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.

December 05, 2011