Gender Generatoris a novel interface for gender selection that invites reflection on how to categorize and describe identity though morphing shapes and icons. Current user interfaces often feed into binary databases, with binary or other discrete "binary+" inputs that fail to capture the true magnitude of gender. These assumptions about gender data and input reflect the creators' cultural values: male or female, singular, static. We invite viewers to ask: can a computer understand my gender? How would I describe my gender? And more importantly - now that we have the computational power to traverse every gender - do we want to be categorized this way? After all, queerness rebukes labels; data science inherently classifies through arbitrary boundaries.
Unaliving The Algorithm
by Ellie Botoman
art by @felixmaaan
“At TikTok, we prioritize safety, diversity, inclusion, and authenticity. We encourage creators to celebrate what makes them unique and viewers to engage with what inspires them; we believe that a safe environment helps everyone do so openly.” - TikTok Community Guidelines, as of February 2022
Spend enough time on TikTok and you’ll start to notice patterns in the captions and video text you scroll past: phrases like “FAKE BODY,” tw: d*ath, “FAKE BODY DON’T DELETE !!,” unalive myself, PROP !! DON’T REPORT ME, FAKE BLOOD NOT REAL, tw: dr*gs, and FAKE KN*FE embedded within a smattering of emojis, hashtags, and tactically-placed asterisks. The videos might be clickbait-y thirst traps, cinematic cosplay, viral dances, or more mundane content like clothing try-on hauls, room tours, and wild stories recounted to the camera.
There’s nothing fake about what’s being shown on camera (with the exception of some very realistic cosplay weapons); creators’ bodies might be edited or filtered, but they’re still bodies. They aren’t 3D renderings or animations. They are human bodies performing something for the camera, yet appearances and actions and accessories are labeled as artificial and unreal to assure some unseen third spectator. That third spectator, sitting between the content on the app and the audience who watches it, is TikTok itself. Or rather, TikTok’s automated, AI-driven content moderation system. This ecosystem of semi-censored language that renders content unreal and bodies alienated is a relatively new phenomenon, one that has sprung up in direct response to an ever-changing algorithmic influence which continues to shape how users interact with the app.
To understand how we got here, it’s important to look at how TikTok’s content moderation has evolved in tandem with the app’s meteoric rise in popularity over the past two years. In March 2020, The Intercept published a series of leaked internal documents from 2019 that showed instructions for moderators to identify undesirable content from users who appeared poor, had visible disabilities, or whose bodies had “ugly” or “abnormal” shapes. Since then, anecdotal experiences with 'shadowbanning' have persisted and accusations of discriminatory content suppression tactics continue to be made against the app by non-white, queer, plus-size, and disabled creators.
In July 2021, TikTok announced that it would begin using automated content moderation in a greater capacity to remove content identified as violations of its Community Guidelines, particularly with sexual content, minor safety, violent or graphic content, and illegal activities. After this, creators began noticing videos getting taken down or suppressed for relatively innocuous activities getting ‘misread’ by the algorithm. Videos with obviously fake blood and other stage props, videos where a user lights something like a candle with a lighter, videos where TikTokers are speaking openly (or joking) about experiences with mental health, death, or suicide, were getting taken down for being graphic, inciting violence, or (as it continued to be the case for fashion creators who didn’t fit the skinny, white, cisgender norm) promoting sexual content. As Saifya Noble notes in her 2018 book Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, “algorithmic oppression is not just a glitch in the system but, rather, is fundamental to the operating system of the web,” where IRL socioeconomic and political power structures of inequality are digitally reinforced.
