Dirty Words: Should We Use Technology to Clean Up a Book's Language?

There's a new e-reading app out that searches for profanity and scrubs away those dirty, dirty words. It's called Clean Reader, and it has the publishing industry up in arms.

While it is illegal to make changes to copyrighted works, makers of the Clean Reader app have found a clever way around this pesky rule. Instead of republishing the works, they use an opaque highlighting feature to cover up the words in question. Critics of the app call it censorship, while proponents say once they own the book, they should be allowed to read it however they want. 

In practice, it's unlikely that the omission of certain words can truly block the offensive words from taking hold in the reader's mind. For example: 

"No ______ way!"
"I don't give a ____."
"You've got to be _____ me!" 
"I want to ____ his brains out." 

It's easy enough to fill in the blanks. 

In its current state the app itself seems fairly banal. But it does set a bad precedent for future technology that could, if we're thinking big, rewrite an author's text. If readers are not viewing the author's actual words, they can easily misconstrue the author's intention. 

But of course, we're not there yet. What we have now is software that searches out individual words to cover up. And rather than worry about a science fiction future that we are nowhere close to achieving, it might be prudent to explore the potential benefits of apps like Clean Reader. 

One obvious use for the app is its potential to allow schools to teach books that were previously banned for their use of profanity. Books that have been banned at least in part for their use of profanity include, JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Richard Wright's Native Son, and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

We should remain wary of technology that promotes or enables censorship, but not at the cost of technology that has the potential to put ambitious, thoughtful, challenging books in more readers hands.