My new phone’s censoring my favourite Anglo Saxon. And I think that’s ducking stupid.
I mean, it’s literally ducking stupid – not the thing you thought I was euphemising.
Let me explain. I have quite a vocabulary of Anglo Saxon, which I use a lot in the real world. I like some of those words so much I even checked out an Anglo Saxon dictionary to see if I could find more. I also got my Dutch family to tell me all the Netherlands swear terms (they’re virtually meaningless in English, alas).
And this ducking phone won’t let me use them. Not without a lot of poking about on the keyboard, anyway. Perhaps it’s trying to make me a Better Person for a future filled with the superficial artifice of righteousness, as defined by a western sub-culture that isn’t mine.
The thing is, the words I often use aren’t usually considered offensive any more. I’ve even heard New Zealand’s Prime Minister use one of them, on TV interview, and nobody batted an eye (he said what my phone would translate as ‘shut yeah’). Of course, Anglo Saxon isn’t the only lexicon my phone censors. There’s also what it calls ‘damon’, for instance – which was offensive to middle-class Victorians 170 years ago. Just in case any of them might use my phone, I suppose.
It’s not the specific words or even the point that phone auto-correct dictionaries are user-editable. It’s the fact that manufacturers do it to sell the phone, for specific reasons driven by certain socially-mediated aspects of the wider human condition that could, if upset, damage sales. Capiche? (OK, pig Latin, but hey… understand?)
What worries me is that the Information Age has already given us Big Data and every potential for Aldous Huxley’s future (the one where people end up in a dystopia because they asked for it). Are we now entering a world where language is to be censored by the very devices we rely on to communicate? Are we to be reduced to what Victor Frankl called the ‘last of the human freedoms’?
Earlier this year there was a scream over an app known as ‘Clean Reader’, which censored e-books, substituting a fairly wide lexicon of ‘unacceptable’ words with other terms, often with hilarious results. The legality of doing this to copyright material was questionable – what it technically did was breach authors’ moral rights per the 1928 Berne Convention, to which the US became a signatory in 1989. The words used and the conceptual style of censorship was specific to a particular US sub-culture. The spirit of the late Reverend Bowdler was, it seems, still alive and well.
The thing is, readers chose to use the app. But a standard mass-market phone? That’s another matter. And what next? Will Word auto-correct start clipping authors’ ability to express themselves as they see fit? Or send Naughty Lists to Microsoft so users can be chastised for Not Being Righteous?
OK, that was a reducto ad absurdum, and in many ways I can see the point. It’s reasonable that adults who might be offended are given options not to be. It’s also important that phones have controls available for kids.
But I’ve seen arguments to the effect that using some of these words is the slippery slope to adults becoming a Bad Person. I don’t buy that for a second. What counts isn’t the word, it’s the emotion. If I wanted, I could say some very offensive and nasty things using everyday words that my phone DOES let me use. It’s not hard. I won’t, because that’s not nice.
Besides which, in the right context, these words add colour. Imagine a world where Arnie’s Terminator character was known for saying ‘Duck You Ads Home’, which is what my phone comes up with when I type That Line into it.
We all know the Anglo Saxon words. If we’re smart, we won’t use ‘em inappropriately. And that’s why I think my phone’s auto-correct dictionary is a total crock of what it calls shut.
Know what? That dictionary’s editable. I’m going to teach my ducking phone Anglo Saxon.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015