Is it gun control, or language control?


“To eliminate an elemental concept from a language’s vocabulary is to reflect a sweeping view of how availability of language can control behavior, as well as a strange desire for companies — and inevitably, governments — to police our behavior through that language.” 

This statement was written by Jonathan Zittrain in today’s New York Times, in a thought-provoking piece titled “Apple’s Emoji Gun Control.” Its author would no doubt argue — despite the headline — that it’s an essay and an issue more about language control than gun control. It examines a recent decision by Apple to transform its gun emoji on the new iPhone operating system from the image of a pistol to that of a toy squirt-gun; Zittrain explores the reasons for this switch, and the subtle but complicated impact that this change in iPhone’s so-called vocabulary will have on one of our basic freedoms: speech. It’s a bold and provocative thesis, because it hangs on the assumption that simple emojis — those cute and sometimes crude emoticons — are actually part of our linguistic toolbox, and must be seen as pieces of vocabulary as important as the words we spell. As preposterous as that argument might sound, an emoji is at least as complicated — and arguably even more so — than a word with different spellings, pronunciations or nuanced definitions; it’s a unit of communication that can convey as many meanings as the number of people invited to interpret it or as the number of technologies converting its pixels onto a screen. The extent to which an emoji’s image resembles the object it represents, and the inconsistency of that representation as it travels across different technologies and devices, is out of the user’s control. We can choose to spell tonight more playfully, or to address you with one informal letter U, but a gun leaving our iPhone in the image of an innocent plaything might arrive as a dangerous weapon on another’s smartphone — and there’s not a damn thing we users can do about it. By extension, the essay asserts, to have a company controlling and manipulating the way a piece of our vocabulary appears on its own brand of technology is limiting our freedom of expression — regardless of how worthy that company’s intentions might be in exercising its image and editorial control.

Zittrain does offer a further persuasive argument to the emoji skeptics by showing how another image- rather than alphabet-based language — Chinese — is vulnerable and similarly open to control when it’s in the hands of a particular communication channel:

“Some will be skeptical that emojis represent a profound expression of speech the way that more traditional languages do, but even the skeptics should worry about private companies’ intervening in what their users can say before they even try to say it. Today, users of the Chinese version of Skype simply cannot type to one another certain words, including “truthfulness,” “campus upheaval” and “Amnesty International.”

With emojis creeping steadily into our daily lexicons, we should at least be mindful of who is creating and controling them, and perhaps keep an eye on the menu of emojis these powerful technology companies choose to make available to us. Imagine if the happy face were to disappear from our handheld vocabularies: might we eventually have trouble expressing our joy?

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