“Keep Calm And Rape A Lot” T-Shirts Show Automation Growing Pains

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The automation revolution is well underway around the world and with it, some rather public and unfortunate growing pains. While some fear the surge in drones and others worry of losing their jobs to bots (or worse, their lives in a Terminator-like doomsday), another group of people were really upset some weeks ago about T-shirts. Specifically, an inadvertent computer error that led to a string of offensive phrases, such as "Keep Calm and Rape A Lot," printed on T-shirts that were sold on Amazon. What started as a handful of poor reviews and some chastising blog posts for the shirts swelled into mass outcries against Solid Gold Bomb -- the company that sells the shirts -- and Amazon for selling them.

So how exactly did a bunch of offensive shirts get on Amazon in the first place?

Solid Gold Bomb used an algorithm (software that follows an automated step-by-step process) that combined words pulled from a few lists to generate thousands of catchy T-shirt phrases. These phrases were automatically loaded into a T-shirt manufacturer's computers, and overlaid onto a  T-shirt photo to produce images that are then displayed on Amazon. When someone places an order for a shirt on Amazon, the manufacturer's computers are notified and the shirt is then printed, packaged, and shipped out.

In other words, once the word lists are built, almost the entire process is controlled by computers. Thousands of shirts manufactured daily with hardly anyone being involved in the work flow. It's a truly amazing example of the possibilities that today's automation can deliver and bears similarity to the approach of another Amazon seller named Philip Parker who is using computers to produce hundreds of thousands of books. At the same time, fewer eyes means the potential for something to slip through and that's how the world ended up with "Keep Calm and Rape A Lot" T-shirts (along with a bunch of related and equally offensive slogans).

The lesson here is automation empowers individuals, amplifying both their successes and their failures.

Solid Gold Bomb is a 5-year-old wholesale T-shirt company with a handful of employees originally founded in Australia that also serves the US and UK markets (according to Manta). Many of the T-shirts that are sold online are graphic tees usually depicting some kind of popular artwork or slogan and are sold for around $20 plus shipping. The company offers a boatload of different designs on Amazon (over 500,000 different items of clothing at one point).

As explained in an apology letter written by company founder Michael Fowler, about a year ago a line of T-shirts was created parodying the "Keep Calm And Carry On" meme that had grown in popularity. Fowler produced a cloud-based database from word lists (verb list, pronouns, and prepositions) and scripts that strung the lists together in every possible combination, which is somewhere in the millions of phrases. The master list of words was whittled down to about 700 by criteria that selected primarily for graphics that would make the words fit on the shirt. Finally, the phrases were laid out in a template and converted into image formats ready for screen printing.

solid gold bombNow, many of the T-shirts that are offered by the company through Amazon indicate that they are in stock, but warn of an additional 3-5 day processing time. That's because the company doesn't have a warehouse somewhere full of thousands of preprinted T-shirts and a crew of quality control inspectors to go over each product. Instead, it worked with a larger supplier that prints the shirts on demand as they are ordered by utilizing a database of uploaded image files. Then, the T-shirts are automatically packaged and shipped out to customers.

Because almost this entire T-shirt operation is automated, the company can sell T-shirts at a low price point and stay in business. Lots of companies around the world work in this exact way, and owners are always thinking about what other processes can be automated to lower their overhead even further. Things like cloud computing do just that.

In light of this, it is rather easy to see how the error might have slipped in. Somehow the verb "rape" survived the culling stages, perhaps because no one else but Fowler looked at the list and let's face it, offensive language on T-shirts is not a new thing. Furthermore, one would not expect a small clothing wholesaler to have a full-time editor on staff who might speak up about words on the list or the combinations that could result. Perhaps Fowler missed the offensive words because of their position in the alphabet or maybe he only spot checked the list.

What really happened? No one will likely ever know. Though some online commenters believe it was intentional, his apology letter suggests it was accidental and appears professionally sincere (assuming Fowler doesn't become a repeat offender).

If your computer could lift one finger at a time, why would it know that the middle one is offensive?

If your computer could randomly show you only one finger at a time, why would it know that the third digit is the offensive one?

Automating the slogan generation process is not dumb or irresponsible, but savvy in today's world. Its basically a two-pronged strategy. On one hand, offering an enormous number of T-shirt designs may mean that only a few of each type are sold, but when that happens hundreds times a day, sales can be significant. On the other hand, a few designs will likely prove quite popular, so the more that are offered, the greater the probability of getting those high-selling winners. By all indications, Fowler built an international company on this strategy through an automation process that is now being called into question because a set of combinations turned out to be highly offensive.

T-shirts with these slogans is clearly regrettable and pulling the line was absolutely the right move (it should go without saying that rape is heinous and promoting it on a T-shirt is scraping the bottom of the IQ barrel). However, when it comes to algorithms and the future of artificial intelligence, we can all take a lesson from this incident that will serve us well: embrace the reality of automation and realize this will happen again and again, in one form or the other.

Why are we doomed to be offended again? Because computers have no way of knowing what upsets people unless they are programmed to and that's a tall order, especially when the responsibility falls on a single person to ensure that computers understand.

