Category Archives: Sociopolitical issues

Document power

It’s becoming harder and harder to ignore how documents exert influence on us—in politics, across society and in everyday life.

Examples are easy to find. A recent paper in the Journal of Documentation discussed how, in South Africa under Apartheid, documents were used to impose racial categories on individuals, which resonates with today’s discussions around legal gender. Library and information science professor Ron Day’s book Indexing It All discusses how social media and other big-data apparatuses exert similar control.

But the power of documents is nothing new. Indeed, I suspect it’s as old as writing itself. Or even older. I can only imagine the power wrought by the earliest smears of red ochre on burial sites 100,000 years ago. Of course, political control—especially when unbeknownst—is much graver than the kind of power of spiritual awe.

An interesting example of the use of written documents to impose political power is given by Bhavani Raman in the book Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India, based on her doctoral dissertation. Her account shows how the machinery built around written records far exceeded the power of military might in the 18th-century English colonization of Madras. The pen is mightier than the sword, indeed. And beyond the manipulative bureaucracy that was constructed around written records themselves, issues around language choice and translation are also wrapped up in the story. This work contextualizes the modernization of India, but it also gives an extensive and clear account of writing at work.

I’m currently reading Glenn Greenwald’s gripping account of the Snowden revelation a few years back, and it strikes me how the nature of document power has become all the more pernicious with the rise of modern information and communication technologies. Not only do written documents impose political categories and the like, but now they offer strangers a window into the depths of our lives through constant surveillance.

And it’s not just the capacity for seeing that makes this so dangerous; rather, it’s what remains unseen. If the NSA inter alia had a total and ultimate view of our lives, that would be one thing. They would know our actions, but they’d also know our backgrounds and our deepest motivations, desires and fears. Yes, that would be scary. But I think it’s even worse that they know some of these things but not others—because they fill in the gaps with guesses. For instance, say someone conducts a Google search for how to build a bomb. Does this necessarily mean they are planning to blow something up? They could be writing a novel, trying to understand the physics of a recent terrorism incident, doing research for a school project or simply trying to see how easy it is to find such instructions online. To use one of Greenwald’s examples, if I told you that a woman buys a pregnancy test, then calls an abortion clinic, you’ll probably make certain assumptions. But what if she bought the pregnancy test for her father, who works at an abortion clinic, as a cheap way to check for testicular cancer? These examples may seem facile, but you may be surprised by how patterns and fragmented information can be misconstrued. To give another example, there’s a famous riddle you may have heard:

A father and his son get in a car crash. The father is killed, and the son is terribly injured. The son gets rushed to the hospital for surgery. But the surgeon, upon seeing the boy, says, “I can’t do it! That boy is my son!” Explain.

Based on the information we have, we make assumptions. And those assumptions give us a paradox. In the case of this riddle, it’s rather harmless (other than revealing your possible gender bias). But in other cases, it could be life or death. To be sure, certain facts can be construed from examining people’s patterns of conduct, but it is very easy to jump to conclusions.

So documents and the practices around them can be tremendously powerful in our lives. We can use them, and we can be used by them. Often this power is invisible. Some of that invisible power is being unveiled… but surely, so much of it remains hidden.

Reflections on the privilege of writing in the Roman alphabet

As a society we’ve adopted the paradigm of selection over creation. As a result, outside organizations get to decide what, exactly you get to select from.

This may not seem all that important. But what it comes down to is that those of us who use the Latin alphabet are incredibly privileged. Yes, the Latin alphabet is the most commonly used writing system, both by the number of languages it represents and the number of writers in those languages. But that only makes it worse, I think, because it allows us to squabble over the skin color of little cartoon people when there are plenty of people who are not currently permitted to type in their native language.

For an in-depth look at this issue from the eyes of a person who speaks from experience (i.e., not myself), I highly recommend the article “I Can Text You A Pile of Poo, But I Can’t Write My Name.”


New emoji, a giant leap backwards

Yesterday Apple released iOS 8.3. Along with performance fixes, this update includes a dramatic (and long-awaited) redesign to the emoji keyboard.

Thumbs Down to New Emoji

I love emoticons. Originally a simple way to relay facial expressions in text, they’ve become words in their own right. Emoticons are a way for users to express creativity and nuance. Emoji has widened our emoticon lexicon even further: Was there ever another time in history when a drawing of a smiling pile of poop or a girl lifting her hair meant something so nuanced?

The release of new emoji is always exciting. How did we ever live without the tears-of-laughter face? New emoji offer new possibilities for our e-language of texting and tweeting, new crevices in which to carve nuance. But this update has me extremely disappointed. It’s a giant leap backwards for mankind. And yes, it’s that serious.

So what changed? Well, first there’s the interface. If there’s anything good about this update, it’s this. The new interface makes it faster and easier to find and use emoji. There’s also a new hand gesture (Live Long and Prosper!), several new flags, and a number of new combinations of “families” (groups of three or four people). All that’s fine. But then we have the really troubling thing: what is misleadingly called diversity, which really means skin-color diversity, because apparently diversity is only skin-deep.

Okay, elephant in the room: I am a middle-class white male. As such, you might be inclined to find my viewpoint bigoted and misinformed. That’s a topic for another venue. For now, hear me out.