On TikTok, videos are uploaded to the platform in formats that are then ‘read’ by their artificial intelligence systems who, by using the information provided by the user, learn more about these content creators and their audiences by identifying textual and visual markers that may denote personally revealing demographics and feed this data into the platform’s recommendation systems. Artist Trevor Paglen recently sought to define this state of automated looking that everyday people are now enveloped by. He notes that “what’s truly revolutionary about the advent of digital images is the fact that they are fundamentally machine-readable,” cutting the human observer out of the equation almost entirely. TikTok still employs teams of human moderators to review more serious cases and escalated ban or removal appeals, however this AI content monitoring happens at incomprehensible processing speeds. All we see is the aftermath: videos that are flagged or amplified, and embedded ads that are tailored to our preferences based on our past interactions and content we’ve viewed. Paglen observes that, although invisible to our own human perception, “machine-machine systems are extraordinary intimate instruments of power that operate through an aesthetics and ideology of objectivity, but the categories they employ are designed to reify the forms of power that those systems are set up to serve.” While unseen, power structures of enforcement and regulation remain within this digital infrastructure, shaping how we behave and communicate with one another.
TikTok’s Community Guidelines, which the app directs you to in the event of a violation flag or video removal, continues to be frustratingly vague, allowing for broad interpretations of what could be ‘inappropriate’ content (enforcement of which, as we’ve seen, disproportionately impacts marginalized users). It’s unsurprising that the phrase “unalive” became a stand-in for death or suicide since creators saw videos getting taken down just for using those words regardless of the context they’re spoken or written in—users are changing the way they interact with these apps to challenge the AI powers that be. TikTok in particular has seen a rise in video content that attempts to explain how the app’s algorithm works, how to ‘hack’ it to better your chances of going viral, demonstrating a kind of desire—especially among teens—to understand the app’s opaque corporate motivations and discern a logic within this automated virtual infrastructure through crowd-sourced information gathering.
We expect language to provide us with clarity, to define proper terminology, and better articulate what we perceive and experience as the world changes around us. On TikTok, under the content pressure to restrict one’s online behavior and presentation in order to meet aesthetic and ideological guidelines of acceptability, we see language muting as a response in attempts to render the content creator’s body illegible in the eyes of the machine. There’s no one definitive point of origin for phrases like “fake body” and “unaliving,” nor can we identify the first person who began using emojis to substitute for certain words or who discovered that if you place asterisks in words they become unsearchable while still readable enough for the audience. That’s not the point.
On a highly-controlled and monitored platform like TikTok, marginalized people and their images continue to be subjected to some of the app’s greatest scrutiny. What has emerged as a consequence of years of controversial content suppression tactics are new forms of communication that disarm TikTok’s regulatory power through subversions of language. Perhaps we can reframe these subversive forms of self-moderation as acts of linguistic hacking, challenging the reach and accuracy of TikTok’s AI observers. For all of their virtual infallibility, these algorithms can still be hacked, tricked, misled, enabling those whose content might be subject to greater policing to carve out spaces for themselves in TikTok’s endless scrolling feed. McKenzie Wark states in A Hacker Manifesto [version 4.0], that “to hack is to refuse representation, to make matters express themselves otherwise. To hack is always to produce a difference, if only a minute difference, in the production of information.” By muddling one’s own language, restricting one’s speech, and mislabelling one’s body, there’s this splintering of gazes where the human eye can recognize the content of these videos for what they actually are, while the AI struggles to fit the text and the image into its programmed patterns of recognition, a parallel world where one’s video content is simultaneously legible and illegible to its human and artificial audiences.
Call it self-censorship, verbal glitches, or a linguistic hack, there’s no denying that TikTok has shaped the way we speak and relate to our own bodies within its algorithm-driven, video content platform. The way so much slang and terminology and information replicates travels across the Internet with infectious speed and viral replications, words like “unaliving” and asterisk-inflected spellings have become part of the digital lexicon of other platforms like Twitter and Instagram. People continue to label their videos as “FAKE:” performing brazen denials of reality in hopes they’ll avoid that little pop-up Community Guidelines violation notification. Even if you don’t make this content yourself, there’s a heightened awareness that you should be careful what you say and how you present yourself within this online space. Ultimately it is not a matter of if, but when TikTok’s content moderation systems catch on, that is until new socio-techno pressures arise. Yet, this sense that we have become alienated from our physical bodies within the confines of this social media platform, a feeling that has become exacerbated through linguistic slippages that have enabled bodies of all kinds to—if only just briefly—circumvent forms of automated digital surveillance. We are told to not let our eyes deceive us, especially in the digital age, but within this modern landscape of software and computer code, our innate capacity for linguistic innovation has given us the capacity to deceive the machines watching us somewhere between our eyes and our screens.
hygge?A nebulous Danish concept of feeling comfortable. Everything can be hygge. Sitting in a nice chair, under warm lighting with a cup of cocoa heating your palms or—hearing the screeches of your favorite band while chugging a beer.
