Credit Tamara Shopsin, photograph by Alfred Brisbois
Cambridge, Mass. â This month, Apple previewed some changes to its next generation of iPhones and iPads with the promise that âall the things you love to do are more expressive, more dynamic and more fun than ever.â 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. Appleâs new suite of operating systems appears to replace its pistol emoji, which was an image of a six-shooter, with a squirt gun.
Apple hasnât said why it would be making this change, but this summer, along with Microsoft, the company lobbied Unicode, the nonprofit consortium that decides which emojis should exist, against adding a separate rifle. For those emojis Unicode has already approved, like gun, itâs up to each company to create a picture for it.
Itâs possible that the companyâs decision on the pistol resulted from a #DisarmTheiPhone campaign by a public relations firm working with New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. âThere is a gun we all carry that we can all give up,â explains a video on the campaignâs website â meaning the iPhoneâs 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.
Appleâs 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 companyâs products â like Google or Microsoft or Samsung â and have whatâs delivered communicate the same idea as whatâs 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.
So what could justify a retroactive change by Apple that breaks compatibility among phones? One theory, perhaps derived from notions that toy guns are inappropriate for kids, could be that childrenâs exposure to gun imagery might encourage violence. By changing the picture into something harmless, children will be protected. If that is the concern, Apple could address the issue by simply enabling parental controls for some emojis.
The thrust of our digital infrastructure should allow us to be, in Appleâs words, more expressive. Thatâs why last yearâs change to allow people to select emoji skin-tone shading was good news. When it comes to restrictions, technology companies should limit only speech that breaks clearly stated and openly applied rules, not deprive us of entire tools and means of expression.
To take a related example, some have demanded that Facebook actively monitor live feeds â whether through a squad of customer service reps or through artificial intelligence methods â 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.
To eliminate an elemental concept from a languageâs vocabulary is to reflect a sweeping view of how availability of language can control behavior, as well as a strange desire for companies â and inevitably, governments â 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.
Those behind the campaign to remove the gun from the phone do not appear to be relying on arguments about kidsâ, or everyone elseâs, malleability. Rather, they have portrayed it as a traditional grass-roots messaging campaign: âBy removing the gun emoji,â they write, âweâll show America wants stricter access to real guns.â Apple is surely free to favor gun control as a matter of corporate policy â but it should not be tinkering with our right to express either that or a contrary view on worldwide platforms.
With emojis so popular, the Unicode Consortium now requires those who want to propose new emojis for standardization to take a ticket and join a queue, laying out a two-year process for people to suggest things like dumplings, sleds and robots and await the consortiumâs judgment.
It need not be this way. Rather, our devices already enable tech-savvy individuals to invent new emoji-like graphics to send their friends â and that their friends in turn can pass on to others. Those that attain extensive use could then be standardized in a routine way through Unicode and made available to everyone.
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 companiesâ 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 âtruthfulness,â âcampus upheavalâ and âAmnesty International.â
Apple, Microsoft, Google and other âbig techâ companies should not be placed in a position, which they themselves do not want, of having to decide which words or emojis do and donât represent their brand. Apple should be no more responsible if someone uses a gun image in the abstract than if someone happens to type the word âgun.â
As free citizens, we acquiesce to infantilizing digital infrastructure at our peril.