It would be a special day for any new software engineer: the day I customized my bash profile for the command line. I opened my terminal, typed in atom .bash_profile and then changed my local character in the function prompt to my favorite emoji: 🧙🏻♂️. Then boom:
A broken bash prompt. I sacked the Wizard and went for the Woman Mage:
She also cursed my cursor with several spaces between it and my text.
I went into my .bash_profile to delete my beloved emoji, and I noticed a few unusual things. The first was that when I typed control+command+spacebar in my text editor and selected the man mage, what would appear on the screen was the Woman Mage and the Male Gender Symbol. The next peculiarity was that it took four taps of the delete button to remove both of these characters: one for the ♂ and three for the 🧙♀️.
Merlin’s beard! What is going on?
Harry Unicode and the Single Width Joiner 🦄
While emoji may seem like a humorous regression of written langauge to hieroglyphics 𓀌𓀿𓀴, there is more going on in the code than meets the 👁. Add to this that the emoji battleground can get intense, from the replacement of the handgun with the water-gun emoji (🔫) to the argument for the need for transgender emoji.
Originally, human emoji had a default gender expression with no alternatives. Those original options still exist, but then dual emoji gender options have been added. In the case of the Mage, there still is just the original 🧙 Mage emoji, then the added 🧙♂️Man Mage and 🧙♀️Woman Mage emoji. In Apple products the Mage emoji and Woman Mage emoji appear identical, while on other platforms it is the Mage appears the same as the Man Mage. In Unicode, the language responsible for creating almost all text that we see rendered on our machines, however they are very different.
Unicode is an international encoding standard for use with different languages and scripts, by which each letter, digit, or symbol is assigned a unique numeric value that applies across different platforms and programs.
The Man Mage emoji is actually a sequence of the 🧙 Mage and ♂ Male Signemojis, while The Woman Mage Emoji is a sequence of the 🧙 Mage and ♀ Female Sign. These are combined using a zero width joiner between each character and are displayed as a single emoji on supported platforms. As you may have guessed, in Unicode this “zwidge” has no width on the screen, and is designed to join other characters. Together, to say nothing of skin tone, it takes a lot of unicode to make these pictograms.
Here is a breakdown Man Mage Unicode:
- 🧙 U+1F9D9: Gender-ish-less Mage
- U+200D: Zero Width Joiner
- ♂ U+2642: Male Sign
- ️ U+FE0F:️ Variation Selector-16
Why give computers genitals?
Was it the code joining my mage with my male sign that broke my bash prompt, or my need to make code produce a gender? The pains of gendered language expression first assailed me when I learned French and Spanish in grade school. As a native-born speaker of the genderless English language, it still feels antiquated and absurd to give a gender to desks, trees and bowls of soup. What does code benefit from inflicting our genitalia upon it?
As Emoji 12.0 is set to release in March 2019, the cultural conversation surrounding emoji will only continue to expand. While necessary, conversations around gender, sexuality and tech are often taxing — full of minefields of morality, oppression and ignorance. For a moment, let’s sidestep any familiar well-documented platitudes or “common sense” arguments. Think of the code.
Bugs in your code don’t care if you’re more masculine or feminine. They’ll persist in their own logic. Computers exist in their own reality we have only begun to understand. Add to this that we understand even less of their role in our society. Transgender researcher Paul Preciado has an interesting theory on how technology and the production line of business have become microscopic and entered our body:
Although the era dominated by the economy of the automobile has been named “Fordism,” let us call this new economy pharmacopornism, dominated as it is by the industry of the pill, the masturbatory logic of pornography, and the chain of excitation-frustration on which it is based. The pharmacopornographic industry is white and viscous gold, the crystalline powder of biopolitical capitalism.Testo Junkie
Would I be less happy with only single gender or perhaps even genderless emoji? For now that will remain a rhetorical question as our need to inflict our arcane biology upon machines prevails.
In a global economy, where Silicon Valley is no longer the only center for the latest technology, an American male-dominated gendered approach to tech most certainly has its advantages. This approach however is too brittle to withstand competition against the many diverse, ancient societies that are now developing their own complex axis of society, tech and business. As these communities consume code and transform their worlds and ours, we must think beyond our current techno-biology and explore the world yet to come.
Let me finish with a couple questions. Will we ask computers to represent our society, or to be it? Is it simply a user interface, or something much more behind the scenes? When interacting with someone through the internet, what matters more, the person’s gender or the machine in front of you?
Until we are no longer bio-bound, it seems that when we look into computers we like to see ourselves staring back up at us.
As to the case of my Man Mage and my Bash, perhaps there is some simple fix for this I have yet to discover. For now, I have sacked the male gender option and have embraced basic “The Mage”. My bash prompt now works!