words Genevieve Bell
Now that English speakers are a minority online, are we about to go from one internet to many?
Isadore of Seville became the patron saint of the internet in 2003. One imagines he might have been surprised but not shocked by this appointment – after all, he helped create the world’s first encyclopaedia over 1,300 years ago in Spain. His Etymologiae, acknowledged as the world’s first compendium of knowledge, covered subjects from furniture to religion and botany, drawing on diverse, conflicted and compromised sources. It remained in publication and circulation for nearly a thousand years in Europe and helped to shape the ways in which we still think about information in the Western post-enlightenment tradition. Wikipedia certainly owes something to Isadore and his passion for cataloguing knowledge.
Isadore is an obvious patron saint for today’s information technologies, but I have to wonder whether he makes sense for the future. The internet is changing. Earlier this year, the number of Chinese users overtook the number of American users, and it is safe to say it is unlikely to ever toggle back. These Chinese users represent an important pivot point – and a flourishing of new practices and aspirations. The Chinese internet is one of familiar websites and services – portals, search engines, auction houses, news sites – but it is also a place of less familiar activity. The Chinese internet is a regulated one – tens of thousands of state officials patrol the Great Firewall every day. In at least one Chinese city, animated avatars of Internet Police appear on websites, walking a digital beat and reminding citizens of appropriate digital behaviour. This is a very different notion of cyber-safety than the padlock that appears on secured e-commerce sites or proposed rating systems.
English-speaking internet users were already a minority and have been for quite some time. The percentage of global users who are American has dropped from 54% in 1997 to 17% in 2007 – an astonishing shift in circumstances for the place that made the internet a household word. What happens when English stops being the dominant language of the internet? Will the concept of a single internet disappear when Mandarin, Arabic, Hindi and Spanish become equally prevalent languages? An internet of Sanskrit poetics and Bollywood style is quite a thing to contemplate.
The very nature of languages will play a role here. This is not just a problem of translation (run an article through any online translation engine and I assure you it will not be well translated), of making sense of what is said; it is also a problem of what isn’t said. We know how to deal with text and hyper-text on the internet, but do we know how to handle subtext? Hindi and Bengali draw on Sanskrit, and the poetics and philosophy of that ancient language seem to resist technological encoding. In a world where all information is ultimately translated into binary code, into zeros and ones, what will happen to things that have duality? Websites have interstitials but what do we do with the ideas that live in the interstices – unvoiced, unsayable, incommensurate? Perhaps one day, search engines will offer the option to search for metaphors and tacit knowledge the same way we search for images or news stories.
Some of these future internets will face practical challenges: does the internet work as well right to left, as left to right; back to front as well as front to back? Is the top right hand corner really the best place for back-buttons or search boxes – do everyone’s eyes naturally travel there? Do information trees – the way you navigate websites by going deeper and deeper into a subject area – resonate for everyone? Do current icons make sense globally – if you have never seen a printer or a floppy disk, will you know how to print or save? Will you wake up in Slough to a different internet than I see in Jakarta – different not just in language and content but narrative structure and impulse? My internet calls me to prayer, yours might tell you that there are leaves on the track and trains are delayed – this isn’t just about different forms of information, this is different forms of social practice. A future of many internets, rather than a universal one, seems entirely plausible.
Genevieve Bell is an anthropologist and director of user experience at Intel