“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain… We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance.” — Nikola Tesla
I speak Chinese. I usually downplay this, with good reason. My grasp of the language’s structure is shoddy at best, and my vocabulary has atrophied dramatically since college. Also, my Chinese-born former roommate once told me that I speak it “like a Long Island princess.”
So, when an interviewer at an internship fair a few months ago glanced at my resume and remarked, “Oh, you should move to China and report from there,” my first instinct was to laugh.
After last week’s reading, I wonder if I should have taken him more seriously.
The class I took with Ethan was called MAS 700: News and Participatory Media. I recommend it.
I just finished Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Digital Connection by Ethan Zuckerman, the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media and a former professor of mine. This book, Ethan’s first, is about the digital world, and why being online doesn’t necessarily allow us to make as many connections as we think. He makes a lot of city analogies in the book, so perhaps it’s best to describe his idea in the same way. We like to think of the internet as a huge and strange and international city that we are free to explore. But that’s not accurate — far from it. The truth is that there are places we cannot access, city residents we never meet. We often wander the same routes every day, overlooking entire neighborhoods and colorful backstreets.
This means that we tend to miss news that isn’t directly related to our lives and our interests, but labor under the assumption that we’re open to much more.
“…we must work hard for our Picasso moments, the moments when an unexpected encounter with the unfamiliar leads to inspiration. And we must work equally hard to build tools that warn us of the dangers of connection, whether it’s an incipient epidemic, a financial crisis, or an inflammatory video. The Internet will not magically turn us into digital cosmopolitans; if we want to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of connection, we have to take responsibility for shaping the tools we use to encounter the world.”
(I hinted at in my last post about the digital divide. Almost like I planned it.)
The book provides many, many stories of how connection succeeds or fails. For today, I’m just going to focus on the one: the language problem.
The web, and the world, often feels English-centric. Of course, it isn’t, but those of us who trawl the internet in that one language generally miss information encoded in every other. Rewire offers some examples of this, such as:
1. American soccer fans mistook “Cala Boca Galvão,” a Twitter demand for a chatty sports commentator to be quiet, as a grassroots environmental effort to save an imaginary bird.
2. A mistake in a New York Times story regarding a Chinese university was repeated in hundreds of English-language news outlets, none of which bothered to do their own original reporting.
3. A guy looking up information about his new German bike couldn’t find anything — because he searched with google.com and not google.de.
Ultimately, it means that speakers of different languages are getting different information, reading different news stories, experiencing a different web.
According to a FUNREDES study in 2005, only 45% of online content is in English.
“It’s easy to assume that the most important content will appear in the language we speak at some point. That’s no longer a safe assumption. Each day the amount of information we could encounter via broadcast or online media increases while the percentage we can understand shrinks…”
How do we solve the language problem? One answer is more hard-nosed translation of the internet — whether it’s through language-learning websites like DuoLingo, scripts like the one built into Google Chrome, or laborious volunteer work like that done at EastSouthWestNorth. Another answer is creating better search engines that can comb through multiple languages for you. Another answer is making reluctant, semi-bilingual reporters like me try harder to bring stories over from the other side of the linguistic wall.
I’ll think about it.
If you want to know more about Rewire, I encourage you to check out Charlie DeTar’s recap of Ethan’s book launch up at the Center for Civic Media blog.
Bonus round: Want to spend your summer reading like me? Then you should try The Orphan Master’s Son, The Denial of Death, and randomly chosen passages from the somehow interminable Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Extra credit goes to those who end up rereading Catching Fire in their little brother’s bedroom.