by Mary Harrington
Monday, 25
April 2022
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11:54

Google’s latest service: moral correction as you type

Its new 'inclusive language' feature is deleting any sense of individuality
by Mary Harrington
Credit: Getty

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.

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Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
5 months ago

“Inclusive language” is an anglocentric hustle. I was recently asked on a scientific grant application to write my CV in a “gender-neutral” way. Trouble is, my surname is Ó Náraigh, which is the male form of the surname. The female version would be Uí Náraigh or Ní Náraigh, depending on the context. So not gender-neutral at all. You would wonder how the Russians manage (“Vladimirov / Vladimirova”). There must be many other languages where such “gender-blinding” is not possible, leading me to believe that “woke” is a mind-virus that specifically affects the English-speaking brain.

Last edited 5 months ago by Lennon Ó Náraigh
Raymond Inauen
Raymond Inauen
5 months ago

Not to mention having to write everything gender neutral in french.

Aldo Maccione
Aldo Maccione
5 months ago
Reply to  Raymond Inauen

lunac.y.i.e !!

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
5 months ago

Of course Google should issue intersectional guidance as well so that if you register as black you will be able to use such expressions as “N****r” as a friendly greeting and “B***h” for your girlfriend without being deleted.
My wife used to drive our 13 year old son to school together with a friend’s 5 year old daughter and was constantly turning the radio off when songs by Rappers were played – which my son much enjoyed – for fear of the friends daughter coming out with such words at embarrassing moments. For some reason a startling level of sexism seemed (at least then) to be acceptable if the singer was black. It was all very difficult for her to explain the problem that didn’t seem to make much sense to my son.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
5 months ago

This is yet more woke capitalism. Rents are at an all-time high across the industrialized world. Home ownership is in long-term decline. Having trouble with your landlord? That’s okay. Google is here to the rescue – the solution is to give him a more gender-neutral name. Problem solved, let’s move on… to children’s entertainment. Disney wants to take over parents’ duties, and teach children about race, sex, gender, and identity. The kids’ college fund is a bit depleted. If Disney is so good at parenting, will it stump up the cash?

Last edited 5 months ago by Lennon Ó Náraigh
Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
5 months ago

Come to think of it, what , if anything, has been proposed as a gender-neutral version of “landlord”?

Will it be like the acting profession, where it’s apparently politically correct to call all by the male term “actor”? Or the confusion of chairman / chairwoman / chairperson / chair? The only one of those that is disappearing fast is “chairwoman”.

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
5 months ago

But, if “ever-mutating woke language shibboleths serve to signal class status” they won’t if everyone has access to this technology, as Google seems to intend. Ironically enough, the main purpose of “inclusive language” is to divide people. The new snobs will have to find new markers.
I give it a year, at most.

D Glover
D Glover
5 months ago

When I read about ‘Baby G’ and her ‘bimbofication’ I honestly thought that this must be satire. Is this real?

Raymond Inauen
Raymond Inauen
5 months ago

I noticed that my comments are being edited even before I write them down. I wonder how that happened. Oh, maybe I’ve already been influence not to write certain things. Google is late to the game!

Last edited 5 months ago by Raymond Inauen
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
5 months ago
Reply to  Raymond Inauen

True. In composing a post here I always have to bear in mind the quirks of the moderator’s algorithm to try to avoid giving it a hissy fit. I am getting better at knowing what will get it ruffled.
A number of posters who I enjoyed no longer post here presumably because they were less inclined to tailor their posts to meet the moderators predilections. Of course a time may come when rephrasing my thoughts is insufficient and I have to leave the only forum I bother to post on.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
5 months ago

This is of course just the beginning. “AI” can and will be extended to more intrusive “auto-corrections” on what you write. This is not necessarily a problem for the individual – you should be able to find and set software that controls such intrusions. Where it will become a problem is when it is used by the publishing media to edit contributions, with or without, the author’s consent. It is inevitable, so railing against it will achieve nothing but journalists and readers voting with their feet might. Integrity lies with the participants.

Austin Ruse
Austin Ruse
5 months ago

Grammarly does not care for the word homosexual.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
5 months ago
Reply to  Austin Ruse

If you include the short form of that in your post here your post will likely be moderated automatically. What does Grammarly recommend?

Jason Highley
Jason Highley
5 months ago

One presumes this inclusive language AI will be writing in characters developed by the Romans.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
5 months ago
Reply to  Jason Highley

Ropeople, please!

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago

Don’t worry… Elon is taking them head on. Gosh, Apple corrected my elon to Elon! Things are looking up!

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
5 months ago

My pronouns are notfuc/kingwoke, and I think it’s ok for mankind to mention but not to use the word “ni55er”.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago

Softwear package…

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago

Apart from the patronising and hysterically un-self aware notion of anglophone (white) twenty somethings telling the rest of the world how to think about ‘gender’, and indeed, everything, Google is any case the archetypal the classic ‘punching down’ organisation. While endlessly hectoring and cajoling the ‘unwoke’ working class, it bows down and does whatever the governments of the world tell it do, or face being blocked, as in China.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago

Yes, it is utterly absurd that the term ‘nazi’ cannot be used, even to describe the German government of 1933-45! Either this shows very bad faith on the part of UnHerd, or that algorithms just cannot get context at all. Either way, it is censorious and appalling.