The voice of digital agitation

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
8 October, 2017
Editorial: 140
Fecha de publicación original: 3 noviembre, 1998

Each limb has its purpose: so don’t talk to your thumb, just as you wouldn’t sew with your tongue

The constant increase in the Spanish speaking internaut population is not growing at a satisfactory rate if we accept recent statistics on the presence of this language on the Net (I suppose that the same must apply to other languages in the Spanish state –Catalan, Galician and Basque– although there are no figures for them). Nevertheless, the analysis of these figures continues to be unilineal and hypothetical and tells us very little about what is really going on, apart from the rather boring affirmation that English is becoming more and more dominant. As far as the latter is concerned, I beg to differ, as I pointed out in the first editorial of If anything, what is happening is that the other languages, from Spanish to Italian, from French to German, as well as others considered “small” languages, are becoming more and more important on the Internet to the detriment of English.

However, let me make it clear, this is also a supposition. In order to compare figures on languages used on the Internet a more qualitative perspective is needed. For example, it may be that the Internet is growing more in Anglo-Saxon countries, in the U.S. in particular, as a result of the overpowering dynamic of the Net over there, but that does not mean that the rest of us are just a speck of dust in the digital ocean. The statistics refer to web pages, but they don’t say anything about what is happening in email distribution lists and other non-web systems of communication that exist on the Net. It could also be that Spanish speakers put their pages into the Net in both languages, which makes English grow as much as Spanish thereby increasing only marginally, but nevertheless considerably, the rate of expansion of the language spoken by Ben Jonson (a contemporary of Shakespeare’s: I prefer his English if we are to going to use clichés). So, it could be that all this is happening simultaneously. And, in the end, we cannot disregard the possibility that in fact the growth rate of resources in our language does not hold the place it should as the second biggest linguistic population in cyberspace….that is until the Chinese make their voices heard.

In any case, all of these tendencies, except the latter, only take less important quantitative aspects into account. If we wish to refer just to the language – and not what is done with it – we should look at what Esther Dyson said in an interview in that people who speak only English have a problem in the Net because they can only understand what is said in their own language. The people that really have the advantage are those that are bilingual (or multi-lingual), because they can move around different areas of the Internet as well as their own. Business in the US has understood this and has begun a frantic race to translate its services into other languages, especially into Spanish. And this is where the real danger lies and a fact about which the statistics say very little, namely that a substantial part of the growth in Spanish on the Internet can be put down to mere translations from systems originally created in English for the English-speaking market. If this is what is happening — and everything points to the fact that it is– , then instead of complaining about how little there is on the Net in our language, we should be concerning ourselves with what is being done with our language on the Net. Because, the fundamental question is not simply the use of the language in itself as an indicator of appropriation of the Internet, but rather that it is used to channel specific cultural manifestations which are taking over the Internet.

In Spain, up until very recently, nobody had seen a Disney film in English. Even the songs were translated. But this did not mean that we had a booming cartoon industry, rather that Disney owned the culture transmitted in its cartoons, although they did so in our language. In the Internet, to a large extent, the same could happen. Those of us who speak more than one language get off to a flying start. And it is here that the role each person will play in the Information Society will be decided. Our languages are finding it objectively difficult to transmit their respective cultures through the Net not because English is on its way to becoming the lingua franca of cyberspace, as some post-industrialist analysts would have us believe, but because internauts are finding it increasingly difficult to survive on the Net. With everything from arbitrary telephone rates to the obstacle race which trying to set up and maintain a business dealing with information and knowledge has become, to the amazing official apathy as regards this strategic sector, it is incredible that the Internet continues to grow at all in our languages.

What still needs to be done is the task of measuring cultural production on the Net as a more reliable indicator of the presence of the language. And this cannot be done by the simply adding up the total number of pages written in Spanish, Catalan or any other language. It requires a more detailed examination of the information systems being created in these languages, their scope of action, the density of information they contribute to the Net and the “digital agitation” they propose — and achieve– in their relationships with the audience to which they are directed. This is an area in which electronic publication will play a determining role, because it represents a natural ecosystem — a continual flow of communication as the unique and explosive event of the Information Society– where language and its cultural spin-offs are expressed. However, judging by the vision which studies in use give us, we are still a long way from obtaining the conceptual tools necessary for understanding this process thoroughly.

Translation: Bridget King.