So to feel the hygge—the space needs to accommodate you. IRL, in my room, I put up posters, light up candles, hang tools on the wall, set up fairy-lights, play ambient music... I accommodate the spaces I exist in to fit my definition of the concept.
a digital spaceWe talk of digital space.
- my computer is a room
- my website is a garden
- my code editor is my garage
- the web is a series of roads that lead to these places.
It’s easier to CTRL+Z the change of a wallpaper than to repaint a wall after you realize that yellow does not suit your room. But why then are we more likely to think of making physical spaces comfortable than our digital ones—when only one of these realms allows for ease of iterative customisation?
99 hacks towards a hyggelig computer
- change your wallpaper
- change your mom’s wallpaper
- set custom icons
- use emojis (‼️) in your folder names
- change your browser theme
- change your code editor theme
- change your code editors font
- find a font that has fancy → ligatures ← that make things ≠ pragmatic prettier
- make your cursor bigger
- make your cursor smaller
- make your cursor different
- make your cursor leave a trail
- make your notion page pretty
- make a navigation bar that appears on all of your notion pages
- learn keyboard shortcuts
- customise your keyboard shortcuts
- change CTRL+Z to CTRL+Y on QWERTZ keyboards
- liberate yourself from the keyboard shortcuts that only work on enUS keyboards
- use autohotkey to customise the shortcuts on programs that don’t allow you to customise your shortcuts
- install browser addons
- install an adblocker
- install userscripts
- use userscripts
- write userscripts
- inject css
- remove css
- make a startpage for your new tabs
- remove microsoft edge
- remove cortana
- download a virtual pet
- feed the virtual pet
- uninstall the virtual pet
- re-enable desktop gadgets
- put a clock on your desktop
- put a sticky note on your desktop
- put a small puzzle on your desktop
- remove your widgets
- remove all the icons
- download rainmeter
- add cooler widgets to your desktop
- browser deviant
- find cool themes for windows
- try to theme windows
- fail at theming windows
- download ux theme patcher
- theme your windows
- brick your windows
- switch to linux
- find a theme
- revert that theme
- use a tiling window manager
- find out about ricing
- spend hours making nice rice screenshots
- give up on ricing
- switch to mac
- remove siri
- disable gatekeeper
- disable “system integrity protection” (you should)
- inject code that apple doesn’t want you to inject
- make it so that all virtual desktops are already uncollapsed when you open desktop overview on your mac
- download macforge
- install plugins
- disable transparency in your windows
- disable animations
- enable animations
- change the position of your dock
- change your touchpads scrolling direction
- change the position of your taskbar
- set your date format to DD/MM/YY
- set your date format to DD-MM-YYYY
- never set your date format to MM/DD/YY
- make your calendar week start on a monday
- never make your calendar week start on a sunday
- use the terminal
- install powerline10k
- make the terminal transparent
- don’t use the terminal
- use GUI apps instead
- get a raspberry pi
- host a your own “cloud” on your raspberry pi
- put some stickers on your laptop
- put some stickers on your phone
- put a case on your phone
- download a better dialer for your phone
- download gcam for your phone
- download a custom launcher for your phone
- root your phone
- disable all ads
- switch to iphone
- use shortcuts to use custom icons on your fucking iphone
- regret switching to iphone
- jailbreak your iphone
- change your icons without shortcuts
- hold the power button
- turn off your phone
- turn off your computer
- go outside
- be comfortable IRL
The Cyborg Figuration: Posthuman Organization & Queer Utopia
by Kristina Stallvik
image by Lea Huang-Yanez
In the incessant weaving of an ethereal web, bugs seem to touch upon a nomadic subjectivity specifically conducive to representing and reifying a lesbian sensibility. As theorist Rosi Braidotti describes it, “Nomadic thought rests on estrangement as a method to free subject formation from the normative vision of the self. The frame of reference becomes open-ended, interrelational, multisexed, and trans species flows of becoming” (Braidotti, 124). Their method of creation mirrors the interwoven nature of creativity and production that emerged from the lesbian salons of Europe—which themselves were of course subject to internal power imbalance, control, and contestation. Descending from renaissance tradition in France and Italy, the European salon tradition of the time was a beacon for queer community (Rodriguez, 174). For example, notable Parisian salon hostess Madeleine de Scudéry held a weekly meeting titled “Saturdays for Sappho.” Figures such as American lesbian Natalie Barney, even migrated to Paris in order to immerse themselves in the rich interweavings of intellectual and literary pursuits by the likes of Gertrude Stein, Alice B Toklas, Colette, Vernon Lee, Mary Robinson, Charlotte Mew, and actress Greta Garbo (Rodriguez, 129). Not only did the content of their writing challenge a species divide, their epistemological methods began to dissolve the boundary between self and other—with an insistence on love as negating individual personhood.
