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Surveillance society

Technology is undermining the traditional distribution of power by redistributing knowledge. The state builds databases on its citizens; businesses profile the buying habits of their customers through loyalty cards; surveillance cameras provide data on civil disturbances, crime, weather and traffic flow; eavesdropping technologies monitor citizens conversations, email and text messages or comments on websites.

Citizens exploit the same technologies. Internet forums allow shoppers to compare prices and read consumer reviews; volunteers create databases of the location of speed cameras for use in car navigation systems; blogs, websites, and webcams allow individuals and small communities to project and manage their own identities.

The Victorians debated the paradox brought by new communications technologies (especially the electric telegraph which wired up the world by the end of the 19th century). On the one hand, it allowed the ‘centre’ to monitor and control the ‘periphery’, whether it be the government in London attempting to control the civil servants in the far reaches of the empire, or central management controlling staff and rolling stock along the newly built railway lines. But it also allowed information to be disseminated quickly and more widely inways that were liberating and empowering to ordinary people.

(A) This ‘cat and mouse’ game is likely to continue as technology allows even faster and more powerful ways of collecting, analysing and communicating information.

Surveillance, censorship and cryptography are now some of the main drivers of language technology research. International telephone traffic (in billions of international telephone minutes) has been steadily increasing but may now be levelling off as other channels of communication are used. (Data from International Telecommunications Union)

The proportion of internet users for whom English is a first language has been decreasing fast. But is that also true of web content?

In 1998, Geoff Nunberg and Schulze found that around 85% of web pages were in English. A study by ExciteHome found that had dropped to 72% in 1999; and a survey by the Catalan ISP VilaWeb in 2000 estimated a further drop to 68%.

It seems that the proportion of English material on the internet is declining, but that there remains more English than is proportionate to the first languages of users. Estimates from the Latin American NGO Funredes suggest that only 8–15% of web content in English represents lingua franca usage. Although it is difficult to estimate how much content is in each of the major languages, these figures seem to be roughly correct.

This may be simply a time-lag – internet sites in local languages appear only when there exist users who can understand them. Surveys of bilingual internet users in the USA suggest that their use of English sites declines as alternatives in their first language become available.

An analysis published in November 2005 by Byte Level Research concluded:

(B) This data makes clear that the next Internet revolution will not be in English. While English isn’t becoming any less important on the Internet, other languages, such as Chinese, Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese, are becoming comparatively more important.

The dominance of English on the internet has probably been overestimated. What began as an anglophone phenomenon has rapidly become a multilingual affair.

Software has been made capable of displaying many different kinds of script. Many corporate websites now employ multilingual strategies making choice of language a ‘user preference’. Machine translation of web content is only a mouse-click away. And there are many reasons why the internet, which started as a long-distance, global communications medium, is now serving much more local interests. Furthermore, the internet is proving to be a very useful resource to those interested in learning lesser-used languages.

So, a much more important story than the dominance of English lies in the way lesser-used languages are now flourishing on the internet and how communication is becoming more multilingual. The proportion of English tends to be highest where the local language has a relatively small number of speakers and where competence in English is high.

In Holland and Scandinavia, for example, English pages run as high as 30% of the total; in France and Germany, they account for around 15-20%; and in Latin America, they account for 10% or less. (Geoffrey Nunberg ‘Will the Internet Always Speak English?’ The American Prospect) English on the internet is declining.


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Communications technology | Why English is used less . . .

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