount

$15.00
$30.00
$50.00
$5.00
$10.00
$20.00
$60.00
$120.00
$240.00

Or enter a custom amount

$

Funding for the stenographic free press.

Funding for the stenographic free press.

Funding for the stenographic free press.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

Stenograph’s Phoenix Won’t Rise From the Ashes

There are two ways to handle the November 4 STTI podcast with Anir Dutta, president of Stenograph. I can go point-by-point and try to poke at every little gripe I have, or I can go “big picture,” give people a rough outline, and let people decide for themselves. But first, let me just point out how obvious it is that STTI is a digital court reporting marketing tool. It’s November 2021, they’ve been around for two years, and they have one podcast. Now let’s compare that to a real field. Anna Mar’s Steno Talk first launched in March and is already on Season 2. Shaunise Day’s Confessions of a Stenographer also has done about 30x the content in the time it’s taken STTI to do one. It seems very strange that the “declining, shifting” industry has so much more content. Maybe there’s a lot more to talk about in an actual industry with actual news.

Now let’s do some big picture work. Artificial intelligence, AI, in its current form, is easy to understand. In brief, programmers use a recipe or instructions called an algorithm to tell a computer what to do. The computer is then fed lots of data. In automatic speech recognition, this data might be people speaking paired with accurate or semi-accurate transcriptions. Simply put, the algorithm tells the computer to go through the data and make future decisions based on patterns. Luckily for us stenographers, real life does not adhere to perfect patterns. Investors and companies that trust computers to make them money off of AI have a big chance of failure. Gartner predicted that 85% of AI business solutions would fail by 2022. We now have a real-life example of this. Zillow was using algorithms to predict the housing market. The value (market capitalization) of Zillow’s shares just plummeted $35 billion. Automatic speech recognition, ASR, which is AI for “hearing” and “transcribing” speech, has much larger companies than Zillow working on it. IBM is one of those companies, and for comparison, their market capitalization is, as of writing, about $103 billion. In a 2020 study of IBM, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, companies with a combined market capitalization (value) of $8.873 trillion, the ASR was 25% to 80% accurate depending on who was speaking. My argument? If these behemoths haven’t figured this out, nobody else is close.

What is Stenograph’s answer to that? They mention in the podcast that they created the engine that their automatic speech recognition is running off of. This is meant to assure the listener that though there is clear science and data that suggests there’s no chance in hell Stenograph’s automatic speech recognition is better than anyone else’s, you should just try it, because there’s no risk to you — you only pay for it if you use it. They know that if they can get you to try it, some of you will experience post-purchase rationalization and keep using it even if it’s not very good. We, as consumers, need to be honest with ourselves. ASR is open source. Anyone can play around with it for free, customize it, and sell their version of it. Whatever Stenograph’s amazing programmers have cooked up is much more likely to be a tweaking or reworking of what is already available than a bona fide original work.

The podcast supports my assertion. It’s heavily laden with corporate propaganda techniques. Some common propaganda examples used generally in tech sales:

  1. Fear appeals: Keep up with the technology or get left behind! Buy! Buy! Buy! OR ELSE.
  2. Bandwagon: If you’re not paying for support, you’re not supporting the profession. EVERYONE must have this.
  3. Name-calling: You don’t like TECHNOLOGY? Luddite! YOUR PROFESSION WILL GO THE WAY OF THE HORSE AND BUGGY, HAHAHA.
  4. Card stacking: Our product is new, and wonderful, and we’ve put a lot of time and effort into it. But we are going to forget to mention that it would hurt minority speakers and allow large private equity companies to offshore your jobs with impunity.
  5. Glittering generalities: Think buzzwords. Increase in productivity. Custom-built engine. If you don’t know exactly what something means, the salesperson does not want you to question it.
  6. Transference: This takes someone’s good feelings about something and tries to transfer it to the company or product. Anir did this during the podcast when he said in the future technology will be “democratized.” We live in a republic that loves the concept of democracy. This is so powerful that when I heard Anir say it, I felt good. Good feelings make it harder to remember the bad things people do to us. It’s not really that different from any abusive relationship, it’s just a business relationship.
  7. Ad nauseam: Repeat the same message over and over. If no one stands in your way, it becomes truth. For example, did you know technology is getting better every day? I guess someone forgot to tell that to whatever technology powers Stenograph customer service. Or perhaps technology is not getting better every day and that is a story we are sold ad nauseam.