A concrete desire for these writers was to carve literary careers free of paternalism. Similarly, theorist Lauren Wilcox understands insect life to represent matriarchal utopia through “hives, anthills or colonies unconcerned with filiation and patrilineal descent” (Wilcox, 26). This renders “becoming-insect” a site of existential threat to hegemonic societal order. A simultaneous sense of multiplicity and oneness—the politics of the swarm—is dangerous to the body politic at large. To the normative subject who has always retained a firm grip on the title “human,” the organization of insects is terrifying. Hence, lesbian subjectivity as “becoming-insect” represents the potential for non-heteronormative configurations by embracing radical difference though multiplicity and indeterminacy. However, what unfolds when we extend becoming-insect to becoming inorganic, cyborg, or non-human? Since the late 20th century, both the expanding human psyche and modern medicine practices have rendered us, essentially, cyborgs. Braidotti states that “the human organism is neither wholly human, as a person, nor just an organism. It is an abstract machine, radically immanent, which captures, transforms, and produces interconnection” (Braidotti, 151). Similarly, theorist Donna Harraway understands the cyborg to be a “condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation” (7). It is therefore imperative that we attend to the specific implications of becoming-cyborg for marginalized subjects. In this essay, I will explore the logic of “swarming” and its enmeshment with drone warfare to understand the ways in which queer organization intersects with an incorporation of digital/cyborg others in the evolving repertoire of opposing human referents.
From Animal to Inorganic Other
In order to understand the queer utopia of “becoming-nonhuman” we must first contextualize the historical relationship between human and animal, a predecessor to our current human/machine episteme. According to Braidotti, before the bio-egalitarian turn marking our current paradigm, animals could only be conceived as indexing the European subject’s relationship to the “other” (nonwhite, nonmasculine, nonnormal, nonhuman, unhealthy, disabled, etc..) (Braidotti, 526). In order to uphold the fragile definition of human as in opposition to all other life, animals were pathologized and firmly placed in the realm of “deviance and monstrosity.” This begs the question, what does it look like to relate to animals in a manner which negates their historical “otherness?” Braidotti suggests that we must begin by relating to animals as animals ourselves. Our imperative should be to “deterritorialize the human/animal interaction, so as to bypass ... the dialectics of otherness, secularizing accordingly the concept of human nature and the life that animates it” (Braidotti, 527). Deterritorialization—or the reconfiguration of an existing system of interlocking relationships—commands a turn away from metaphor. Rather than considering non-humans to perform the ontological function of referent for human values and norms (for example, the eagle as noble or the lamb as shy) we must move “beyond the empire of the sign, toward a neoliteral relation to animals, anomalies, and inorganic others” (Braidotti, 528). Non-humans can no longer be considered a signifying system for our own self-project, a mirror to hold up against human aspiration and fear. Animals and inorganic others exist within their own code systems; in order to understand our interconnection with animals and the potential they hold for alternative modes of trans species relationality, this must be taken seriously. Rather than metaphor, we can think of figuration: “performative images that can be inhabited ... semiotic tropes combining knowledge, practice, and power that shape the maps of our world” (Wilcox, 28).
