Jumping into steno (Part Two)07 Jan 2020
The same night that I learned about stenography, I also discovered an open-source program for stenography called Plover. I posted a note on Plover’s Discord server, and got in touch with Mirabai Knight, Plover’s founder, who happened to be live-captioning at PyCon! She offered to meet up with me the next day and show me Plover in action during the conference. I couldn’t believe it!
Getting to hang out with a professional stenographer during a talk was pretty amazing. It’s hard to put into words how cool it is to see someone capture a talk in real-time. A technical talk, filled with jargon, coming from a speaker who is probably not thinking about how many words per minute they’re speaking, was being thrown at Mirabai, and she was just…chill. It was so impressive. The experience really helped me appreciate how fortunate we are anytime a professional is transcribing a talk for us. It’s an incredible skill, and a real gift to the communities where it gets used.
Seeing Mirabai live-caption a talk left me with a lot of questions. Here are some of her answers:
- Steno is normally wildly expensive
- …but Plover is free! (and open-source!)
- …and the Plover community - very much a maker space - has built several steno boards that are far, far cheaper - and therefore, way, way more accessible - than professional boards
- …and, on top of that, the community has also put together some fantastic resources for learning Plover and practicing steno.
All of this amounts to a pretty big change in the steno world; instead of steno being something you have to go to school for and pay up front for (steno machines cost thousands of dollars), it is now something you can dabble in, make your hobby, and see if it’s a good fit for you. In a world where there are fewer and fewer stenographers, this is a game-changer. To quote the Plover wiki:
In most skill-based fields - music, photography, athletics, and computer programming, to name a few - a healthy pool of amateurs makes it possible for professionals to exist. People cultivate an interest, buy some cheap equipment, take a few classes, discover that they love the work, hone their skills with thousands of hours of practice, and eventually a very dedicated and talented few are able to become good enough to make a living at what they love. The rest do it without compensation, just for their own pleasure and enjoyment. This is the natural ecosystem of any difficult skill: A wide base of dabblers and dilettantes at the bottom, and a small number of world class hotshots at the top.
Without a steady supply of amateurs to hold the ranks, it’s difficult for professionals to exist. Many legendary musicians started out with a $50 guitar and a tattered songbook. If every guitar cost $5,000 and the only way to learn how to play it was at a conservatory, how many potentially great guitarists would never even get within strumming range? Plover reduces the $1,500+ initial startup cost of steno to around $70, which means vastly more people can give it a try and see if it might be for them.
I couldn’t wait to get started…