Imagine if Google programmed its servers to go through all the emails you send via Gmail and replace all the cuss words with asterisks. You’d be mad, right? Well, that’s pretty much what the voice recognition engine that powers Google Glass does:

In order to write emails or text messages with Google Glass, you dictate words. The device is pleasantly reliable at transcribing things you say … unless you happen to have a foul mouth. In that case, it’ll make what you say “safe for work,” even if you don’t want to be censored.’s Russell Holly was among the first to notice that the voice-to-text feature on Google Glass, much like that on Android, cleans up naughty words. If you drop an f-bomb, Glass will transcribe it as “f***.” That favorite four-letter word for “excrement” becomes “s***.” A female canine becomes “b****.” There doesn’t appear to be a way to circumvent this censorship.

No big deal, you’re probably thinking. A default setting in the voice recognition engine which they were probably using for something else first, something bland and corporate where censorship was a sensible default. They’ll change it. Sure. No doubt they will.

More interesting is what this tells us about the future, a future in which everything we perceive and everything we express is transmitted through many layers of data processing, layers that are owned by entities that do not work for us and do not have our best interests at heart.

Google already routinely tweaks its search algorithm so that some things just don’t show up so well in the results. Sometimes this is for searcher benefit (nobody wants to see more machine-generated nonsense keyword pages) but sometimes it’s in response to outside legal pressure, as when they started reducing the page rank of search results from torrent sites.

What’s it going to be like, living in a world where everything you say passes through filters you can’t see and don’t control? Where, when you search for something you can’t find, you don’t know if it doesn’t exist or if it was silently filtered from your search results? When someone says something to you, did they actually say that? Or were their words edited on the fly?

I have a friend who told me at length about the absurdly reductionist version of this he encountered in a MMORPG for children. Playing with his own children, he learned that the game was “defended” from profanity by not having a chat feature of any kind. Instead, all communication was selected from menus of pre-written possible dialog. Of course these did not include any cussing. The strongest disapprobation one could express was a stiff “You stink!” But of course there were many things the players wished to communicate that were not on the menus. Like prisoners of war, they quickly evolved visual codes for communicating arbitrary sentiments; I’ve forgotten the details, but at least one approach was the old “spell out words on the ground by dropping small pieces of loot” routine.

As Violet Blue put it in her Sex Tech roundup that led me to this Google Glass story, “if we wanted to be treated like children all our lives, this would be great.”

Going the other way into dystopian horror, Charlie Stross wrote a novel called Glasshouse (the title being a British slang reference to a specific Victorian Panopticon-style prison) that features a back story in which much memory of human history has been lost because it was edited out during something called the Censorship Wars. It seems that travel and commerce had come to rely on nanotech “Assembler Gates” that disassembled you at one location, transmitted you and your data over interstellar distances, and reassembled you at your destination. During the censorship wars, sophisticated worms were used to attack this A-gate network. Corrupted gates began editing people and their data, including their memories. The result? A history with big empty holes in it.

We already live in a world where grownups understand the risks they are taking whenever they use hardware and software that isn’t open source. If it’s proprietary, you can’t see what it’s doing and you can’t force it to behave properly (work for you instead of for your adversaries). Unfortunately, when it comes to communications and social networks, closed and proprietary commercial systems are currently in dramatic ascendency. The best you can do is decide which systems you mistrust the least — or retire from the game and hide in your cave.

I do believe we’ll eventually evolve a world where we communicate and network and search via systems that are open and subject to comprehensive infosec audits (although the complexity of actually doing those audits will be so high, most of us will instead rely on deciding which set of auditors we mistrust least). Of course, that world won’t look much like this one, commercially or politically or economically. And we won’t get there until we have endured such “a long train of abuses and usurpations” that the cost of doing things any other way is universally understood to be unbearably high. Getting there? It’s going to really suck.

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