Of such figurations, “cyborg” furthers the boundary contesting work incited by an embrace of “becoming-insect.” According to Harraway, there is both immense pleasure to be found in this confusion of boundary, and a great responsibility to understand the hegemonic forces which forge them: “In the traditions of “Western” science and politics—the tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture; the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other—the relation between organism and machine has been a border war. The stakes in the border war have been the territories of production, reproduction, and imagination” (Haraway, 7). This conceptual border war is mirrored by a physical anxiety over protecting the nation state and its rigid borders. At the intersection of both “becoming-insect” and “becoming-cyborg,” an exploration of swarm logic—and a subsequent effacement of self—is pertinent to understanding prevailing efforts at preserving both material and imaginary boundaries.
Within our cultural subconscious swarm logic and organization is a prime carrier of highly ambivalent, self-reflective metaphor. Beginning in the nineteenth century, social evolution theory used studies of insect ‘societies’ to naturalize colonial logic and systems of slavery (Wilcox, 34). By classifying insect species as “more or less like humans” based on their evidenced social organizations, the work of social evolution theory performed the dual role of humanizing exploitation by articulating it in the “natural world” and devaluing insects who defied anthropomorphism (Wilcox, 34). Today the swarm still figures largely in racialized discourses. In 2015, former UK Prime Minister David Cameron referred to migrant populations as swarms: “refugees threaten to overwhelm like a plague of locusts” (Wilcox, 35). This figuration commonly extends to protestors, rioters, the masses that threaten to “overwhelm, disturb order, and defy boundaries ... which falls back onto the monstrous as threatening other.” (Wilcox, 35).
As Braidotti understands them, “insects are only the most evident metaphorical process conflating a number of irreconcilable terms such as life/nonlife, biology/technology, human/machine” (Wilcox, 30). Existing at these nexuses of once ideologically stable delineations, insects are “horrifying” because they present a way of being which seems to belong to an entirely different planet—one that references an almost mechanical lifeforce. Their radical difference points to a biological reality which is more “dynamic, more insensate, more atrocious, more infernal than ours” (Wilcox, 29). In this sense, insects inspire the age-old fear harbored by humankind regarding our truly limited control over our environments. In evading the categorization of “the one” or “the many,” deriving strength from a common impulse, and solving problems through non-central organization, the insect swarm represents an image of the world misaligned with human behaviors and understanding. Hence, “bugs are the stumbling block that reveal the fatal flaws of our fantasies of seamlessness and conformity” (Wilcox, 29). At the intersection of life/nonlife, the insect swarm also takes on the association of “zombie”—endlessly droning on at the intersection of alive and dead, subject and object (Wilcox, 33). Not only do insects appeal to our fears of animality, they simultaneously represent the mechanical and the supernatural.
A sense of horror—or threat to the status quo—is exactly what imbues the swarm with queer potential. Central queer theorists such as Susan Stryker, Jack Halberstam, and Mel Chen have consistantly looked towards the abjected non-human as “sites of appropriation.” To this end, Wilcox argues that Eve Sedgwick’s conception of queer as “failure to signify gender monolithically” applies to the ambigious relationship of the insect swarm to signifiers of masculinity and femininity (Wilcox, 27). Moreover, the agency of the swarm is located in interactions rather than individual subjects, a threat to the normative assumptions of heterosexual subjectivity (Wilcox, 32). In Braidotti’s conception of “becoming-insect,” existence outside of the confines of the human displaces sexual difference rather than erasing it (Braidotti, 152).
