If I were to wake up in 1922, I expect I’d still be able to work as a proofreader. The fundamentals of the job then were broadly the same as they are now – reviewing page layout, applying a consistent editorial style, and checking for errors of spelling, grammar and punctuation – even though the way the work is conducted is now quite different in the fully digital age.
Having trained with pen, pencil and paper in the early 2000s, I feel I could adapt quite easily (and quite fancy a trip to Paris in 1922…!).
But if the DeLorean were to spit me out in 2122, I wonder what the role of proofreading might look like – and would I recognise any of it?
In the 20th century, proofreaders often worked in pairs, with one person reading out the text and the other checking the printed version. In the 22nd century, it seems likely that we’ll be back to working in pairs again, only the partner will be a robot or AI program rather than another human.
The balance will most likely shift to the AI carrying out the bulk of the tasks involved, with a human proofreader reviewing only the most nuanced elements, or perhaps simply overseeing inputs and outputs to the AI proofreader.
However, predictions about what the future will look like can tend to the over-optimistic (remember when we all thought we would be in flying cars by 2020?), so I think there will be space among the AIs doing the legwork for humans to take on the more delicate and contextual judgements. In proofreading and editing, this can sometimes mean going against the style guide for a specific reason or allowing an unusual (but impactful) turn of phrase which may not pass a strict test of grammar or syntax.
Happily, most futurologists predict that we will all have to work fewer hours (if at all) by 2100. At least that will leave lots of time to tend the garden or have breakfast with my hologram friends. If the job isn’t completely redundant by 2100, the range of content that needs to be proofread will likely increase dramatically, with a much bigger world population and universal internet access meaning more people will be producing their own content for the web.
Although most of the copy will be viewed over a screen, I’d like to think I’ll still be able to have a small library of books printed with sustainable paper and ink. Let’s hope that the pioneers in 2022 who are already producing paper made from waste cellulose in cotton and linen rags or from other processes such as coffee production and lemongrass or corn extraction will fully develop their methods over the next century.