English in the Information Age

“To succeed in the world, to be something, one must abandon the old-hat, traditionalist models of thinking associated with ‘home languages,’ and move into the modern, technological language of the metropolis, which means English.  In this way computers serve one of the most disturbing and the least-considered powers of globalization: the economic power to tell people that their way of doing things is worth less than culture empowered with modern technology” — David Golumbia, p. 123

I definitely find this to be the most striking claim in Golumbia’s article, but I’m not sure that it is at all true.  The central issue at stake is the role of natural languages in the theatre of computer programming.  Golumbia argues that the homogenization of English as the basis of our interaction with computers in a way that mirrors English’s dominance in the process of globalization.

To a certain extend, this is obviously true.  All of the most common programming languages in use now (Java, C++, Python, Visual Basic, etc.) are composed of words derived from English.  For example, the text “System.out.println(“Hello World!”);” in Java contains both standard English words a neologisms based on English words.  As Golumbia argues, a programmer does not fully understand English may be difficult to parse text such as “println”, whose meaning seems obvious to a native speaker (120-21).

However, I simply don’t believe one can sustain the argument that superficial similarities such as this are analogous to the global hegemony of English as a natural language.  It almost feels infantile to cite Saussure’s  maxim that the link between the signifier and the signified is completely arbitrary–the signified of “out” in English has very little to do with the signified of “out” in Java, which has to do with presenting previously stored information to the user.  A programmer who understands the signification of the later and not the former, she will still be able to competently write a fully functional program.

Golumbia also raises the concern that “[t]he extraordinary success of software engineers in India, Russia, Japan, and Hong Kong…maps onto metropolises created and maintained by world empires, and correlates no less with the spread of English-style education and enforced English language and orthography” (120).  I assume he’s referring to the work of people like Spivak, but I don’t think it’s an appropriate connection.  Spivak is more worried about the ways in which the teaching of English was used as a tool to reinforce Western ideologies, specifically by using language education as a pretense to indoctrinate students with ideologically charged literature.  I doubt one could find many similarities between the ideology of imperialism and the ideology of Perl.

I’ll end by pointing out the assumption that using computers and the internet entails accepting English by default is almost completely false.  While it is true the majority of a computer’s operating language consists of “meaningless symbolic abstractions” (123) such as binary, the vast majority of computer users only ever experience it through the mediation of an operating system.  Here the choice of language is much more open; for example, Windows 8 currently supports 109 natural languages.  And while it is true that the majority of the web is in English, the presence of other languages is actually growing, not decreasing.  Golumbia cites Google as the epitome of English’s ubiquity.  While there’s no denying Google’s popularity, it’s far from the only search engine in the world; the Chinese site Baidu.com is the fifth-most popular site on the internet and accounted for 64.02 billion search requests in the fourth quarter of 2010 alone!

I feel like I’m being a bit harsh on this aspect of Golumbia’s argument, which I tend to agree with overall.  What do you think?  Is English really the lingua franca of the digital world in addition to the real world?  If so, is its position set in stone, growing or diminishing?

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3 thoughts on “English in the Information Age

  1. out and out

    This seems like the obvious response to the first half of your argument but I make it here nonetheless! I think your point about language using Saussure is a more complex one that Golumbia’s, but less practical, and I wonder if there is a way to combine them. When you think about the time it takes to learn a programming language, even the fact that “out” is a word with which we are familiar adds tremendous time and problem saving to creating a program. We don’t have to consider how to use it in a basic sense, spell it etc, and the programming term, while bearing different, though I would not say radically different, meaning, joins the network of associations we already have for the word “out.” For example, if the C used “fuera” or yet a further stretch for our poor American minds, a Mandarin character, we would be building a new association tree around that character/word instead of adding to an existing one. (If you’ve ever debugged, It would be a nightmare to worry about both semicolons AND how to spell everysingleword)

    What is interesting, perhaps, in your post, is the potential flexibility of these languages. The signified of “string” in english and “string” in Java is radically different — ought it be more easy / common to translate the keyword language of a programming language itself?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-English-based_programming_languages

    Take a look, particularly, at the languages which are symbol based (Whitespace!)

  2. I agree with everything Joe says here, and I would add that Golumbia’s article (and by extension, your response to it) both leave aside any discussion of the syntactical structure of programming languages and their dependence (or independence) on conventions of the English language. I wonder, too, if it is not worth focusing on only specific languages and their relation to English in an imperial sense. For instance, Java, HTML, and other web languages might potentially have broader implications for contingent Western imperial interests than other computer languages.

    I too found this statement to be the most compelling in Golumbia’s essay. I find myself fairly persuaded by it, if only because it has a really appealing historical symmetry. It’s easy to see the attractiveness of describing technological proliferation in terms of structural imperalism at the computationally linguistic level. It seems worth asking what semantic logics are we providing our computers? When so much of globalized society depends on computerized automation, when so much of the cultural product that traverses our global networks has its origins in algorithmic syntax, it seems imperative to figure out exactly the degree to which these computational structures depend on Western literacy for their usefulness. If they do, that seems to be a significant node of power that the West, in the exact kind of Spivakian move you cite, has quietly colonized.

  3. So, here’s the nicer version of the nasty thing I filtered in class:

    I think you bring up some excellent questions for debate. To what degree are computers tools like microwaves? To what degree are codes languages? To what degree do the English derivatives within coding actually correlate to the English language?

    The one caution that I have is that any time I hear the argument that something is irrelevant or doesn’t matter, my Foucauldian/Althusserian side says that any omission from the domain of “what matters” is an ideological move motivated directly by that omission’s capacity to empower some bodies over others. In philosophical debate, we should always be wary of dismissing an argument or experience as irrelevant–especially because those domains link to real, oppressed bodies.

    But that isn’t to say that we shouldn’t ask the question of relevance, or make the moves you’re making; I admire the thought process through which you’ve taken us. I just urge caution and deliberation of the same quality that we should employ when imagining positively ideas’ importance or prominence.

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