Polyglot internet

Development Policy03 Jun 2009Frans Bieckmann

I am starting to find my way in the blogosphere. Let me summarize my little virtual voyage I made last night. Peter Ballantyne referred me to the blog of Owen Barder. I read some postings, including Owen´s Aidinfo, which aspires to make aid more transparent and accountable. His blog also linked to WikiMapAid, which, potentially (the initiative seems to have just started) visualizes aid projects all over the world.

While surfing, I started reflecting on the fact that both Peter and Owen are British, like the whole internet seems to be English. Which is of course not the case, but that is for a Dutchmen (and many others) the easiest road to travel (although my Spanish is also quite good, but for some strange reason I very rarely surf along the Spanish language internet). There is another reason, except language: most of the literature on development and globalization is in English, and, at least in the Netherlands, the debate is quite (very) Anglo-Saxon dominated. Both in academia and in the media (and in politics): only when ´facts´ and opinions are published in an English or American journal, newspaper or broadcast, we can accept it as true. That is why it is one of our aims, at The Broker, to open up the undoubtedly enormous knowledge that lays bare in other countries, but which has not yet been translated into English. But more about that in a later stage.

When I had written down the lines above, about the dominance of the Anglo-Saxons, I was immediately proved wrong with the first blog that was promoted at Owen Barkers blogroll: the blog from Ethan Zuckerman, My heart´s in Accra. Zuckerman works at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society of Harvard University and according to his bio he ´focuses on the impact of technology on the developing world. His current projects include a study of global media attention, research on the use of weblogs and other social software in the developing world, and work on a clearinghouse for software for international development.´

Although very Anglo-Saxon, one of Zuckermans points of interest is the polyglot internet. In his blog of June 1 he describes a quick study by himself which shows that Chinese language content on the internet outnumbers English (and other) languages by far. His posting brought me to an interesting article in Prospect titled Will the Internet Always Speak English?. Although this article contradicts Zuckermans little study by stating that 80 percent of the Internet is still English, it does provide an interesting reflection on the role of language on the internet.

I think that language to a certain extent influences the way knowledge is produced and handled. Internet is the medium through which information is found and communicated. And it is also increasingly the place where information is selected and combined into knowledge. And if we assume (as I am still hoping) that knowledge feeds policy decisions and politics. Than, we can say, that the English dominance on the Internet favors AngloSaxon ways of looking at the world, at global politics, at global culture.

The question is of course, is that still appropriate in a world that becomes increasingly multipolar and multicultural? Even if, through globalization, cultures meet and merge, at the same time power balances are shifting, towards China, India, maybe also Brazil. In this regard another blog posting by Zuckerman is interesting, about the polyglot internet. He describes that ´Wikipedia is now available in more than 210 languages, which implies that there are communities capable of authoring content in those tongues´. He points at the risk that internet users will only communicate with people in their own language. Zuckerman states that, ´For the Internet to fulfill its most ambitious promises, we need to recognize translation as one of the core challenges to an open, shared and collectively governed internet. Many of us share a vision of the Internet as a place where the good ideas of any person in any country can influence thought and opinion around the world. This vision can only be realized if we accept the challenge of a polyglot internet and build tools and systems to bridge and translate between the hundreds of languages represented online.´

Machine translation will, for the time being, not be perfect, so we need human translators. ´We are at the very early stages of the emergence of a new model for translation of online content – “peer production” models of translation.´

And, Zuckerman ends, ´If we do not address the problems of the polyglot internet, we introduce another possible way our shared internet can fragment. There are competing – and likely incompatible – visions for future governance of the internet. As the internet becomes less of a global, shared space and more of a Chinese or Arabic or English space, we lose incentives to work together on common, compatible frameworks and protocols. We face the real possibility of the internet becoming multiple internets, divided first by languages, but later by values, norms and protocols.´

And I would add, as the internet has become so important for global knowledge production and thus for policy making, the same risk could apply to the world outside of the Internet: fragmentation.