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Pluralistic, Not Imperialistic

The idea that the Net is another form of Americanization and a threat to local culture is absurd.


Message 33:
Date: 3.1.96
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>
Subject: Pluralistic, Not Imperialistic

During the 1982 World Conference on Cultural Policies in Mexico City, Jack Lang, the French minister of culture, declared that "cultural and artistic creation is a victim of a system of multinational financial domination against which we must organize ourselves." Then he called the object of his tirade the product of "financial and intellectual imperialism." What prompted this outburst? The TV soap Dallas. That foolish program was so popular worldwide, it became a symbol of American cultural imperialism and a threat to European identity.

More than 13 years later, last December, French President Jacques Chirac warned leaders of the world's 47 French-speaking nations that if English continues to dominate the information highway, "our future generations will be economically and culturally marginalized." Chirac declared that 90 percent of information transmitted on the Net is in English, and it threatens to steamroll French language and culture. Hello?

Mr. Chirac, if anything is going to restore cultural identities, large and small, it is the Internet. I won't ask you what your forefathers did to the native language of Benin, the African nation where you made this proclamation. But I will remind you that the World Wide Web was invented in Switzerland, in the French-speaking part no less, and your own Minitel system is twice the size of America Online. The idea that the Net is another form of Americanization and a threat to local culture is absurd. Such conviction completely misses and misunderstands the extraordinary cultural opportunities of the digital world.


Italy may point the way for France

In Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, lies evidence that the Net can be respectful of language, at once local and global, and a medium for cross-cultural exchange. Nichi Grauso's Video On Line (http://www.vol.it) provides a browser used in more than 20 languages, many of which you have never heard: Afrikaans, Amarico, Ewe, Fa, Haoussa, Ibo, Kimbundu, Nyanja, Pulaar, Sangho, Suto, Tigrigna, Chokwe, Yoruba, Bassa, Indi, Kikongo, Lingala, Lunda, Mandekan, Fulani, Somali, Wolof, Tswana, Swahili.

Think of it. Less than two years ago, Nichi Grauso had not heard of the Internet (see "The Berlusconi of the Net," Wired 4.01, page 78). When he discovered it, instead of grumbling about Netscape being in English, he created a multilingual browser and service already used or accessed by more than 500,000 people around the world. Video On Line validates the decentralist structure of the Net, especially in the European context, in which governments own the highly centralist telephone companies that dominate the continent's telecommunications with poor service and high costs. Colonialism is the fruit of centralist thinking. It does not exist in a decentralized world.


Revisiting the ducks

I am fond of quoting MIT professor Mitch Resnick's story about ducks flying south in a V formation. The front duck is not leading. Each duck is a stand-alone processor who behaves according to local rules and autonomous behavior. My variation of this story is that if you shoot the front duck, it will drop and the rest will scatter. Eventually, the remaining ducks will regroup into a new V formation with a new front duck and continue on their way. No, the vice president duck did not become the president duck. That's not the way it works.

The essence of the Net, like the ducks, is a collection of interconnected and autonomous processors, none of which is in control and all of which can be a client one moment and a server another. In this scheme, it is not possible to colonialize the Net and turn its users into English-speaking puppets in the way France turned 46 other regions or nations each with its own indigenous languages into French-speaking colonies. There are three reasons the Net will be free from such imperialism:

  1. The cost of entry is low. With less than US$2,000 of capital equipment and $10 per month of recurring costs, you can publish on the Net, say, in Romansch. Under these conditions, it is probably unimportant that only 70,000 people in the southeast corner of Switzerland speak this language.
  2. It can deliver to a sparsely populated universe, like Urdu-speaking brain surgeons around the world, even though there may be only two or fewer per city. Information and community can be pinpointed with total disregard for geographic density and without the need to justify or qualify them in the terms of a mass medium.
  3. The Web has turned the "medium" inside out because the process enables you to "pull" information versus having it "pushed" at you. Language-specific content can be accessed more easily than ever either by you or by digital agents; not to mention that in the near future, these same agents will be able to automatically translate documents into your own language.


    English as a second language

    While English is not the most widely spoken language in the world, it is definitely the most-used second language. A German in Greece will order her food in English, just as a Frenchman in Germany will speak with a taxi driver in English. Similarly, the air traffic control standard is almost always English.

    This lingua franca should not be confused with cultural identity, nor should it be the basis for cultural-wars rhetoric. In fact, thank god we have the means to share an operational language. It is not the language of love, good food, and fine wine it is certainly not the language of Voltaire but it is a utilitarian language that lands planes safely and keeps the Net's infrastructure running.

    The Net is not produced and bottled in the US. In fact, more than 50 percent of Net users are outside the US, and that percentage is rising. By 2000, less than 20 percent of all Internet users will be in the US. So please, Mr. Chirac, stop confusing chauvinism with imperialism. The Net is humankind's best chance to respect and nurture the most obscure languages and cultures of the world. Your flaming is counterproductive to making our planet more pluralistic.

    Next Issue: Affective Computing


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