In Sianne Ngai’s book Ugly Feelings, she delves into the “bad” feelings of such psychic realities: envy, irritation, anxiety, paranoia, and disgust. In her chapter on disgust, Ngai proclaims, “desire and disgust are dialectically conjoined” (Ngai, 333). According to Wilcox, the insect body itself proves such a conjoinment: “Insect life is abject: ‘it is primordially ambivalent: it arouses both disgust and desire, at once demanding and repelling our intimate contact” (Wilcox, 29). Ngai explains that the loathing of a “disgusting” thing eventually morphs into allure so intense that the disgusting is reconceptualized as “the true Kantian sublime” (Ngai, 332). It stands in opposition to all acceptable systems of taste. Philosopher Julia Kristeva goes so far as to argue that the feeling of disgust is as close to “self-shattering” jouissance as we can get, such that the feeling of delight or ecstasy actually causes the abject to exist in the first place (Ngai 332). Just as insects’ existence contests boundaries (human/cyborg/animal/nonliving), “disgusting” gets its power from testing the sanctioned limits of acceptability and enmeshment. Hence, its allure is generally derived from social taboo or prohibition. Even as we turn away from disgusting things, we are made painfully aware of our fascination with them: “What makes the object abhorrent is precisely its outrageous claim for desirability. The disgusting seems to say, ‘You want me,’ imposing itself on the subject as something to be mingled with and perhaps even enjoyed” (Ngai, 335).
Furthermore, while “desire seems capable of being vague, amorphous, and even idiosyncratic,” disgust is never ambivalent. It must be “urgent and specific” (Ngai, 337). Hence, equating lesbian sensibility with the swarm seems to play off of the disgust embedded in both, such that lesbian desire itself is understood as urgent and specific. As Ngai understands the intrinsic connections between desire and disgust, the use of insect organization and behaviour to represent lesbian collectivity is an extremely powerful tactic; just as the insect is considered digusting, the lesbian is too. However, analyzing this “ugly” feeling unveils the potential omnipotence and bold nature of the disgusting, which commands us to pay attention. At the same time, in the darkness fireflies carry an air of grace and beauty, something playful and whimsical. Although alien, they are looked upon with awe. Hence, in this motif Robinson seems to characterize queerness as sure of itself, yet withholding room for the “amorphous” qualities of desire.
In giving attention to “ugly feelings,” we cannot turn away from the relationship between collectivity and the oppressive nation state. While Braidotti and Wilcox both agree that “becoming-insect” holds potential for possible queer utopia, Wilcox brings our attention to an insidious underbelly of such formation. While the swarm may produce different understandings of life and death, this queering of necropolitics is being co-opted by military regimes. The alternative offerings of the insectoid organization are still contributing to “racialised productions of space” which decide the subjects who prosper and those who must be eliminated through insect-like drone warfare (Wilcox, 31). Multiplicity proves ambivalent as it is utilized by sovereign power to enact control: “The militarized techno-swarms created on behalf of a project of biopolitical warfare with the ability to fight war without risk of death to human subjects on one side, also create entire populations who ‘live under drones’, in which the ‘buzzing’ sound of drone is a source of anxiety and fear” (Wilcox, 34). While it may be revolutionary for the swarm to operate via modes outside of heteronormative reproduction and socialization, this creates a type of “murderous inclusion” of queer subjectivity towards the ends of dystopian combat (Wilcox, 28). Tightly woven collectivity is neither inherently democratic nor innocent. However, representing a multiplicity of interweaving forces, an embrace of the disgusting, the inability to remain spatially bound, and an obliteration of the self, the human/cyborg/animal nexus presents possibilities for understanding and critiquing the demands of a queer utopia within a cisheteropatriarchy. Understanding what it means to “become-cyborg” is “an effort to contribute to socialist-feminist culture and theory in a postmodernist, non-naturalist mode and in the utopian tradition of imagining a world without gender, which is perhaps a world without genesis, but maybe also a world without end” (Haraway, 7).
by Sebastián Martínez Sánchez
If you have ever checked in for a flight online, created a username, or signed up for some digital service with a name that is not English, you have either chosen to adapt or been rejected. If your name has any special characters, it has been called invalid. My name is Sebastián Martínez Sánchez. The accents are integral to it, and they define how it is to be pronounced. Yet, in the online space, I have often chosen to erase them, and I have become Sebastian Martinez. To the untrained eye, the difference might be negligible, but any speaker of Spanish would be able to point out the enormous implications in pronunciation that this change carries. As a teenager, I was even embarrassed about them, angry at Spanish for having these special, extra elements that added to the complexity of presenting myself online. As I have gotten older, I’ve become more capable of appreciating the elegance of the accent system in written Spanish, and with it the deep nuances in our language that do not exist in written English.
