April 25, 2022 - 11:54am

Google is rolling out an ‘inclusive language’ feature in Google Docs, its online document-editing tool, whose job is to flag up words such as ‘landlord’, ‘policeman’ and ‘mankind’, that “may not be inclusive of all readers”.

This isn’t the first AI-based language-shaper. Apple’s iPhone predictive text has been AI-based since 2017, and in 2018 Google rolled out its autocomplete writing assistant, Smart Compose, for Gmail, adding it to Google Docs as well in 2019.

But news that AI writing assistants have made the jump from spelling and grammar help to automated moral sensitivity reading has prompted ‘Big Brother’ protests, along with fears about creativity and self-expression. And from the perspective of those of us who learned to write under pre-internet conditions, auto-inclusivity does indeed feel creepy.

For people who grew up in a print culture, writing is indelibly associated with individuality and self-expression. But where the existence of this ‘self’ is, er, self-evident to those of us who remember the Before Times prior to mass digitisation, it’s increasingly evident that at least some younger digital natives don’t view selfhood this way at all.

Take the example of Baby G, who posts TikTok videos about ‘bimbofication’ to her 173,000 followers. As she presents it, ‘bimbofication’ resembles a convergence of WAG culture with Zen Buddhism. In order to enjoy a ‘soft life’, thoughts, desires and self-awareness must be erased.

Key tips for a tranquil existence: include “Focus on you and your looks all the time”, “don’t participate in discourse”, and “stop reading the news”. Above all, instead of “the shackles of self-awareness”, she counsels her fans to “just think of a blank white wall.”

For those of us who see writing as a means of self-expression, the idea that an AI might have something to contribute to one’s prose style is at best faintly insulting. But in today’s hyper-mediated world writing is — for many at least — less a joyful experience than a tedious necessity in order to participate in the public sphere. And if, as Baby G puts it, the aspiration is to empty out the inner self, to “have no thoughts” and by extension no self as such, then who cares if a robot is helping to write your prose?

And if a robot proposes to save you not just from wasting time but also offending against elite moral diktats, why would you not embrace this with open arms? (Assuming, that is, that Google is able to guard its woke machine learning algorithms against hacker efforts such as the ones that turned Microsoft’s ‘Tay’ chatbot into a neo-Nazi.)

The appeal of woke auto-updates is even clearer when, as Nicholas Clairmont argues, ever-mutating woke language shibboleths serve to signal class status: the 21st-century version of knowing which fork to use. For those who don’t have the time or the right social network to ensure they stay effortlessly abreast of this code, and who can’t afford to fall foul of its diktats, a tool such as the one offered by Google is a no-brainer — especially for those who don’t set much store by the self-expressive function of writing anyway.

If your aspiration is “no critical thinking, no self-awareness, no thoughts, just vibes” — in other words no self — then robot assistance with moral compliance has no downside. For a digital world of empty selves, it couldn’t matter less if robots police the boundaries of self-expression.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.