I do not believe these things to be inherently evil or wrong. A sale is a sale. But when salespeople are used as instruments of ignorance, the wielder has gone too far.

On the topic of tools, some have pointed to our field’s adoption of audio sync and how that was widely hated and is now ubiquitous. Let me go on record and say audio sync hurt our field. Agencies started telling my generation of reporters “don’t interrupt, just let the audio catch it.” We trained an entire generation to sit there like potted plants while testimony was lost. No wonder so many from my generation left the field. They never developed the crucial skill of communicating our need to get every word. Dealing with the very simple skill of asking for a repeat became a harrowing and dreadful experience. More than that, audio sync kills productivity. In a dense layout, my transcription time is somewhere in the ballpark of 20 pages an hour. I used to use audio sync, and on a bad day, my transcription time was probably half that. I doubled my productivity by completely rejecting the “new” technology. I don’t disparage people that use audio sync, it’s a tool in our arsenal. Almost every reporter I know uses it to some degree. But beyond our post-purchase rationalization of “it is a wonderful tool for us,” I have not seen empirical evidence or reliable data that suggests it improved productivity or profit. It made us feel better because we could let some stuff go, and now it’s being weaponized to say “see, that worked out okay! This will too!”

On or about November 2, 2021, I wrote to Anir Dutta via snail mail. A copy will be downloadable below. I was very honest about my intentions. Stenograph had a chance to stop the boycott and didn’t even try.

Maybe its trainers should sue the company for the lost income experienced during the boycott. There’s federal law against false advertising in 15 USC Section 1125. Seems to me that by continuing to press the ASR to consumers against available data and evidence, Stenograph has set itself and its independent trainers up for a massive loss. Stenograph is also potentially cutting into the earnings of its customers by pushing its ASR as a productivity booster when it may very well turn out to be a productivity killer. So if the company continues down this path and finds itself facing lawsuits, you read it here first.

Just to drive home my point about tech sales, I created a computer program that produces thousands of transcript pages a minute. The program code and a sample transcript are available for download.

Then I announced to the world that my brand new program could do transcripts faster than every stenographer in the country. None of you can disprove that. It’s true.

Tell your clients $1 per transcript. This is the situation we are all living together. Caveat emptor.

AI Researchers Have Similar Expectation & Belief Problems to Ours

Much of my writing has been built around a very serious revelation that the belief that automation will take away jobs is killing industries. I focus on court reporting, but it’s happening everywhere. People are scared to become truckers because of Elon Musk’s claims that he will automate trucking. I’ve looked to many other industries to illustrate this. For other examples, take how it was assumed Uber would take over the world but it hasn’t made any profit or how it was assumed Theranos would revolutionize blood testing and it was all a big scam. Their actions had real-world consequences. To this day, the value of taxi medallions in New York City are decimated thanks to Uber even though it is, as of yet, not a sustainable business model. Technological hype can do big damage.

Well, as a proud subscriber to MIT Tech Review, I came across 10/15/2020 article by Will Douglas Heaven, “Artificial general intelligence, are we close, and does it even make sense to try?” This topic is of great interest to me. After all, the perfection of speech recognition automation would probably put me out of a job and I’m one of the many trying to tell people belief in AI is overblown and that ASR really can’t stand in for a stenographer. I have a moral obligation to keep on top of this stuff so that you don’t have to. Most of the article dives into a distinction between the current model of AI, machine learning, versus a concept called artificial general intelligence, or an AI that could colloquially “do it all.”

And you know what I find, reading that article? They have just as much fear as us. Their AI-centered businesses can fail all the same. They can burn through $20 million in late 90s money and still walk away with no real product.

“We are on the verge of a transition…” 1998. Arguably, we were, but we still don’t have digital brains on the internet as described here.

They have the same issue with charismatic figures promising or claiming things that have little or no basis in reality.

“Superhuman AI less than 5 years away” versus “He has no idea what he’s talking about.”

Unrealistic expectations can absolutely destroy their field. In ours, this plays out as people not believing it is a viable job. In theirs, this could play out as investors taking all that money propping them up and going somewhere else with it. This has happened before and is referred to as “AI winter.”

They’ve been dealing with AI interest boom and bust since the 1970s.

There’s a lot to be learned by looking directly at what’s going on in technology today. Perhaps most pressing for us is the realization that there is not some kind of magic unending growth built into technological progress. The last century, and particularly the last couple of decades, changed humanity. Technology exploded from no TV, to black and white TV, to the home entertainment centers we have today. Many of us are under a belief that technology will always grow at that pace. We are encouraged to think that not only due to our collective experience, having lived through the technological leap, but also encouraged by the people who stand to gain the most from people buying into that belief and investing into that belief.

