The perils of automation

We rely on technology for so many things, but from time to time that reliance goes comically awry. That happened when Spark used find and replace to get rid of the mentions of Telecom on its website and, in a classic case of the law of unintended consequences, ended up creating a new word: ‘Sparkmunications’. But there are plenty more entertaining find and replace oopsies. 

As Stuff wrote

A poster to technology website Geekzone first noticed the word cropping up on Spark’s website, and a Google search then threw up several examples. Spark’s website, for example, informed people that New Zealand Relay (NZ Relay) was “Sparkmunications for people who are deaf, hearing-impaired, deaf-blind, or speech-impaired”. Its website also proclaimed: “Part of Spark’s strategy has been to look for businesses to partner with where we can bring our Sparkmunications, marketing, networks and commercial expertise to the innovation and ingenuity of new startup companies.”

In a Radio Lab podcast from a few years ago, ​Ben Zimmer (the “On Language” columnist for The New York Times Magazine), offered up a few editorial absurdities like that from One News Now, a Christian group that thought gay sounded too friendly. It set up an automatic change so that all mentions of the word would become ‘homosexual’. And this led to a funny headline from an AP story about sprinter Tyson Gay. 

Similar hilarity ensued when Reuters set The Queen to switch to Queen Elizabeth. Who knew she had such powers? 


As Jamie Grace said on Twitter after Sparkmunication’s shortlived tenure: “A tip for the future. If you’re going to find and replace, tick ‘whole words only’.”

As well as an occasional reliance on find and replace, spellcheckers have been wreaking havoc on language for a while too. Zimmer says this is known as the Cupertino Effect, because, back in the day, if you typed the word ‘cooperation’ without a hyphen into Word, it would suggest Cupertino. 

As he wrote:

“Sure enough, there are dozens of Cupertinos to be found in online documents from the UN, EU, NATO, and other international organizations. “The Cupertino with our Italian comrades proved to be very fruitful,” a German NATO officer was quoted as saying. Meanwhile, the EU’s Scientific and Technical Research Committee proposed “stimulating cross-border Cupertino.” 

Things have improved a lot, of course. And Google’s ‘did you mean?’ function is scarily accurate.

“But no matter how much the techies tinker, I suspect the Cupertino effect will always be with us in one form or another. It’s best to heed the warning given by the Denver Post after it was embarrassed by an errant spellchecker: One sympathetic journalism expert said yesterday that spellcheck can be an editor’s enemy, “as Voldemort is to Harry Potter.” Or as our spellchecker would have it, “as Voltmeter is to Harry Potter.”

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