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Killer app: Seven dirty words you can’t say on your iPhone

By Dennis Baron

Apple’s latest iPhone app will clean up your text messages and force you to brush up your French, or Spanish, or Japanese, all at the same time.

This week the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office approved patent 7,814,163, an Apple invention that can censor obscene or offensive words in text messages whie doubling as a foreign-language tutor with the power to require, for example, “that a certain number of Spanish words per day be included in e-mails for a child learning Spanish.”

Parents are sure to love this multitasker, which puts an end to teen-age sexting while also checking homework. In the spirit of the Supreme Court’s 1978 ban on George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on TV,” Apple’s app will shrink their children’s stock of English expletives—or at least render them unprintable—while setting the kids on the path toward bilingualism, or at least a passing grade in French. This new invention from Apple is two things in one: Mary Poppins and the Rosetta Stone, or, for those parents of a certain age, it’s a floor wax and a dessert topping.

Of course, when Apple closes one door, it opens another. Apple may cut off access to bad words in English, but it then redirects that lexical energy in the profitable direction of foreign-language learning. Teens may find their texting vocabulary circumscribed, but if children’s grades go down, Apple’s iPhone censor lets parents activate a tool that “can require a user . . . to send messages in a foreign language, to include certain vocabulary words, or to use proper spelling, grammar and/or punctuation based on the user’s defined skill level. This could aide [sic] the user in more quickly improving his or her fluency of a language.”

As if Steve Jobs wasn’t already intruding enough into people’s wallets and their private lives, the iPhone device will not only watch your language, it will require you to correct your mistakes and rat you out if you screw up. The app doesn’t just make you do your homework, it even tells you when to do it. According to the Apple patent,

The control application may require a user during specified time periods to send messages in a designated foreign language, to include certain designated vocabulary words, or to use proper designated spelling, designated grammar and designated punctuation and like designated language forms based on the user’s defined skill level and/or designated language skill rating. If the text-based communication fails to include the required language or format, the control application may alert the user and/or the administrator/parent of the absence of such text.

The control application may require the user to rewrite the text-based communication in the required language, to include the required vocabulary words and/or to correct spelling and punctuation errors. The control application may require the user to locate the error. If the user cannot correct the error, the control application may provide hints as to the location of the error by first indicating the paragraph, then, the line and, finally, the exact location.

As figure 10 from Apple’s patent application shows (see below), writers of objectionable texts will be given the choice of revising anything offensive or deleting the entire message. But teens bent on sexting are only going to circumvent these word restrictions by exchanging even more explicit photographs of themselves instead. It’s also not clear that typing the odd bit of Spanish will get them ready for study abroad, plus what parent is really going to believe that the children are doing homework on their cell phones?

In the end, parental controls are just one option. Even if you comply with Apple’s protocols for English or for foreign languages, the device could still decide to override the user and the administrator and refuse to send a text message if it judges that message to be obscene or grammatically incorrect.

And it’s not just for kids. It turns out that adult sexting is a problem as well, and here’s where Apple’s invention really stands to pick up market share. A Wisconsin district attorney recently had to resign after it was discovered that he sent sexually-explicit texts to a number of women, including dozens of messages to a sex-abuse victim whose abuser he was prosecuting at the time. So employers will relish their new ability to control employee texts.

Spouses, too, may have an interest in limiting the texts of partners whom they suspect of having roving fingers, or they may simply want to improve their partners’ foreign-language skills in anticipation of that long-awaited European vacation. And both liberal and conservative legislators may actually welcome a phone app that prevents them from soliciting sex with their pages and interns, or at least soliciting it in a way that leaves a digital trail. But most of all Apple’s new invention will be welcomed by Tea Partiers who favor limited government but can’t resist controlling the minutiae of other people’s lives.

Apple’s new device doesn’t have a catchy name yet, and although the company takes out many patents, they don’t all find their way to the marketplace. Plus all Apple products are officially just rumors until Steve Jobs dons the black turtle neck and announces them at the company’s twice-yearly product launch, so in the end nothing may come of this. But a device for censoring text messages while making us do homework may be just the first step for a company where controlling what users do with its products comes second only to getting users to buy those products.

Apple has already blocked x-rated apps from its iPhones. What’s to stop the company from launching the new language censor/teacher on iPhones, then porting it to iPads and even MacBooks? First Amendment bars against prior restraint on speech be damned, just slip this new device into everyone’s word processor and the next thing you know, the man in the black turtle neck will be telling us all what to write, how to write it, when to write it, and whether we wrote it right, and after blocking any words it doesn’t like, Apple will report the results not just to our parents, teachers, spouses, or employers, but also to the National Security Agency, or worse yet, it will sell that proprietary information to advertisers so they can offer us even more things we never thought we’d need. And if we try to modify the device to circumvent its demands, the company will simply brick our computers.

Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can view his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site,  The Web of Language.

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