Is Microsoft trying to rehabilitate the image of Clippy?
Sure, the hypercaffeinated anthropomorphic paperclip designed to “assist” you in your writing may have been the worst addition to Microsoft Office ever. “Hi! It looks like you’re writing a breakup letter! Can I help you with some reasons why your significant other might not be the one for you?”
That digital irritant may have been removed from the program over a decade ago, but it still represents a nadir in Microsoft Word development.
I’m not sure anything can replace that stupid paperclip, but according to the business magazine Fast Company, Microsoft is rolling out a series of features called “Ideas in Word” to help users with their writing — and one of those features will have to do with whether your writing is sufficiently woke.
“Microsoft will soon preview a version of Word that will use artificial intelligence to make your writing not just grammatically but politically correct,” Fast Company reported Wednesday.
“Microsoft doesn’t call it a ‘political correctness check,’ but that’s essentially what it is. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Sure, Jerry. I will grumblingly admit there are some interesting features here, including a tool that tells you how long a document will take to read and one that decodes acronyms.
It can pick out key points from a piece of text, Engadget reports, and help you with putting style tables together.
All right, cool. But then there’s this: It’ll underline words and phrases it thinks are politically incorrect or insensitive and then suggest replacements.
“Say you write, ‘We need to get some fresh blood in here,’” Fast Company reports. “The AI is likely to underline ‘fresh blood’ and suggest ‘new employees’ instead.”
God forbid we offend the bloodless! The cephalopods are going to be lining up outside HR over that one.
“It might underline places where your writing exhibited gender bias,” Fast Company continued. “If you tend to say ‘mailman’ or ‘Congressman’ in the generic, it might suggest you use ‘mailperson’ or ‘Congressperson.’ If you use the term ‘gentlemen’s agreement,’ it may suggest you use ‘unspoken agreement’ instead.”
I’m going to guess, much like Clippy, that you can turn this off. However, going beyond the shopworn debate over whether mauling the language and making it sound stilted in the service of political correctness will make people more tolerant, I’m kind of curious about the market this product is intended for.
If you’re the kind of individual who would want to use “mailperson” or “unspoken agreement” in place of the gendered alternative, you’re probably already doing so without the aid of a word processor prompting you.
Meanwhile, if you’re the kind of person who uses “mailman” or “gentleman’s agreement,” is a word processor going to convince you that you’re wrong?
“Holy smokes,” you’ll say after Word underlines your use of “man up.” “I didn’t realize what a chauvinist I’ve been for all these years! I vow to extirpate all of the insensitive language from my vocabulary with the help of my word processor. And I shouldn’t say ‘holy smokes,’ either, because tobacco use is bad news. Thanks, Microsoft Word!”
If you see something like this admittedly hyperbolic situation ever occurring, well, then Ideas in Word has done its job. My guess is that, for the kind of person who still insists on saying “congressman,” the program will be little more than yet another annoying nudge to try to get you to do something socially “correct.” It’ll get turned off and that’ll be that.
The only thing this has accomplished is wasting programmer hours and making Clippy look good by comparison.
Of course, I’m discounting the truly horrifying possibility that Clippy is the one who suggests politically correct replacements to users.
“Hi! It looks like you’re using ‘Washington Redskins‘ instead of ‘Washington professional football team!’ Did you know that even The Washington Post won’t use the team’s full name and that…”