Chris Ashton

dai11y 04/01/2023

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Swearing and automatic captions

Eric Bailey highlights the issue of how automatic captions deal with swearing. A number of providers automatically censor certain words, displaying a string of asterisks instead. There are lots of problems with this:

  1. It’s nannying what a Deaf person should be hearing, creating a lack of equivalency in experience.
  2. It undoes the speaker’s agency, “diluting the message they’re trying to communicate”. People get passionate, people swear, it is a deliberate act.
  3. It wrongly assumes that captioning is only ever used in a professional or ‘business’ context.
  4. It also asserts that all professional or business contexts should be swear free – why?
  5. It creates confusion: the audience is left trying to figure out what the word is, and may even imagine a far ruder word than the captioning software was trying to save them from!
  6. It falls victim to inaccuracy. Non-swear words get accidentally censored, whereas actual swear words get imaginatively interpreted (Eric cites “Titz”, a municipality in Germany).

Eric experiments with speaking specific swear words into a number of different applications that provide automatic captioning, e.g. Zoom, Google Meet and TikTok. The results were mixed – you can watch videos of each in the article. I particularly enjoyed the summary for Skype: “many swears were initially displayed and then replaced with asterisks, making the entire point moot.”

We then move onto ‘voice control’ technologies, such as voice access (a native Windows 11 feature). It censors (with asterisks) the swear words you’re transcribing – a disappointing outcome for inclusivity. Apple’s equivalent, Voice Control, doesn’t censor. Dragon Home censors by mishearing words, e.g. “shipped”.

Censoring swear words is kind of a default approach built into a lot of software. It’s often implemented with little thought, on the reasonable enough assumption that this is the correct, ‘safe’ approach, to avoid the risk of abuse of your product and/or reputational damage to your company. But there’s a serious accessibility issue at the heart of this, and Eric hits the nail on the head. Well worth a read.

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