In a couple of months Apple will release their next version of iOS, when it does one new feature will be more important to me than all the others: the ability to teach an Apple device to pronounce my name correctly. It’s such a tiny thing, but for me and millions of others who don’t have names like Dave or Jennifer, it will represent something else: a way to feel just that much more included in the digital revolution.
Since the Internet age began, we’ve heard talk of democracy, openness and inclusiveness. As Evgeny Morozov points out in his most recent book To Save Everything, Click Here, Facebook’s mission statement is “to make the world more open and connected,” and founder Mark Zuckerberg wants to use technology to solve the “really big issues for the world.” But for many that ideal hasn’t rung entirely true. For obvious reasons, the companies of Silicon Valley first launch products aimed at “mainstream” users. Though that can result in small things like knowing the pronunciation of some names and not others, more complex issues – like which languages services are available in – can also arise, and in the process, make the web more inviting to some than others.
Twitter, for example, was only available in English and Japanese for the first few years of its existence, limiting its initial growth and utility to those two groups of speakers. It’s a trend that continues. Just this week, a promising new discussion service called Potluck launched, and it too is English-only for now. While the practical reasons are obvious, it inadvertently sets an unfortunate precedent in which the latest and greatest are reserved for the places in which the technology gets made – and everywhere else is an afterthought. If these new digital services are as revolutionary and society-changing as their makers say, there’s something profoundly unfortunate about that dynamic.
Of course, websites and apps are made all over the world. China has a Twitter-like service called Sina Weibo. Meanwhile sites like Google Plus – which have failed to hit critical mass in North America – are big in places such as India and have been tailored to those markets. The limiting factor in getting access to new digital tools tends to be much more basic things like electricity, Web access and money, and obviously those are the larger issues that need to be solved.
All the same, the phenomenon of majority-first Web services means that in multicultural countries in like Canada, the imbalances of everyday life are once again manifested through the Internet. One way this happens is that digital tools of communication also became ways of accessing culture. Take music, for example. Though some lesser-known sites like eMusic do a good job of providing content from all over the world, iTunes still remains woefully lacking in global content. Similarly, though Netflix does a decent job of keeping Hindi and Korean cinema in its catalogue, selections from many other languages and cultures – from Nigeria’s Nollywood to Chinese film to the thousands of Tamil movies – are conspicuously paltry.
It’s perfectly reasonable for companies to chase the most obvious, easily accessible customers. But if you’re an immigrant or ethnic minority living in Calgary or St. John’s, Silicon Valley’s demographic approach also ends up replicating the imbalances that already exist. The effect is not even so much about the big issues and “-isms” as much as feeling welcomed into modern everyday life. If in many aspects of Canadian society, from grocery shopping to advertising to political representation, minorities are increasingly part of the mainstream, that same trend isn’t always reflected in the platforms, services and media that make up the digital parts of our lives.
Whether or not you can tweet in your own language or a stream a film from the country you were raised in isn’t, in and of itself, a pressing political issue. But the fact that one can raise the problem at all is a sign of a blind spot in the tech world’s thinking. Digital technology reduces the cost of many barriers that once made multiculturalism hard, whether the expense of translation or the “shelf space” for products targeted at minorities, and those advantages are being underutilized. More importantly, technological progress was meant to foster the social kind, too. Google’s Eric Schmidt, for example, still believes that technology can “fix all the world’s problems.” That may be a stretch, but if we are going to at least try, then the onus is on Silicon Valley to “learn the names” of millions of people – and ensure that everyone is equally represented in the digital world.