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<nettime> In Digital Death Valley
Krystian Woznicki on Mon, 22 May 2006 10:00:19 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> In Digital Death Valley

In Digital Death Valley

Net/language - B {AT} bel, Aymara.org and the Internet as a cemetery of languages

Krystian Woznicki

A look at the Internet is always a look through a magnifying glass at what we
generally call globalisation. The Internet accelerates and reinforces the process
that is causing everything on our planet to move closer together, that is
synchronising, connecting and interlinking everything. Everything that accompanies
this process is made more visible by the Internet - as a consequence of a
revelation or a dramatic distortion. Language plays an important role in this
connection. After all, the present phase of globalisation is seeing an
interrogation and renegotiation of the model within whose framework language was
mainly modelled as an ideological construct: the nation-state. This latter was
only able to legitimise its homogenising ambitions with a national language - such
as Spanish, French or German -, something that was never naturally existent, but
had first to be laboriously constructed in the course of nation-building. This
process occurred to the detriment of diversity within the respective language
system, but also at the expense of other languages. A prime example of this is
Spain, with altogether four other languages within its national borders that were
systematically repressed in favour of Castellano, which advanced to become the
national language.

Recently, there has been much talk of languages dying out. According to Andrew
Dalby's recent publication "Language in Danger" (Allen Lane, 2002), every week the
world is rid of one more language. At the same time it is becoming increasingly
apparent that a few languages, above all English, are expanding their national and
international dominance in an alarming fashion. The geo-political hegemony of the
G8 would thus seem to have a linguistic dimension: less competitive nations are
dominated not only at an economic-military level, but also at a linguistic level,
by a few others - in an echo of colonialism right down to neocolonialist
tendencies.1 However much this may explain the homogenising developments in the
field of languages at global level, it in the end says little about the present
status of language as an ideological construct. After all, the present phase of
globalisation is largely shaped not only by powerful nation-states, but also by
equally powerful corporations and NGOs which, as comparatively young global
players, do not define their identity within the linguistic domain per se.

In the discourse about the vanishing diversity of languages, this blind spot is
also reproduced in the discussion on this topic with reference to the internet.
The basic problem lies in the reproduction itself. Certainly, there are offline
developments that are reflected in the online sphere - but what is decisive is
where the parallels cease, or, to be more precise: where the reflection effect
loses its meaning and where the translation begins. It is obvious that communities
form in cyberspace that are oriented according to national languages. It is just
that one tends to turn to Internet services in one's own language;
correspondingly, people talk of "virtual language communities on the WWW". What is
more: the surveillance of the Internet in countries like China or Burma sometimes
recalls the efforts of the modern nation-state. After all, the initiatives to
filter content bring about a nationally oriented linguistic homogenisation that
reconstructs the seemingly anachronistic borders of the territorial state in a
purportedly borderless association of networks.

On the other side, there is the spectre of a world language. In this regard,
English is literally on everyone's lips; the Internet, too, has given this spectre
refuge. Here, it can unfold its ambition to be present on a global scale under the
conditions provided by a medium that not only has the same ambition, but has also
come up with a particularly effective mythos in this regard. The multiplicator
effect has brought not only admirers, but also detractors into the arena. The
media theorist Geert Lovink, for example, cites Adorno ("The whole is always the
untrue") to underline the fact that "there will never be a united planet with a
united humanity speaking only one language."2 A world language has nonetheless
become a utopian dream for many "Netizens". It even holds a fascination for
those who do not want to see languages dying out. After all, it is based on the
idea of a harmonious world community and the promise of becoming part of this
community. Lovink implies, however, that these dreamers use globalisation only as
"a cheap excuse" for "no longer having to confront the stagnation and the boredom
at local (and especially national) levels".3 But are the people who do get
involved at these levels unreservedly to be accepted as our heroes?

Take the UNESCO project B {AT} bel as an example. It has devoted itself to the
multilingualism on the Internet and aims to re-civilise the linguistic desert in
cyberspace - 90 percent of Internet content is available in only twelve languages.
The desert is to become a blossoming landscape, at least when computerised
language recognition emerges from the underdeveloped stage of 400 language systems
to approach the 6,000 languages used worldwide. Although the diagnosis and aim of
this initiative may be correct, the approach is problematic. B {AT} bel - the very name
suggests media competence, and the directives that have been announced also seem
like measures profiled accordingly. But is the bridging of the digital divide and
the substantial improvement of the language-recognition systems really a panacea
in this connection? If nothing else, the term "preservation" that is used by the
organisers should arouse concern. For, whether offline or online - merely
"preserving" languages cannot be the aim. What is needed is not museums in which
the reptile is preserved in stuffed form because of the lack of oxygen; rather,
basic conditions for the existence of a diversity of organisms have to be created.
For the fact that languages are precisely that - organisms - often goes by the
board, and probably also in this connection.

The consequence: multilingualism campaigns aiming at lingual diversity on the
Internet only create a basis for putting a language online. But they do not manage
to reflect upon what kind of environment the Internet, apart from its uniformity,
really represents for the respective language and its development. One example is
the project Aymara.org - referred to with some pathos as "From High Andes to
Cyberspace". This tri-lingual website (Aymara, Spanish, English) is not just an
example of how ethnic minorities can become represented on the Internet, but shows
above all that the - in this case ancient - language, which survived the empires
of the Incas and the Spaniards, has met its premature death. Premature, because
there are still around 1.5 million people who speak this language. Death, because
one can not speak here of a translation tailored to the medium, such as that
demanded by Lev Manovich for theory formation, with the intellectual war cry "new
media requires a new critical language"4 - at best, the

Internet has taken on the function of a museum here.

The inability to see the problem of languages on the Internet and the problem of
Net language as interconnected makes present efforts regarding multilinguism in
cyberspace as one-sided as a discussion on language and globalisation that only
questions the process that is causing everything on our planet to move closer
together, that is synchronising, connecting and interlinking everything, with
regard to its role as a nation-state.

1 See, for example, Dieter Lesage, "Weird translations. On language, nationalism,
federalism and postcolonialism in Belgium."

2 Geert Lovink, "Dark Fiber. Auf den Spuren einer kritischen Internetkultur." Bonn
2003, p. 117.

3 Ibid., p. 118

4 Lev Manovich, "The Language of New Media", in nettime (ed.), Readme! New York
1999, p. 46

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