Imagine if you sent an email from your Android phone to your buddy, who happened to use an Apple iPhone that his kid threw away when the newer, shiner iPhone came out. You’re both lawyers, working on a case, and your email said, “the defendant was found in possession of a gun.” Except the email your buddy received said, “the defendant was found in possession of a toy.”
Ridiculous? Maybe not as much as you think, as Apple has decided that it doesn’t like guns. And in furtherance of some policy dreamed up by someone at Apple, they’ve decided that their machines won’t use guns. Not the word gun, for the moment, but the cartoon image of a gun. You know, emojis. Apple has replaced the gun emoji with a squirt gun.
This month, Apple previewed some changes to its next generation of iPhones and iPads with the promise that “all the things you love to do are more expressive, more dynamic and more fun than ever.” That especially includes emojis, those little icons that, according to one study, 92 percent of the online population now make part of their everyday communication.
One change in particular, though, is not delighting everyone. Apple’s new suite of operating systems appears to replace its pistol emoji, which was an image of a six-shooter, with a squirt gun.
Why this was done isn’t exactly clear. The official explanation is the usual marketing crap that suffices for most people, ” more expressive, more dynamic and more fun than ever,” probably assuming that anyone foolish enough to buy an iPhone will be satisfied by this. A pretty good bet, by the way. But Jonathan Zittrain looks a litter harder:
It’s possible that the company’s decision on the pistol resulted from a#DisarmTheiPhone campaign by a public relations firm working with New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. “There is a gun we all carry that we can all give up,” explains a video on the campaign’s website — meaning the iPhone’s picture of a gun. But the campaign was not asking individual people to abstain from using the emoji; it aimed at persuading Apple to prevent, in one swoop, anyone from sending or receiving that cartoon image of a handgun.
For those who hate guns enough, this would be great news. After all, guns are evil, and anything they can do to make it harder for guns to appear to exist serves their ends. Go TEAM! And much as some of those same folks decry the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, because corporations aren’t people and shouldn’t be entitled to free speech, they might rethink their views for Apple because this is just a corporation exercising free speech, right? Some might even chalk it up to Schadenfreude, because hypocrisy is too harsh a word.
But as much as emojis aren’t taken very seriously by very serious folks, they are certainly in common use by young people, and are subject to a uniform convention across the internet so that companies can’t do what Apple is doing.
Apple’s change is ill considered because it breaks the conceptual compatibility that Unicode is meant to establish. Anyone with an iPhone ought to be able to send a message to someone with another company’s products — like Google or Microsoft or Samsung — and have what’s delivered communicate the same idea as what’s sent. But with this change, a squirt gun sent from an iPhone will turn into a handgun when received by an Android device, and vice versa.
There are many companies with their finger in our internet, upon whom we depend to use and enjoy this disruptive (yes, the internet warrants the awful word) technology. While the big ones today are obvious, there will no doubt be others coming along as well. Compatibility across platforms and corporations is what allows this to happen. Without it, the internet doesn’t work. This is true from IP addresses, to URLs, to, yes, the dreaded emoji. Either we’re all working with the same rules or nothing works.
“But it’s emojis,” you say. First they came for the emojis, and I did not speak out because I didn’t use emojis. Except it’s not just emojis. This is just one example, more concrete perhaps but only one, of a push happening with some success throughout internet platforms.
To take a related example, some have demanded that Facebook actively monitor live feeds — whether through a squad of customer service reps or through artificial intelligence methods — and cut off those that might be threats to public safety or merely considered inappropriate. This is a dangerous path to tread when there are only a handful of private gatekeepers.
And then there’s the Twitters, where the corporation has decided, without explanation to disappear voices that are either deemed too hurtful or too politically extreme, and not in the way Twitter prefers. While there is a difference between removing individuals from a private platform, which is within a business’ right and control, removing words or ideas which are subject to an agreed-upon convention raises a very different problem.
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. In the United States, this confuses taking a particular position on the Second Amendment, concerning the right to bear arms, with the First, which guarantees freedom of speech, including speech about arms.
Perhaps the best answer would be for Unicode to shun Apple for its refusal to adhere to the agreed-upon protocols that allow the internet to work. If Apple doesn’t want to use the emojis that Unicode has approved, and other companies allow, then cut Apple off altogether. Turn Apple into the Betamax of the internet, which in a way is what it has always wanted to be anyway.
Then again, is Apple too big to fail? If Unicode was to cut Apple off (assuming this was even possible), if Android phones no longer communicated with iPhones, would that hurt Apple or Android worse? Because if not, then there is no stopping Apple from deciding what words or ideas should be eradicated from our vocabulary in furtherance of its politics. Sure, today it’s a stupid emoji, so why get all bothered. It’s not like Apple could make words it didn’t like disappear, right?