While this all could have been a simple mistake, Solid Gold Bomb may never recover, even with the entire "Keep Calm" line of clothes removed. The current Amazon reviews for other, nonoffensive T-shirts that the company lists now have a slew of negative comments blasting Fowler for profiting off of hate speech against women. Hopefully, the company now has a second set of eyes looking over the automatically generated lists.

Whether this particular situation blows over in a few months or the company will soon meet a dismal end (which seems likely) is not really going to stop this from happening again.

Perhaps in a future world, algorithms will be programmed to be personally attuned, culturally sensitive, socially accommodating, and politically correct, but until then, humans appear to be the best at getting offended. At least there's one job that won't be replaced quickly.

[images: urbansocietymommyish, wtvrnataliemaynorbasykes/Flickr]

David J. Hill

Managing Director, Digital Media at Singularity University
I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

Discussion — 13 Responses

  • Chris F March 20, 2013 on 1:10 pm

    The production of these T-shirts is virtually entirely automated, and they still sell for 15 GBP (about 25 USD) ??? Someone’s making a fat profit.

  • ErikSMeyer March 20, 2013 on 1:11 pm

    They could have just hired an editor for their programmatically generated drivel, to ensure what was being offered to the public had been at least seen and approved by a person, if not written by one. It is a kind of new low for content “creation,” one that will doubtless soon be exceeded as automation spreads to other areas, like television scripts.
    AI: Absence of Intelligence

    • David J. Hill ErikSMeyer March 20, 2013 on 1:33 pm

      I can’t think of a more thankless, underutilized, and barely appreciated job than an editor (if we were talking graphic designers, I would replace ‘underutilized’ with ‘overworked’). The number of small/medium companies that fly without the assistance of one is appalling and explains one of the main driving forces behind the decline of quality content, imo.

  • Armin Hanik March 20, 2013 on 8:02 pm

    700 words….. and HOW EXACTLY did rape get into that list??

    Why has this question not been asked, leave alone answered.

    • David J. Hill Armin Hanik March 21, 2013 on 7:01 am

      It’s a good question and I thought about it while I was writing this, so I’ll offer some possibilities here. Just so it’s clear: I’m not condoning the use of the word ‘rape’ on the T-shirts or the actions of Solid Gold Bomb in any way. But if we are only considering how a person ends up on with a list that includes this word, here are a few possibilities I could think of:

      1. A word list was found on the Internet, barely spot checked, and ‘rape’ was overlooked.
      2. A word list was quickly generated and the person who typed it meant to type ‘rap’ and accidentally hit an ‘e’, then failed to spot the error. (If it said “Keep Calm and Rap A Lot” there would be no controversy).

      Now, for all we know, ‘rape’ was intentionally used in these T-shirts. But, in my own past, I have (1) failed to thoroughly look something over and (2) accidentally mistyped something offensive when I meant something that was innocuous. It doesn’t mean that I’m not responsible for what I wrote, but it does mean that my intent was not what it may have seemed.

      The bigger point of the article is that the more we automate processes, the greater possibility for a person’s error, laziness, indifference, or crassness to get propagated and even magnified for the world to see. Undoubtedly, more quality control checks are desperately needed, but would people be willing to pay 10-20% more for a product to ensure that this happens? Most wouldn’t and that’s why the problem isn’t going away.

  • Vainisto March 21, 2013 on 4:24 am

    I really never saw the problem with this. If anything, the phrase is comical.

    • Improbus Liber Vainisto March 21, 2013 on 10:53 am

      To a hipster everything is irony.

      • Vainisto Improbus Liber March 21, 2013 on 4:42 pm

        I’d be pretty worried about it if people uncontrollably followed directions printed on t-shirts. Next year, English speaking countries won’t report a sudden spike in sexual violence coinciding with the release of this shirt.

  • Robert Schreib March 23, 2013 on 8:46 pm

    Perhaps they could outsource to IBM’s “Watson” to simply censor the world’s most offensive words like ‘Rape”, etc. Still, you have to keep in mind the overriding fact that it is impossible NOT to publish or print something that will not offend SOMEONE!

  • gklasek May 4, 2013 on 8:42 pm

    Here we go again, just as the “Keep Calm and Rape On” t-shirts were taken down now enjoi skateboards is promoting domestic violence with their “Ex-Girlfriend” t-shirt. Domestic violence isn’t a joke and this t-shirt isn’t funny. Help us get enjoi to take down the shirt and continue spreading love of skateboarding without adding to the desensitization of violence that already exists.

    • gklasek gklasek May 4, 2013 on 8:45 pm

      Also after enjoi’s first response “this shirt is in no way promoting domestic violence. it’s just simply saying that her boyfriend loves skating more than her. something that a lot of males that ride skateboards have heard from their girlfriends. the character on this tee was never a victim of domestic obese. Thanks” their new response can be seen on the front page of their website. http://www.enjoico.com

      • Ella Birt gklasek May 4, 2013 on 9:07 pm

        gklasek, thanks for posting this! I have signed the petition, and shared it wherever I have reach. This is incredibly disgusting, and it has to stop somewhere. This companies response to the situation is even more incredible! Seems like a bunch of kids run the company, but I know they have been around for a while. I hope they get their heads together and realize, regardless of their lack of social responsibility, a t-shirt like that has no place in the marketplace.

        • gklasek Ella Birt May 4, 2013 on 11:19 pm

          Awesome! Keep sharing and spreading people!