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I’m a real butterfingers on my phone, as anyone who has checked out my Twitter feed late at night has probably noticed. The screen is just so damn small, and my fine motor skills are just not that great. But I’m not the only one -- it’s really, really common to make innocent misspellings with a phone, which is why a lot of models come with autocorrect and spelling dictionaries.
Like iOS devices, which helpfully underline words in red if they are not spelled correctly. If you click on the word, the device will helpfully bring up a list of possibilities, and assuming you didn’t totally mangle the spelling the first place, the word you actually meant will be there.
But here’s a little secret about all mobile devices: They have what’s known as a “kill list” of words they don’t have in autocorrect and won’t include in spelling dictionaries. While the user can eventually teach the phone these words through common usage (my phone learned “fuck” and “fuckshit” very quickly), they don’t come preloaded.
Usually, the kill list just includes a list of swear words. Because those aren’t nice, as we know. But sometimes, stranger things end up on the kill list, and you get into a more complicated question of consumer freedoms.
Which is where this recent eye-opening report from “The Daily Beast” comes in. They conducted extensive testing of iOS devices in an attempt to figure out what was on the pre-loaded kill list, and what they found was...disturbing, to say the least.
Type “abortiom” and a brand-new iPhone has no suggestions for you. Likewise with “suicidw.” Among the words they found that iOS refused to correct were: rape, bullet, arouse, virginity, drunken, Aryan, prostitute, homoerotic, deflower, and pornography. Meanwhile, misspell “nephrotoxin” and iOS is on that like white on rice. (That thing above about learning? That's why you might not get the same results if you try this with your device -- it may have learned the word through your common usage.)
This is kind of in line with Apple’s history -- remember how Siri wouldn’t direct users to suicide resources until very recently? And the big brouhaha over Siri’s refusal to send people to abortion resources that weren’t crisis clinics, as exposed by The Abortioneers?
Someone at Apple is a prude, but this has broader implications than that. It’s not censorship -- remember, that requires a government actor suppressing your speech -- but it does limit access to information in a way that is both dangerous and unsettling.
iOS will still underline a word like, say, “abortiom” and hopefully when you spot it, you can notice the error and correct it on your own. But the refusal to just supply the right spelling is a kind of needless barrier for users, and it adds a little extra sting in addition to being irritating. Like, really, Apple? You think we’re not grownups here?
Kill listing “controversial” words doesn’t make them go away, and it certainly doesn’t negate the subjects under discussion -- just because an iPhone doesn’t automatically know a correct spelling for “Aryan” doesn’t mean that a user won’t send emails discussing an article on white supremacy, or won’t use her phone for planning the latest KKK brunch. It’s just a pointless gibe at users.
With electronic devices winding through and around all of our lives, we’ve become more dependent on technology than ever before, and that’s not always a good thing. I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that my spelling has gone downhill with the advent of spellcheck, for example. And I’m not the only one who feels slightly at sea without my smartphone (uhm, maybe not as much as some people, like the 20%(!) of 18-34 year olds who use their smartphones while having sex).
So when technology starts restricting our choices or judging us for what we’re using it for, I get nervous. It’s a bad sign for our relationship with technology and society, and the level of power we grant iOS, Android, and other mobile operating systems is troubling. They literally get to decide what we do and do not see, what we can access, when we can access it, and how.
In the grand scheme of things, not correcting an obvious typo that’s easy to spot and fix isn’t a huge deal, but the greater symbolism of the “kill list” is what’s important here. Why does Apple think it has the right to determine which words people should be using? Why should someone have to teach a phone to spell “rape,” of all words?
Humans have been around for a long time, and collectively, they seem to have come to the understanding that suppressing access to information doesn’t dissuade people from seeking it out, sharing it, and using it. Yet, governments, organizations, and groups keep trying to do just that, not seeming to understand that keeping people away from information is ultimately unproductive. It’s like trying to get a cat to stop licking up a bowl of spilt cream. It’s just not going to happen.
People are going to be raped whether or not the iOS dictionary offers a spelling suggestion for “rapd.” White supremacy movements are going to keep growing in the US despite the lack of a correction for “Aryam.” Sex workers are still going to be treated with hostility even if iOS refuses to suggest “prostitute” as a spelling correction.
I’d be curious to see the results with other phone manufacturers -- while everyone (including me) likes to pick on Apple, it’s not the only company with a kill list. And sometimes, those kill lists might make sense; you don’t want to correct a misspelled word to a slur by accident, for example. A side-by-side comparison of the kill lists from other major mobile devices would be fascinating to see, for Apple is not the only company known for patronizing its customers.