A specter is haunting cyberspace—the specter of autocorrectocracy. All the powers of big tech have entered into an unholy alliance to exorcise typos, misspellings and other errors in real time, as they occur, at every keyboard and touchscreen within reach.
As I write these words (with apologies to Karl Marx for the intro), Microsoft Word is scrutinizing and tweaking them. Word software arrived in 1983, the demon spawn of a young Bill Gates and an unchaperoned English language. Word grew to dominate the typing and printing of English in digital form, and today the app starts up with most autocorrect and autoformat features prechecked “on.” Like lane departure for writing. Where no writer has gone before. Engage!
Uh-oh. My screen is awash in squiggly red lines, starting in the headline. Word underscored autocorrectocracy to indicate this word is misspelled or does not exist. Of course, it’s not in Word’s dictionary. I just made it up.
Luckily, Word allows me to right-click the offending word and add it to my custom dictionary, bada bing, bada boom. (Oops, more red lines. What the heck does bada even mean?) Microsoft, if you’re listening, don’t dare remove the custom dictionary.
Next comes spectre. Word probably thinks I chose the British spelling, but this is one of those sequence typos that mimics dyslexia. I repair my “mistake.” The squiggly red scold disappears.
A blue dotted line reminds me that the phrase entered into is wordy. I agree with that modern sensibility. Why use two words when one will do? But try telling Karl Marx that less is more.
On the other hand, I watched my fat-fingered typing of monoooly re-spell itself with the missing “p”, as if by magic. Autocorrect is so cool—when it does what you want.
When autocorrect “misbehaves,” the results can be embarrassing, hurtful or worse, as anyone who sends text messages can attest. The migration of fingers typing on keyboards to thumbs typing on phones has brought a proliferation of typos. In response, mobile device makers seem to be programming them to autocorrect more aggressively.
Autocorrect software must have clear rules to apply to your writing, be able to correctly assess what you meant to say, and either accept the text, flag it for clarification or autocorrect it on the fly. These decision points are the essence of editing and are often more art than science. A light touch is preferred. As in medicine, first do no harm.
As someone who spends most of my working hours editing texts written by smarter people with more advanced degrees, and as a writer who appreciates supple editing, I fear outsourcing these decisions to algorithms.
Autocorrect on Steroids
Imagine what gaining command of those algorithms could mean for zealots who want to control what others see, think and write? Imagine that every time you typed the word “slavery,” your computer word processor automatically changed the word to “involuntary relocation.”
Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre, the Chinese Communist Party has tried to erase the incident from history. The “Great Firewall” blocks foreign internet sites, and an ever-growing list of censored search terms blocks users from restricted information. Chinese thought police now monitor every social media post. On the eve of this year’s anniversary of the massacre, the top livestreaming star disappeared after promoting a company’s ice cream cake decorated like a tank. That is life-size editing, folks. Autocorrect run amok. Autocorrectocracy.
Such heavy-handed social control was once unimaginable in America. But today many of the same politicians who howl about Chinese censorship seem happy to try it in America. They’re banning and burning books, trying to purge entire subject areas from school curricula, and using public office to punish private companies that don’t toe their line.
Short of falling under the control of people who would abuse it, I worry that autocorrect will one day be the end of us all by accident. We see incorrect automatic revisions on our devices every day. Will one letter or word changed incorrectly someday have catastrophic consequences?
Imagine that tensions with Russia are at DEFCON 1. Key U.S. leaders are gathered in the Situation Room. It’s 11:45 a.m., and the clock is ticking down to a noon deadline of some sort. The Russians have hacked into the Joint Chiefs’ text messaging system, hoping to seize an advantage.
That’s where they find one hungry four-star general has texted another, “What time’s launch?”