But in cyberspace, these nuances are often erased, blanched by many systems incapability of accepting non-standard, special characters. Note the italics, because they do not have to be this way: rather, they are built by people that consider the characters special, or extra, or unnecessary, and are thus eliminated. My name is not special, it is in fact ridiculously commonplace, and ‘á’ and ‘é’ and ‘í’ are just letters like any other. In fact, it is much more common for languages that use the latin alphabet to include special characters. Let’s have a look:
An (admittedly short and incomplete) list of languages that use special characters: - Spanish
- Serbo-Croatian (when written in the latin alphabet)
- Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera
Of course, now would be the time to talk about cultural colonialism and the expectation that the online world conforms to English. The only reason why other languages even have special characters is to make our written systems better at depicting the realities of our speech. Meanwhile, English is a free-for-all: few structured rules, letters that sound completely different depending on the word they’re on, and a general impossibility to accurately predict how a word is pronounced if you’ve never heard it spoken before. It took me years to realize that the word ‘caveat’ is pronounced ka-vee-at instead of cave-at… ridiculous spelling. And this nonchalant approach to spelling is clearly visible in the prejudices of the people who initially coded these systems. Originally, digital character encodings were based on ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange), designed in the ‘60s, in the US, from telegraph code for English. It had 128 characters, including encodings for mathematical operators, but no accents. Now, I get how the fact that written English has so little nuance in its alphabet might have been attractive for some programmer in the ‘70s obsessed with coding in as few characters as possible (128), comfortable with sacrificing breadth for a few extra bits to work in some added functionality. But it’s not the ‘70s anymore. The internet is global, bits are relatively cheap, and language diversity and accessibility to online tools are the future. Think, if you don’t believe me, of the millions and millions that have been invested into tools such as Google Translate. Without a more generalized capacity to actually write our names, our words, correctly where we need them, all of these efforts are for naught.
But back to invalid names: it was pointed out to me by a Danish friend with ‘ø’ in his name that by simplifying it to ‘o’ he was able to more easily communicate with non-Danes online. Great. My issue is not with choosing to simplify your name for the sake of accessibility, but with the expectation that you should. The expectation is especially jarring in formal contexts. Every time my name is misspelled on plane tickets I have a minor anxiety attack that they won’t let me on the plane because my ticket does not match the name on my passport. It has never happened, but I still worry. After all, the ticket never does have my name on it. And I have very mild issues with this. ‘A’ and ‘á’ differ only in emphasis. Ask someone who has an ‘ñ’ in their name, or a ‘ç’, or a ‘˘z’ (note how the font I am using does not even allow me to have the tilde on top of the z as it should be).
Which brings me to character sets in typographies. Would it be incredibly difficult to code all of the extra characters into your font such that it is acceptable not only for English but also for the other myriad languages that write in the latin alphabet? Laborious, for sure. But most special characters are similar to English letters with tildes. It is a choice, even if it is borne out of lack of resources, or ignorance or inattention. But it constrains the scope of your typography, and if you’re not going to provide access to it in other languages, at least be conscious that you’re artificially limiting the number of users you will have. In any case, I can guarantee I will never write in Spanish with a typography that lacks ‘ñ’.
In short, think about special characters! If you’re a developer, realize that including support for non-standard English characters will improve accessibility for international users. If you’re a typography designer, know that including or excluding characters will expand or limit your user base. If you’re a user, push for online spaces to include the characters you need, and use them! And, if you’ve never interacted with tildes in your own language, don’t be afraid of them. They won’t hurt you, they’re not as weird or complicated or difficult as they seem, and there’s nothing extraordinary about seeing them in a word. They’re just letters.