The technological discrimination you never knew existed

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Molly Raycraft

03 Dec 2020

“The Web does not just connect machines, it connects people” That’s what Tim Berners-Lee said after launching the World Wide Web in 1989. His famous quote summarises the global connectivity the internet has fostered. It has allowed humans to communicate from anywhere in the world. It’s a unifying force! But is it? For many people, the internet really is the glue that holds communication together. You only need to look at the increased use of video calls over the course of the pandemic to see how much it’s helped families and friends retain a slither of normality. The internet has given us the ability to connect with the world without ever needing to leave our homes. And with real-time translation services, we don’t even need to speak the same language to hold a conversation with a fellow internet user. But this experience is in no way the same for everyone. While the internet may enable international conversations for many of us, not all of us can access it. For some cultures, it’s pretty isolating, as well as biased, due to this lack of access. Many of us (including me until fairly recently) won’t have realised this. That’s because we speak a Western language (those that use the Latin alphabet, such as English, Spanish, and French). The internet has been designed for us. This puts those who speak non-Latin languages, like Arabic or Burmese, on the backfoot.

A truly unequal experience

Instant translation may appear as the solution to bridge the gap between languages, to grant access to non-Latin script or languages spoken by few people. But in reality, it plays a small part. Because, while Google can translate 108 languages, there are more than 2000 different languages spoken in India alone. You may assume these are just local dialects that therefore don’t need individual translation since the majority of Indians speak English. But in fact, they’re different enough that India has newspapers printed in more than a thousand different languages. So, if you’re in India and you pick up a newspaper that is printed in a language you don’t understand, the likelihood is the internet won’t be able to make any more sense of it either. It’s a similar situation for map services. Someone searching for a restaurant in English will get more results than they would’ve if they’d searched for the same thing in Hebrew or Arabic. And less options means an unequal service, purely because of their language. English searches usually receive more results because websites tend to be written in English. This points the finger at website authors rather than search engines themselves – and the lack of clarity over whose responsibility it is to ensure people can access results has meant many continue to be excluded. While the website author, of course, holds some responsibility over the accessibility of their domain, you have to ask why so many authors have stuck to English? The answer points the finger right back at search engines. If they’re not allowing results to be seen because they’re in a different language or can’t be translated, web users will increasingly search in English, and therefore websites will publish in English – further cementing bias towards English. This isn’t just a bias that’s isolated to search engines either. Amazon’s Kindle has a shocking amount of languages available – the majority of which are Western. I recently read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s written in English but sprinkled with Igbo words, a Nigerian language. Kindle wasn’t even able to search these words on Google, let alone translate them, highlighting how technology is still restricting us to a westernised canon. The internet puts up higher barriers around some cultures than it does for others. The most frustrating thing is that Igbo uses a Latin script, so the search engine didn’t even face the challenge of also translating the script as it does with non-Latin symbols. This so-called equal playing field is uneven at it’s very core. And as conscientious professionals working in this field, I whole-heartedly believe we need to do something about it.

The unseen caveat

The way internet searches are inputted was not designed to accommodate languages deriving from scripts other than Latin. For a Latin speaker, it can be hard to comprehend how much of a cultural shift this brings about. Many are having to learn Franco, which is the Latin alternative of Egypt’s Arabic, to partake fully in the virtual world. Essentially, Arabic speakers must work twice as hard, learning two scripts in order to access what we can access with our singular Latin. The internet may be a unifying force but it’s demanding people to unify around the Western World, at the sacrifice of their own language and culture.

Does the future have one language?

Some blue-sky thinkers have suggested technology use a new language altogether. One we all have to learn. Or in the opinion of Professor 徐冰 (Xu Bin), a language that we’ve all already learned. He’s created Book from the Ground, which is made entirely of emojis. But while emojis truly are universal, the reality is this language would no doubt encounter the same issues civilisation had when dealing with hieroglyphics: it’s near impossible to write out concepts comprehensively. Imagine writing your business strategy in emoji? I imagine it would be frustratingly hard (translation: 😡 👷) The arguments around the internet’s globalisation of languages is not new. Tech has evidence to support both sides of the matter. Firstly, it elevates cultures to a global stage, allowing us to see and access them more than ever before. Secondly, many worry globalisation forecasts the erosion of their culture – especially when they can’t even type in their own language if they want to be part of the global world. This leaves me with one question: if tech has the endless possibilities we say it does, then why can’t it resolve the cultural discrimination it currently has? My suspicion is that the answer lies within profit margins. And if this is the case then it’s our (all of us working in tech) responsibility to continue pushing the case for equal accessibility for all cultures. Nevertheless, as corporate social responsibility continues to make its way to the fore in the tech space, we’re beginning to see some real breakthroughs in terms of accessibility. Translation software is incorporating more and more languages into their technology, including regional dialects. We’re not there yet, but the endless possibilities of innovation are a promising start on levelling the playing field for today’s global web user – no matter what language they choose to speak.