I was ready to scoff at the makers of Clean Reader, an app that blocks swear words from being seen on ebooks. Jared and Kirsten Maughan offered rationale for their app in the FAQ:
The number one argument against Clean Reader is essentially that an author is an artist and they put specific words in specific places for a reason. Therefore we as the consumers of this “art” should consume it exactly as it was presented by the author/artist.
I suppose these same people would hate going to dinner with me at a restaurant. I’m not a fan of blue cheese. Some friends of mine love it. I’ve tried to learn to like it, tasted it several times in several different settings and dishes. To me it tastes like furniture lacquer. When I get a salad at a restaurant and the chef thinks the salad is best served with blue cheese on it, I will spend a significant amount of time trying to find and remove every piece of blue cheese. Then I’m able to enjoy the salad. In the restaurant world the chef is the artist. He has spent his entire professional life trying to create masterful pieces of art to be served on a dish or in a bowl. Is the chef offended when I don’t eat the blue cheese? Perhaps. Do I care? Nope. I payed [sic] good money for the food and if I want to consume only part of it then I have that right.
So many things going on here: authorial intent, censorship, intellectual freedom and the freedom to read… But the strangest thing is that I kinda agree with the Maughans.
I believe in authorial intent (which we can extend to creator’s intent) inasmuch as I recognize an author typically has any intention for her writing and interpretation of it. But as it pertains to the reader’s or consumer’s experience with the creation it matters not at all. It sits entirely outside the bounds of the creation, and it can’t go home again. Authors do not have the right to be right. They don’t even have the right to be read. Can you imagine if restaurants no longer allowed substitutions or omissions of dish elements? Or if CDs didn’t allow you to skip tracks? I suppose they could, but as a customer I’d feel mighty condescended to, as if the artist’s interpretation were the only valid one and that we all needed to shove it down, no questions asked, no matter how gross it tastes. You can’t read at whim and for pleasure with your nose plugged.
I’m a librarian who firmly believes in openness and intellectual freedom. I get it: this reeks of censorship and nannyism and is symptomatic of the pervasive “trigger warning” epidemic. That’s why I’ll never use the app. (I’m also an adult without kids who doesn’t mind a few well-placed swears in my reading.) Most libraries have content blockers installed on the kids’ computers. Is that censorship? Definitely, but a kind most people are OK with, and for good reason. The computers for adults are another story. Many libraries, like the ones I work at, have no restricting software on the computers but reserve the right to expel a patron for viewing explicit content; others install the blockers everywhere and take a hardline approach to internet viewing.
And that relates to the question I have about Clean Reader: What’s on the naughty list? The software libraries have allows for blocking specific domains, certain keyword searches, and really any site it deems inappropriate according to the code of conduct established by the administration and approved by the library board of trustees. Clean Reader is just two people, free to define for themselves what “clean” means. And they do:
The “Clean” setting only blocks major swear words from display. This includes all uses of the F-word we could find. The “Cleaner” setting blocks everything that “Clean” blocks plus more. “Squeaky Clean” is the most restrictive setting and will block the most profanity from a book including some hurtful racial terms.
Pretty opaque. A Washington Post story about the app says it “automatically obscures the F-word and all its remarkable permutations, along with the S-word, different names for deity, racial slurs and, Jared says, ‘anatomical terms that can be a little racy.'” Add to this the execution of the app, which covers curses with a grey box and a blue dot. Tap on the dot and the app reveals a sanitized alternative: heck for hell, dang for damn, etc.
They’re having it both ways. They say “no changes are made to the original book the user downloads when they buy a book,” but by inserting the Maughan-approved into the narrative, even indirectly, they are altering the work. That’s a no-no, even in the name of shielding Little Maughan from words she’s gonna hear eventually.
And there, as they say, is the rub. Unless I knew my artistic sensibilities were identical to one Mormon couple from Idaho, why should I trust them to decide which words and phrases are kosher and which aren’t? Since the app was founded upon the belief in individual choice, shouldn’t users get to choose what makes their blocked list? Heck, make some money off it: charge a buck for access to the Master List and a few more for editing powers. Even if the ability to modify the list isn’t possible, a better understanding of what qualifies as Clean, Cleaner, and Squeaky Clean is.
Update: Cory Doctorow wrote about Clean Reader a few weeks ago. I’m glad I didn’t read it before writing this because I would have just linked to his post: “It’s a truism of free expression that if you only defend speech you agree with, you don’t believe in free expression. That doesn’t mean you have to defend the content of the expression: it means you have to support the right of people to say stupid, awful things. You can and should criticize the stupid, awful things [like Clean Reader]. It’s the distinction between the right to express a stupid idea, and the stupidity of the idea itself.”