For most, the Internet is still something experienced through the written word. So much for the information revolution; we still access most webpages through an interface that would be all too familiar to Gutenberg and his ilk.
For a good deal of the world currently connected to the Internet, this may all seem like a no-brainer. Text, especially an alphabet, is cheap, easy, and efficient. But indulge me, if you will, to think aloud for a bit about what happens if text and writing systems aren’t available. While webpages can be found in many languages, including English, Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic, French, and German, the reality is that most of the world’s languages have no writing system whatsoever. What can we do for these language communities and what role does technology have to play in innovating how humans transmit thought across space and time?
Unlike the explosion of non-text media-sharing technologies in recent years (I’m looking at you, Snapchat), it still remains, frankly, a bit medieval to send and receive text-based content from one technology user to another. First, you have to type a sentence out and then somebody else has to read it. With their eyes. Such a hassle. This might sound like a glib dig at, you know, literacy, but it highlights a basic assumption we make about the most common method for sharing information digitally. Imagine, dear reader, that you can’t read or write your language. What then? If your community has no writing system, the whole Internet becomes a silent vortex of squiggles. Utterly useless.
The tech world hasn’t exactly been imaginative, either, about innovating user interfaces or adapting technologies for those whose language doesn’t rely on the written word. Almost all major websites, even if they have multilingual viewing options, still rely on codified writing systems. This makes something like Facebook or Twitter, not to mention participation in the global, digitally sutured economy, a challenge for speakers of unwritten languages like Domari and Bangandu.
But we humans are nothing if not resourceful. Indeed, we’ve been able to think up an astounding 7,000 distinct languages during the course of human history. The global crisis affecting linguistic diversity is also an exciting opportunity to reimagine how technology can be used to share information and foster connections among populations. Many organizations are beginning to rise to the challenge, including Google Translate’s expansion of natural language processing technologies and the wide range of apps being built to meet the needs of minority language communities. However, I’d like to press for an even broader reinterpretation of how information is captured and shared digitally. The challenge of developing digital user interfaces that don’t rely on the written word is incredibly complex with exciting design implications. With some imagination, we can create a more level Internet playing field, one in which information can be conveyed across multiple platforms without relying on the aging QWERTY. That’s something I think Gutenberg could get behind.