How walled gardens can make your language endangered

In an op-ed for the Tech­nol­ogy Review, Har­vard Law School pro­fes­sor Jonathan Zittrain writes about the death of the per­sonal com­puter caused by the emer­gence of walled gar­dens. Con­trolled ecosys­tems like the App Store, he says, are under­min­ing one of the most basic prin­ci­ples and char­ac­ter­is­tics of per­sonal com­put­ing and the Inter­net — generativity.

A flow­er­ing of inno­va­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion was ignited by the rise of the PC and the Web and their gen­er­a­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics. Soft­ware was installed one machine at a time, a rela­tion­ship among myr­iad soft­ware mak­ers and users. Sites could appear any­where on the Web, a rela­tion­ship among myr­iad web­mas­ters and surfers. Now activ­ity is clump­ing around a hand­ful of por­tals: two or three OS mak­ers that are in a posi­tion to man­age all apps (and con­tent within them) in an ongo­ing way, and a dimin­ish­ing set of cloud host­ing providers like Ama­zon that can pro­vide the denial-of-service resis­tant places to put up a web­site or blog.

I see an even greater dan­ger in this trend. As devices with walled gar­dens become more ubiq­ui­tous, they start to not only take over the spirit of the com­put­ing cul­ture that we know today, but also, they start to influ­ence fun­da­men­tal ways in which peo­ple com­mu­ni­cate. A some­what humor­ous exam­ple of this phe­nom­ena is illus­trated by Damn You Auto­cor­rect, a web­site which curates often hilar­i­ous exam­ples of auto-correct fail­ures on iPhones. How­ever, a much more seri­ous exam­ple would be instances where users of these plat­forms are pre­vented from com­mu­ni­cat­ing alto­gether in their native lan­guages, as the lan­guage in ques­tion is “unsup­ported”. Take, for instance, the lan­guage that I speak — Bengali. Accord­ing to the SIL Eth­no­logue, Bengali is spo­ken as a pri­mary lan­guage by at least 180 mil­lion peo­ple, which is equiv­a­lent to the pop­u­la­tions of France, Por­tu­gal, Spain and the United King­dom taken together. If we look at the lead­ing smartphone/tablet plat­forms today, nei­ther iOS nor Android sup­port Bengali com­pletely. iOS ren­ders the Bengali script, but there’s no direct way to write in Bengali, while Android did not sup­port ren­der­ing or input of Bengali at all till ver­sion 4.0 (Ice­cream Sand­wich), and even with ver­sion 4.0, the ren­der­ing seems to be buggy. This effec­tively means that Bengali speak­ers are forced to use a dif­fer­ent lan­guage when they com­mu­ni­cate or express them­selves via writ­ten means through these devices. Given that a lan­guage can only thrive and evolve as peo­ple actu­ally use it and write in it, and given that these devices are show­ing up every­where, even in schools, this is a wor­ry­ing trend indeed.

Of course, this prob­lem is not new — a lot of ded­i­cated effort had to go into the early Bengali print­ing systems, and into early Bengali sup­port in com­put­ers (dis­clo­sure: I helped start and lead the efforts to sup­port Bengali in Free/Open Source Soft­ware in the early 2000s). The dif­fer­ence between now and then is the fact that then one did not have to ask for anyone’s per­mis­sion to sup­port one’s lan­guage in a given sys­tem. While this was espe­cially true for Free/Open Source sys­tems like GNU/Linux, even with Microsoft Win­dows, once cer­tain base com­po­nents were in place, any­one was free to add their own “input method” (which mapped a stan­dard QWERTY key­board to the Bengali alpha­bet) and share it with oth­ers. Microsoft even pro­vided tools to cre­ate input meth­ods. No one can do that today with iOS. There is not even a way to ask for per­mis­sion — the only way is to depend on and wait for Apple to add ren­der­ing sup­port and/or a input method for you. The sit­u­a­tion is bet­ter with Android, as one can in the­ory, cre­ate a cus­tom input method/virtual key­board for a yet unsup­ported lan­guage, and sub­mit patches for the Android text ren­der­ing sys­tem. How­ever, as Zittrain points out in his arti­cle, the fact that the closed App Store model is “boomerang­ing” back to the PC, makes the sce­nario much more worrying.

Of course, the ques­tion all of this leads us to is — “What can be done?” Again, echo­ing Zittrain, I would argue that users (and devel­op­ers) should demand more. 180 mil­lion is not a num­ber that can be eas­ily ignored, even if a minus­cule per­cent­age of that demo­graphic actu­ally has the means to access and use such tech­nol­ogy. How­ever, not all lan­guages can boast of such a high speaker pop­u­la­tion, and that does not make them less impor­tant. Lan­guages like these high­light the need for an open archi­tec­ture that empow­ers any­one to add sup­port for their own lan­guage, as opposed to case-by-case sup­port for a spe­cific lan­guage or a script. If this does not hap­pen soon enough, I think all of us can expect to see the num­ber of endan­gered lan­guages grow by leaps and bounds in the near future. Given all the promises of a won­der­ful new dig­i­tal age, that would be sad indeed.