Google-perplexed: Why won't Android's next predictive dictionary help me sex-text?

Sometimes, it seems, autocorrect just isn’t on board with the fun stuff
  • @jjvincent

It’s probably happened to you. You’re having a row with someone over text message; you’re getting so into it that you need both hands to channel your incandescent rage; you finish and look down to admire what you’ve thumbed out, only to find that autocorrect has rendered your cutting coup de grâce as “Well. All I can say is DUCK YOU”.

Sometimes, it seems, autocorrect just isn’t on board with the fun stuff.

Recent leaks of Google’s next operating system seem to back up this claim, with literary-minded hackers discovering that the next predictive dictionary for Android smartphones has left out all of the good four letter words (you know, the ones that are so naughty that kids never say them).

In fact, further investigation has shown that Google seems have quite a puritanical streak. Neither ‘butt’ not ‘braless’ made the cut; ‘intercourse’, ‘lovemaking’ and ‘coitus’ are also off the menu,  and if you’re even thinking about ‘vagina’ or ‘penis’, well, you just better find yourself another smartphone buddy. 

In fairness to Google these editorial omissions only apply to the predictive dictionary (those autosuggestions that pop up when you’re half way through a word) and some of the entries that didn’t make it may be salacious, but they’re also a little beyond the ken of the average sexter. ‘Irrumination’ (look it up - or don't) appears nowhere in this new dictionary but also zero times in most lovers’ vocabulary. 

In practice this ‘censorship’ will only be a tiny nuisance for, say, the drunken sexter in need of a good proof read, but things get interesting when this tiny bit of influence over our language is multiplied by the vast mass of Android smartphones out there: Google’s OS is used on 80 per cent of smartphones globally and 1.5 million new devices are activated daily. That’s a lot of little nudges.

Dictionaries have always been political objects of course, and what goes and what’s left out can have a real influence on society – think Newspeak, think political correctness , think selfie. But whilst we may be used to watching our language (and by proxy our thoughts) we sometimes forgot that these same powers are granted to technology.

This issue is a subset of what philosophers refer to ‘technological autonomy’; the tendency of systems we build to run away from us and create unintended consequences that ripple outwards. When big companies like Google change something small then those ripples can turn into tsunamis.

Evgeny Morozov has written about this sort of power extensively and brilliantly (see, for example, this essay about the knock-on effect of the company’s maps) and the same questions have been asked of Google’s auto-complete function for its search engine – these block ‘offensive content’ but is it fair that a technology company should be an arbitrator of ethics?

In the case of the Android autocorrect dictionary the outcome is more irritation then censorship, but we should be aware that our language is being guided by more than our thought, even if our spelling suffers as a result.

James Vincent is a Science and Technology reporter for The Independent.