In 2014 Unicode recommended changes to the emoji library that included visual ethnic diversity in the drawings of tiny people. They wrote in their report, “People all over the world want to have emoji that reflect more human diversity, especially for skin tone” (Section 2.2). It seems that this really is the case, and it came into the limelight in online petitions as early as 2013. If there is a desire in the marketplace, it only makes sense for a company to respond in its offerings. If people want diversity in their emoji, then I’m all for it. But it has to be done right. And here, Apple did not do it right.

Here’s how it works in Apple’s new emoji keyboard: You tap on a character. If it is eligible for choice in skin tone, a context menu pops up, and you now decide whether to choose bright yellow or from a range of five human-looking skin tones (going from pale to dark). When you tap one of these six, your selected emoji appears.

Now let’s take a step back in order to understand what’s so wrong here. In language, there are distinctions. If there were no distinctions, then our speech would just be an endless stream of monotone: aaaaaaaaaaah. Obviously, we couldn’t extract much meaning from that. It’s the distinctions that determine meaning. K sounds different from G and that’s how we understand the difference between cool and ghoul. Different languages make different distinctions. In English, for example, we make two different L sounds. The L in animal and the L in lamp are different, but we don’t distinguish between them and thus they sound the same to our ears—yet in other languages of the world, these are as different as our K and G. Another example is tone: In Mandarin, for instance, tone can distinguish one word from an otherwise-identical one; this isn’t the case in English.

The way Apple implemented racial diversity, now race means something in our language. Skin color is now a meaningful distinction. And we have no choice. There’s no opt-out. Every time we use an emoji, we must discuss race. If you choose the yellow guy, you’re saying, “Hey, I don’t mean a particular race when I’m saying this.” That choice in itself has symbolic ramifications. On the other hand, if you choose a particular human skin tone, it begs the question: Why that one? In our new world, race becomes a differentiator in our language. And the only way we can opt out is by not using emoji at all.

First of all, is yellow really raceless? In my view, at least, it is just the cartoon version of white. Think of The Simpsons. In that show (and it has been extremely influential), all white people are bright yellow (like these new emoji). If a person in the show is not white (like the Indian convenience store owner), they are drawn in a different color. Other people, it seems, have interpreted the yellow emoji as supposed-to-be-Asian.

And then there’s aesthetics. The yellow-colored emoji are, in a word, hideous. Before, though they were admittedly mostly Caucasian, the emoji were designed nicely. The colors were harmonious. Given the skin tone used, the people’s hair and accessories were colored in a complementary way. Though ostensibly racist, they were visually pleasing. Now, though, Apple seemingly just made the skin bright yellow without adjusting anything else (or if they did, they didn’t do enough). Bright yellow skin begs brighter accessories. But as of now, everything just looks ugly and washed out. I thought Apple was supposed to be the paragon of great design. Maybe they’re so busy working on their Watch that they had to have the janitors do these emoji. (For the record, I’m not the only one who thinks they’re ugly.)

To speak of usability, now it takes two taps to choose a character, whereas before it only took one. It takes longer. But not only that: Now there’s an extra decision involved. Do we really want to contribute to our decision fatigue for something so trivial?

Next, once we decide to implement race, it opens up a whole can of worms. In the new emoji keyboard, race is only an option on some of the characters. Why not all of them? Why can’t I have two dancing bunny-costume girls who happen to be black? Why are the smily faces still only available in yellow? On that note, why don’t we get different color animals? Why can’t I have a brown bunny? Or a purple fish?

I do get it. Before there were mostly white people. There was an Asian in a guan pi mao cap, and there was  a Middle Eastern–looking man in a turban. There were no black people. I get it. Not everyone was equally represented, and the representations that were there could be construed as stereotypical caricatures. People in these un(der)-represented groups must have felt, well, un(der)-represented. Should there be racial diversity in emoji? Sure. Was this the way to do it? Absolutely not.

What are some better solutions? Below are three I came up with off the top of my head. I’m sure if I dedicated two years or more to this, as Apple has done, I could think of even more.

  1. Assuming bright yellow is the default, that should appear on tapping. If someone wants to select a race, they can hold down the character and choose—just like with diacritics on the text keyboard.
  2. Maybe a setting somewhere to choose your default emoji skin color, and that’s the one you use. (Perhaps having the option of holding down and selecting a different color if you want.) This seems to be the thinking behind Africa-based emoji company Oju Africa‘s emoticon set, which is quickly becoming popular.
  3. Do the emoji need to be colored at all? Perhaps not. Could they just be transparent? Or, if we want color, why not use non-realistic colors, such as green and purple, as we see in Google Chat? Either way, this would remove the variable of skin tone.

Alpesh Patel, CEO of Oju Africa, mentioned above, had this to say about Apple’s latest release:

Look at their new emoticons—it’s all about skin colour. Diversity is not about skin colour—it’s about embracing the multiple cultures out there that have no digital representation.

If we really want to celebrate and respect diversity, making race into a meaningful distinction in our language is absolutely not the answer. By definition,  highlighting our visual differences like this will drive us apart. Shouldn’t we, instead, strive to see ourselves as all part of a singular, multifaceted human community? Can’t we realize—please—that there is much more to diversity than skin color?

Why are we so obsessed with skin color? It looks like Dr. King taught us nothing after all. How many more people have to die for us to realize this?