Joining Yours and Mine


Grimes Unveils AI Software to Allow Artists to Replicate Her Voice (Complex via

The process by which I went from living in Mom’s house in Toledo at the start of 2017, two months after her passing, to living with Hedder in an apartment in Colorado Springs by the end of the year, is long and bitter, and I probably won’t be able to share that story with anyone but the closest of my friends until several more people pass away. Suffice it to say that I did not arrive in Colorado in December of 2017 with all the things I had on hand when I started the year, as circumstances forced me to continue paring down my immediate belongings until most of the accumulations of forty-one years of life were either left behind or lost forever, and I started out my new life west of the Mississippi with just the contents of my purse, two duffel bags, and one box of essentials that I shipped ahead of me to Hedder’s apartment.

One thing I did have with me in Colorado, though, and which accompanied me to Wisconsin several months later, is a VHS tape in one of those old plastic clamshell cases, with the words “Home Movies” printed on the spine in Mom’s distinctive blocky handwriting. That tape was assembled by my father sometime in the eighties, a combination of old Super 8 home movies and early experimenting he did with his first camcorder. I’m not on the tape that much — even back then, my father wanted to be reminded of my existence as little as possible — but there is an extended segment of the tape where he basically has relatives on his side of the family talk about their life stories and the larger histories of the Shannons. Despite Mom marrying into the family, she’s still prominent in the video, sitting there smoking True cigarettes and occasionally interjecting some thoughts, or so I remember. It’s been well over thirty years since I actually watched the videotape, so forgive me if my memory is a little hazy.

My father died in 2008, and from what little he knew about YouTube back then, he thought it was all a massive waste of bandwidth. Even though I’m still treated like the black sheep of the family by most of my relatives who are still alive, I’ve always had an interest in getting that videotape converted to digital form and uploading it online for all to see. (Probably after cutting out the parts I’m in, but if I’m going to go to that time and expense, then that’s my prerogative. The only people who want to see me taking part in Hands Across America are probably pedos, anyway.) I doubt that the video would be of interest to anyone except my distant relatives, but if I want that video in a format that I can actually watch here in 2023, then it just makes sense to upload that file online for whatever historical or genealogical information that discussion may have.

I’ve mentioned before that I got Mom one of the first Amazon Echo devices when they came out, both to help her in her later years and because she was the reason I got hooked on the original Star Trek at a very early age, so finally having a “computer” to talk to was one last bonding experience we got to share. Hearing the advancement of voice synthesis technology over the years — I can still remember playing Joe Montana II Sports Talk Football for the Sega Genesis back in the day, the first console football game with spoken commentary — has always fascinated me, to the point where I seriously considered a linguistics focus in college to help me shape that technology. When celebrities like Samuel L. Jackson started lending their voices to information appliances like the Echo, I couldn’t help but wonder when that technology would become powerful and accessible enough to allow anyone, given sufficient audio recordings of a person, to replicate that person’s voice and speaking style by computer.

A few weeks ago, when the first uses of that technology started being written about in the news, I couldn’t help thinking about that videotape, which is currently sitting on a bookshelf in the room next to the one I’m typing this blog in. Provided that the tape hasn’t been rendered useless by the ravages of time — and that old clamshell case is giving me at least a little hope in that regard — I may be just a small expense, and a short amount of time, away from being able to hear Mom’s voice in something other than my memories for the first time in almost seven years. It’s never been difficult for me to imagine what she would have said about the releases of my books, or me finally getting a full-time teaching position here in Wisconsin, or any of the other things I’ve managed to do since her passing, but hearing those words in something other than the spirit of her that lives in my brain would be something else entirely.

The thing is, I think all these new AI voice replication technologies may actually now be creating a disincentive for me to get that old videotape digitized. Not only am I more than satisfied with hearing Mom’s voice in my head (and not just because I know the words she’d say to me far better than any modern chatbot ever could), but I have a feeling that hearing a computer replica of her voice, regardless of how accurate it is, may do more harm than good. It will always feel cheap and artificial, and it would probably just make me wish I could replicate more than the sound of her voice. It feels like a slippery slope that’s bound to end in pain, regardless of what direction it goes in.

Before my father forced Mom into working at his new business in 1987, she enjoyed the latest technologies like home computers, video games, and music synthesizers as much as I did. After that point, though, not only did she lose her love for those things, but they all became too confusing for her, and while she greatly enjoyed the novelty and convenience of her Echo, I have a feeling that if she was faced with the possibility of a computer recreating the voices of her lost relatives and friends, she would bristle and refuse to take part. I don’t think I’m revulsed by those possibilities in the same way that she would have been, but they certainly seem empty and pointless to me. More than that, I can still hear Mom’s voice in my head, telling me exactly why she wouldn’t want to use these new technologies for that purpose. I don’t need a computer to regurgitate those words to me in a facsimile of her voice.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.