Money and attention.

So what we are left with is the same thing I have been writing about for years. The digital reporting stuff is not about efficiency, technology, or anything particularly new or special. It’s about worker exploitation. It’s about moving the field away from one that has a strong support system to one that has no support system or where the support system is controlled by the business owners. It’s about getting you court reporters to believe “technology magic” is taking away your job so that you don’t fight to keep it. In reality, there was a genuine attempt to shift our NCRA that way with Plan B. That failed. We got NCRA 2.0. NCRA 2.0 balanced the budget and put its members before its corporate sponsors, which only US Legal corporate reps appear to have a problem with. Since the corporate powers that be couldn’t get NCRA to kill our industry for us, they threw a tantrum and started pretending NCRA didn’t exist.

Seems like conspiracy theory territory! Except it’s no theory. Check out Benjamin Jaffe. He writes a whole article this year about how digital is the answer to our shortage. But he’s affiliated with BlueLedge.

BlueLedge… sounds familiar.

And what is BlueLedge? A training provider for digital reporting that is basically pretending stenographers don’t exist.

Today we show appreciation to everyone except the bulk of the field, stenographers and voice writers.

To use the words of Dineen Squillante, we are being “out-marketed” rather than losing by any objective metric. The entire game on the digital reporting side has been exposed “we are going to push our version of the future. We don’t care who this hurts.” Guess what, stenographic reporters? Our nonprofits are better funded. Our social groups and support systems are bigger. Our students pools are larger and more invested. All we have left to do is acknowledge our own collective bigness and put our thumb on the scale. We need to start being very vocal about our industry and the projects we are working on.

To that end, if you have court reporting or captioning industry news and you’d like to get it reprinted, please contact me at ChristopherDay227@gmail.com. We can work out a deal where I can use the skills I have built to get your work some extra exposure, you can get your stuff in circulation, and I can use some of the profit to create more steno advertising rather than rely on the incredible generosity of donations. A price point of $200 to $400 per news event is the target. It’s calculated to keep this venture going strong and beat out the deceptive marketing from the digital camp. Even if your organization cannot meet the $200 cost, please reach out. A lack of publicity pushed our field down to where it is today. We can reverse direction there, but we won’t reverse that without a little time, effort, and togetherness.

The Layperson’s Guide To Why Stenographic Reporting Is More Efficient Than Digital Reporting & ASR

Simply put, stenographers have integrated digital recording into their own technology. The option to record and transcribe has been around for 30 to 50 years depending on whether you want to start the clock at digital or analog. We stenographers have not been supplanted, which is an easy argument for our superiority as a modality.

Our detractors scoff and say that has to do with our political power. That’s a lie. We have very little political power. Most of our money seems to flow to our continuing education requirements and not lobbying. Our associations only recently sprang into action when we realized consumers were in danger. Even then, the associations routinely hamstring things that might make associations “too strong,” like abolishing term limits for effective association presidents.

Available data also shows that automatic speech recognition is 25 to 80% accurate and not the 99.999% sold to some people by dishonest companies.

Digital’s not cheaper. It allows the offshoring of very valuable private data to poor people who will have an incentive to sell it. It’s more taxing on the transcribers’ hands. How? It takes over 20 keystrokes to type “beyond a reasonable doubt” on a QWERTY. Steno does that in one.

Digital court reporting companies, groups, and associations talk a good game. This is because investors are burning money on them in the misguided belief that they’ll be first in on a new market. The reality is the modality has been around decades and fails to deliver. Just look at VIQ Solutions and its 2021 loss of over $13 million. Personally, I can’t wait until investors realize that these companies know this and took their money anyway.

For all the people who wonder how positive cash flow with negative income happens, check this out.

In brief, digital reporting and its derivatives such as “active reporting” or “AI-assisted reporting” are not cheaper. They aren’t a good investment. All available data says progress on automation has been mostly stalled for 20 years except where the automated program is configured to a speaker and their microphone. Unless we are going to force every litigant and defendant to train ASR for how they personally speak, we are going to need people to do this job. Since a stenographer is anywhere from 2 to 8 times faster than a transcriber, it makes good sense to invest in the expansion of stenotype services.

Also, generally, stenographers don’t support worker exploitation.

Of course, what do I know? I’m “just” a stenographer.