An End to Profanity

By Jeremy Wagstaff

We all want to encourage our grandparents, children, and others of a sensitive disposition, to venture online. But not if they end up on a video-sharing web-site like YouTube, where the comments appear to have all been written by people in extreme emotional pain, or a Facebook group, where robust language is considered de rigeur.

And how about those online gaming sessions, where you can pit your Xbox skills against someone you’ve never met? What’s made this more fun in recent years is the advent of services that let you speak to the other people you’re playing with at the same time. Great, except for the fact you might find, in the words of one web-site, “the profanasaurus on the other end of the mike is a schoolboy still at the age where yelling random insults at strangers seems amusing.”

Technology, belatedly, is coming to the rescue. Microsoft—maker of the Xbox–has just received a patent for something called an “automatic censoring filter” that can remove undesirable speech in real-time. The undesired word or words would be made unintelligible or inaudible. Of course, many of us would be happy to apply this kind of technology in our daily lives, at home or in the office.

Which, to a certain extent, we can. If you use the popular but not overly popular Internet browser called Firefox, you can install an extra add-on which allows you to do your own web-page censoring. It’s quite simple, really: just choose the words you don’t want to encounter in your daily browsing, and when they appear on a page they’ll be replaced by a gap, or by words of your own choosing. (You can find more details here: http://is.gd/4m1L)

A comment on YouTube, for example, would now look something like this: hey you [charming expletive], why don’t you [charming expletive] my [charming expletive] you [charming expletive]. It’s not Shakespeare, but it won’t make Gran blush and you can still catch the writer’s drift.

All these ribald comments, however, may be a thing of the past. A cartoonist called Randall Munroe recently drew a comic strip in which someone writes a computer virus forcing people who leave sophomoric comments on YouTube to listen back to what they’ve written before they post it. Needless to say they realize how stupid they sound and stop. (You can find the comic strip here: http://xkcd.com/481/)

YouTube seem to have taken the idea to heart, and have now added a button below the box where you add your comments that says Audio Preview. Press it and a robotic voice will read back what you’ve typed in the box. (And yes, it will include any profanity you care to include.) The hope? People adding absurd and insulting comments may realize how puerile they sound before they hit the post button.

This is an excellent ruse, but I fear that those people who think vulgar language is a form of rapier wit are already lost. The battle would seem to be to try to help those who make poor choices in their online interactions only when under the influence of alcohol. These might involve impassioned declarations of love or hate for ex-partners, say, or recommendations to bosses about where they might put their staff assessments, that would never have been made in the cold hard light of day.

Technology can’t really save you from such poor choices, but it can throw up a few road blocks. A mobile phone service in Australia, for example, has introduced a service called Dialing Under the Influence which allows you to blacklist numbers you think you might feel the urge to call at some point during the evening when you’re not thinking as clearly as you should be.

Google has just introduced an online equivalent for their Gmail program called Goggles, that requires the sender to perform some simple math problems before sending any email to an ex or to your entire staff when you’re at your most vulnerable: late at night at weekends, for example. The thinking is that if you’re sober enough to be able to do the math, then probably your message is not going to get you into trouble. (Details here: http://is.gd/3D55)

All good helpful and public spirited stuff. Sad, though, that technology has now taken on the role of trying to save us from ourselves.

©2008 Loose Wire

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

22. October 2008 by jeremy
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