shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
Language Networks
7/7/1999
 
The 21st Century is going to look a lot like the 19th century, thanks to the internet. 
A recent study in the aftermath of the Asian financial storm ("Beyond The Crisis - 
Asia's Challenge for Recovery," Dentsu Institute for Human Studies) found that citizens 
of Asian countries who speak English are far more likely to be online than those who 
don't. The study, conducted in Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul, Bangkok, Singapore, and Jakarta, 
found that English speakers were between two and four times as likely to use the 
internet as their non-English speaking fellow citizens. Within each country, this is 
a familiar story of haves and have-nots, but in the connections between countries 
something altogether different is happening -- the internet is creating an American 
version of the British Empire, with the English language playing the role of the Royal 
Navy.
 
This isn't about TCP/IP -- in an information economy the vital protocol is language, 
written and spoken language. In this century, trade agreements have tended to revolve 
around moving physical goods across geographical borders: ASEAN, EU, OAS, NAFTA. In 
the next century, as countries increasingly trade more in information than hard goods, 
the definition of proximity changes from geographic to linguistic: two countries border 
one another if and only if they have a language they can use in common. The map of the 
world is being redrawn along these axes: traders in London are closer to their 
counterparts in New York than in Frankfurt, programmers in Sydney are closer to their 
colleagues in Vancouver than in Taipei. This isn't an entirely English phenomenon: on 
the internet, Lisbon is closer to Rio than to Vienna, Dakar is closer to Paris than to 
Nairobi.

This linguistic map is vitally important for the wealth of nations -- as the Dentsu 
study suggests, the degree to which a country can plug into a "language network," 
especially the English network, will have much to do with its place in the 21st century 
economy. These language networks won't just build new connections, they'll tear at 
existing ones as well. Germany becomes a linguistic island despite its powerhouse 
economy. Belgium will be rent in two as its French- and Flemish-speaking halves link 
with French and Dutch networks. The Muslim world will see increasing connection among 
its Arabic-speaking nations -- Iraq, Syria, Egypt -- and decreasing connections with 
its non-Arabic-speaking members. (Even the translation software being developed reflects 
this bias: given the expense of developing translation software, only languages with 
millions of users -- standard versions of English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, 
German -- will make the cut.) And as we would expect of networks with different 
standards, gateways will arise; places where multi-lingual populations will smooth the 
transition between language networks. These gateways -- Hong Kong, Brussels, New York, 
Delhi -- will become economic centers in the 21st century because they were places 
where languages overlapped in the 19th.

There are all sorts of reasons why none of this should happen -- why the Age of Empire 
shouldn't be resurrected, why countries that didn't export their language by force 
should suffer, why English shouldn't become the Official Second Language of the 21st 
century -- but none of those reasons will matter. We know from the 30-year history 
of the internet that when a new protocol is needed to continue internet growth, it'll 
be acquired at any expense. What the internet economy demands more than anything right 
now is common linguistic standards. In the next 10 years, we will see the world's 
languages sorted into two categories -- those that form part of language networks will 
grow, and those that don't will shrink, as the export of languages in the last century 
reshapes the map of the next one. 


Write clay@shirky.com with questions or comments.

Mail a copy of this essay:

Enter the email address of the recipient. Multiple addresses should be separated by commas.

Add your own message(optional):

Your name:(optional)

Note: Your name, and your recipient's email address, will only be used to transfer this article, and will not be stored or used for any other purpose.

Send the article URL only
Send the article as HTML
Send the article as plain text

shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source