A Christian couple with good motives and the best intentions in the world wrote an app to “clean” dirty words in ebooks by replacing them with “clean” alternatives. They named it “Clean Reader” and they made it available for free for iOS and Android devices. They created a book catalog for the device from work supplied by @Inktera and Smashwords. It sounds like a feel-good kind of story, right? Wrong. The clean device did a dirty deed – it rewrote authors’ words without obtaining permission from the authors.
The app had three settings that downloaders could select from to decide how “clean” they wanted their books. Depending on the setting,the app picked out words and changed them. The “Daily Mail” article by Jenny Stanton gives an example of how this process worked with passages from some well known books:
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence
Before: ‘I don’t want to f*** you at all. My heart’s as cold as cold potatoes just now.’
After: ‘I don’t want to [freak] you at all. My heart’s as cold as cold potatoes just now.’
Before: ‘It was not woman’s fault, nor even love’s fault, nor the fault of sex.’
After: ‘It was not woman’s fault, nor even love’s fault, nor the fault of [love].’
Before: ‘She threaded two pink campions in the bush of red-gold hair above his penis.
’After: ‘She threaded two pink campions in the bush of red-gold hair above his [groin].’
The first problem with the app is that it changed the words of authors without their permission. That is always, always, always wrong. The second problem is more basic – who decides what is clean and what is dirty and who picks what words get substituted for the dirty ones? It’s like walking into a neighbor’s house – you might walk in and think “This place is filthy. Jane is a lazy bitch.” I might walk into the same house and think, “I wonder how Jane keeps this place so clean and still keeps her daily word count so high.” Dirt is in the eye of the beholder.
A reader is always free to skip a passage he or she finds offensive or to imagine a different word in the place of one that bothers her. It might be that the reader is mortally offended by any reference to sex or the human body. It might be that the reader was once hit by a black car and can’t bear to read about black cars. Perhaps the reader was bitten by a dog and prefers the pets in her stories to be cats. We are all the product of our own experience. Mr. Duck is a computer programmer, so he’d be one of the people making those decisions about which words to replace. Mr. Duck has a wicked sense of humor, a sharp intellect and is married to an insane duck lady. His choices for those words would likely NOT be the ones made by the great bulk of humanity. Lord knows, my choices would likely not be made by even the smallest sliver of humanity. The choice of what to read and what to replace and what to skip – those are decisions by the reader who always has the option to close a book he finds offensive.
Authors outraged by Clean Reader’s mutilation of their work took to blogs and Twitter, and created such a backlash that their book suppliers pulled out and “Clean Reader” folded. The couple claims they intend to rework the app and will release it again. I hope they don’t because no matter what they do, the couple can not create an app to replace each individual reader’s sensibilities. Books are as individual as art. A painting or statue that could make me marvel for hours might make you sniff and move along in an instant. But we both have the right to look at the same painting and stare or sniff.
I suspect that devoted readers would never download an app designed to keep them from reading a book the way it was written. People who love words will be just as upset as authors at the notion that some programmer’s judgment should ever be allowed to re-write a book. “Clean Reader” is a digital bonfire and it is every bit as dangerous as the vigilantes who remove physical books from a library’s shelves and feed them to the flames.
If programs like this one are allowed to exist, museums must change their rules, and allow offended patrons to bring in spray paint and chisels. So the world would lose a few Titian’s, Cezanne’s and Ruben’s and Michelangelo’s David might lose something even more personal – but the offended would be appeased. That’s what matters, right? Of course not.
Yet, that is exactly what programs/apps like “Clean Reader” are – they’re chisels and spray paint inside your phone, iPad or digital device. They’ve done their work before your eyes arrive and have removed any risk that you might be moved by a love story with a sex scene or that curse words in the right place might make you share a character’s anger. What hands do you trust to hold the paint and chisels?
Buy or don’t buy. Read or skip. But never put the spray paint and chisels into the hands of someone who hasn’t lived your life or walked in your shoes.