We learn that, in the next major release of its Mac and mobile operating systems, Apple will replace its depiction of Unicode character U+1F52B, the emoji officially labeled
PISTOL, from a picture of a dangerous-looking black handgun to that of a green plastic water pistol.
Apple does not appear to have stated a reason for the change, but one can reasonably speculate. Despite its capitalist gigantism, Apple under Tim Cook has shown a proclivity to lean left on flashpoint social issues affecting America, from its open embrace of marriage equality to its unusual decision to not support Trump’s RNC. At risk of engaging in the kind of Cupertino kremlinology that I usually find uselessly dull, I can easily imagine Apple’s management deciding to quietly distance the company from America’s increasingly maladaptive gun culture by removing the ability to type a revolver-shaped glyph on its devices’ keyboards.
I do not find myself harboring strong feelings about Apple “taking my gun away”, in this instance; I don’t use that character all that often, and I don’t imagine that this pictographic nerfing will have any significant muzzling effect on any of my future written communication. I can picture other folks feeling a little more annoyed by it, certainly, and I also agree with the argument — older than this event — that two systems displaying the same emoji character in two very different ways can lead to miscommunication. We already have, for example, the confusing case of “😁”, which looks like an unambiguously happy grin in some OSes or websites, but more resembles a pained or forced rictus on Mac and iOS.
However, I have not yet seen anyone address how this change will rectroactively modify the meaning of many, perhaps most, of the already-recorded statements that make use of the “🔫” character. I suppose that one may feel an initial reaction of “who cares?” or even “well, good!”, given that the first uses one imagines include the ugliest tweets and Instagram comments, not just of little societal value but also entirely ephemeral. What could it possibly harm to quietly steal the bullet-chambers out of those messages? With a little extra effort, though, one can imagine more noble, clever, or even friendly statements using that character, which must (for the world is big, and its internet vast) already exist, published in one digital location or another, in large numbers. These too will — for many future digital readers — have a key glyph swapped out for one with a wholly different meaning, potentially changing the whole message’s meaning with it, their authors never the wiser.
Sometimes righteous messages work because they bear sharp teeth. Apple’s change, however well-intended, would catch them up and blunt them, too, as surely as it neuters the more vile utterances it aims to disarm. I don’t predict that this case in particular will cause much of an uproar — at most, it will cause a tiny amount of very subtle confusion. I do think that this event’s implications deserve more study, though. I cannot recall another case where an apparently small and politically progressive decision made by a single entity can, in the space of one moment, change the meaning of already-published writing on a large scale. I can certainly imagine future applications of the same action with far more visible and profound effects.