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Damn You, Autocorrect! Stop Killing My Freedom of Speech!

02/01/2016 8:26 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Even the most primitive versions of Facebook's autocorrect system wouldn't let you spell the social network's name without capitalising its initial "F" and until a few years ago, Android phones would insist on autocorrecting Zuckerberg to "Sucker berg". Most phone keyboards change all your swear words (even when they're actual dictionary words) to other nonsensical things and god knows how many times I've typed "nahi" into my phone, but it just won't understand.

We now live on devices which allow us to opt out of autocorrecting systems and let us, with only mild degrees of difficulty, type words not recorded in their dictionaries. Thus, if we work just a little hard, we are free to make our own spelling mistakes, substitute numbers like "4" for longer words like "for", and type phrases from vernacular languages in the roman script. Writing in "correct" English is only a waivable default and how do defaults matter?

Regardless of whether they are deliberately intended to do so, autocorrect mechanisms do have the consequence of regulating our conduct and language while we type.

The discipline of behavioural economics studies how our minds work and identifies that we usually opt for default choices, for reasons such as status-quo bias and convenience. While deciding, we tend to pick that which is easy, and Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler suggest that default options and suggestive framing act as powerful "nudges" to steer the behaviour of individuals in particular directions. They recommend that this be done in situations where people, acting out of limited rationality, make choices against their "best interests". Those who can rationally identify their best interests as being otherwise are free to opt out of these pre-made choice templates.

Regardless of whether they are deliberately intended to do so, autocorrect mechanisms do have the consequence of regulating our conduct and language while we type. While they don't impose these choices blatantly and obviously, they're paternalistic nonetheless. The complication of our exercise of will, through the imposition of default, suggestive options, is a regulatory curb on our freedom to type and construct words and sentences as we wish. Moreover, our phones exert this regulation on the exercise of our sacred right to speak and express freely and without restrictions.

The acceptability of the intrusion of any regulation may be gauged with reference to its source and contextual justification. Before we raise and address questions of whether such regulation is justified in our best interests, it is important to notice that we often unquestioningly accept regulation by technology, when the same curbs on our conduct by State or Society would seem unbearably intrusive. Compare the impact of an aunt reminding you to not curse every single time you tried to, or a primary school teacher reminding you to "talk in English" whenever you slipped into your mother-tongue in school corridors to that of your phone's autocorrect. Somehow, it is alright for your phone to complicate the exercise of your free speech rights in ways that the State should never be allowed to.

Are we happy to be allowing our machines to regulate our lives in a manner we'd never allow our governments to?

Sunstein and Thaler assert that regulatory nudges are justified when made in the best interests of individuals of those not acting in their own best interests. Rationalising thus, it may be argued that typing and spelling in "correct" English lies in our best interests. Further, the convenience of having a desired word identified without having to type it wholly may make life a lot better than it was without auto-correct. (Or maybe, autocorrect is just an attempt to make good jokes at the expense of all phone-users?) However, one's best interest may also lie in a variety of other things such as having to spell a word correctly each time to type it, causing a language to evolve by making phonetic connections and shortening words, or in being able to infuse one's texts from vernacular languages and sound-expressions. Perhaps, justifications based on where our best interests lie are slightly presumptuous and the suggestive regulations stemming from them are unduly paternalistic.

While the actual regulatory impact of language auto-correction may seem limited, it highlights some really important questions that we need to keep asking ourselves as we use technology -- is our conduct being regulated unduly, at the pretext of convenience and ease? Are we happy to be allowing our machines to regulate our lives in a manner we'd never allow our governments to? Is the way which our conduct is thus directed really in our best interests?

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