Are the words you write on a computer yours? We all have cliches and stereotypes knocking around in our head, easy crutches to deploy when trying to make a point, but most of us would like to believe that our thoughts are our own, our ideas are ours, and that when we tap out emails and work documents, there is an unmediated connection between the ideas in our mind and our words on the screen.
That’s self-expression, one of the most important freedoms that we enjoy. What we think is influenced by what we read and hear, but what we choose to say is key to who we are. And for that reason, the role of technology in prompting what we say, jostling us towards saying something different, is so significant, and so troubling.
A new feature introduced in Google Docs will prompt users to write in gender-neutral language to avoid offending colleagues or friends. Did you ask for that? Do you want to be told, when you write words like chairman or fireman, that you really meant chairperson or firefighter instead?
It might seem benign, but the more technology interferes in these subtle ways, the more influence over our lives the people who sit behind that technology wield. We have no say in how software prompts work, or which values they choose to uphold. Those are decisions being made in board rooms and between coders, without oversight or democratic accountability.
The risk posed by this technology can be overblown: it’s not as blunt as Big Tech policing your thoughts, or pressuring users to change the way they view the world.
Still, over time, being nudged by the software to change what you write, how you express yourself – and essentially what you think – risks conditioning people to think as those who write the code would like you to think. Just as people unflinchingly adopt the suggested spelling of words from the computer, so they might start to adopt the suggested tone and meaning of sentences.
So what? Who wants to offend people? The cornerstone of free speech is the right to offend. The arc of human progress has been furthered by those willing to stand up and say the unpalatable.
By conditioning users to express themselves as the large tech companies would like them to speak, we risk raising generations of users who don’t challenge particular fashionable orthodoxies and don’t interrogate the choices that they make.
Nobody asked to be told what to say by Silicon Valley, but here we see yet another example of big tech filtering, intermediating, and influencing our world. We should defend the right to be offensive, the right to say the unpalatable, the basic – crucial – right to think and speak for ourselves.