The Internet, world peace and linguistic incompetence

So the Italian edition of Wired has launched a campaign to get the Internet nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Judging from my wireless router, that’s going to be one boring speech if it wins.

It’s not that daft an idea really – there’s possibly more of a case for the Internet than there was for giving it to newly elected Barak Obama last year – although you can’t help feeling it slightly trivialises other potential winners (Russian human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina and Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo are possibly on the shortlist, although it’s kept secret). The Internet has revolutionised communications and is the chief tool of the Information Age. Its ability to bring together people from around the world to "advance dialogue, debate and consensus" is unparalleled, and the development of things such as social networking, flash mobbing and Twitter as tools of social dissent, providing a voice for the voiceless, have changed how we approach political activism. That’s sometimes hard to see here in the UK, where Twitter’s main function seems to be keeping us informed as to what Stephen Fry had for breakfast, but it’s a pretty big deal in places like Belarus or Egypt, and issues like this must be of immediate concern if, say, you’re stuck behind the Great Firewall of China.

Of course, it’s not that simple. There’s still a siginifcant digital divide (cue the oft quoted statistic that half the world’s population has never made a phone call, which is bad news for a global communication network that’s all about the phone lines), and it’s worth noting that language barriers still exist. According to this site, the top ten languages used on the Internet (in order) are English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, French, Portuguese, German, Arabic, Russian and Korean; with a couple of notable exceptions, that maps pretty closely to the world’s top ten economies (USA, China, Japan, India, Germany, UK, Russia, France, Brazil and Italy), while there’s less of a correlation between internet languages and the size of population (the top ten most populous countries according to Wikipedia are China, India, USA, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Russia and Japan). You can have all the information in the world at your fingertips, a million potential friends waiting in cyberspace, but first of all you’ve got to tackle an electronic Tower of Babel. Native English speakers often take that for granted.

The techno-utopians have an answer to this – Google for one are working on automatic translation programs that use mathematical algorithms to collapse the Net’s language barriers, but, and this is key, there’s still a need for humans to, you know, talk to each other. Even the best translation program is going to come in second place to someone who’s multi-lingual and good at typing, and that’s before we start to consider all the languages that no-one’s going to think to run through an algorithm in the first place.

See, despite its undeniable social impact, the internet’s only as good as the people who use it, as anyone who’s ever been in the middle of a flame war can attest (the online reaction Beaker received isn’t a million miles from the truth), and political involvement in online culture is a growing cause for concern (for instance, Cory Doctorow’s article over at the Guardian’s website outlines some of the political wrangling going on over the Digital Economy Bill). I’d also be reluctant to forget there are other means of getting information out there that deserve our support (what can I say, I popped into the British Library yesterday, and one of the first posts I saw when coming online tonight concerned library closures in the US… And that’s before we consider that libraries are actually a pretty important access point to computers and yes, the Internet).

So here’s my modest proposal – don’t give the Nobel Peace Prize to the Internet. After all, what are you going to award it to? Phone lines? Servers? The nebulous concept of Cyberspace? Heck, you may as well award it to the printing press, or maybe papyrus. Give it instead to the netizens, in all their blogging, twittering, social networking, flash-mobbing glory. If we’re doing the noble thing, we could send Tim Berners-Lee to collect the prize, but if we want to really be symbolic, let’s just send Fluffy_bunny1472. I’m sure she can come up with a speech.

The rest of us can hang out in Oslo, promoting world peace, and maybe, just maybe, arguing about Star Trek

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