Sunday, March 22, 2009

Balkanization or a Welcome Diversity

I originally wrote this entry on August 17, 2004 and published it on

Door in Masuleh, Ghilan Province, Iran

When Tim Wu writes about the Balkanization of the Internet on Lessig Blog, he is really trying to get to the effects of diversity of cultures and languages on the production and consumption of Internet content.

While he only scratches the surface of this phenomenon, he does bring something important to his readers' attention. However, characterization the phenomena as Balkanization produces a rather unfair assessment. The volume of comments on his post demonstrate that many others have thought (or have thoughts) about the problem. A dialog still needs to occur regarding the issue.

In my view, this is not a case of Balkanization. Instead, it is a case of diversity mixed with new global opportunities for exchange and dialog among civilizations.

Tim does mention a few cases where governments, regulations or technology work together or separately to break the available online content into islands of discourse. This is a natural evolution, and the only way these islands can be connected is by multi-lingual people. Multi-lingualists will be the people who will distill and make available across linguistic islands material from one culture to the next. Hence, the expected rise in the social value of multi-lingualism. There's a caveat here, aptly revealed by the late British philosopher, Barnard Williams, in his Moral Luck: Only those who can truly see another culture as a genuine alternative have the best capacity to provide a valid critique of the other. (For more on the philosophical concept of moral luck, see here.)

In general, we're living in a world where diversity is on the rise.

Speaking for myself, for example, I was very suprised about the extent to which Persian Weblogs have taken off. Here, i.e. with Weblogs, the expressive power of a culture comes to its assistance. The electronic realization of some cultures, in which masses are consumer rather than participant producers of cultural expression and content, will be at a disadvantage.

On the positive side, all cultures are expressive and all languages have high human value. Cultural and linguistic diversity is to be cherished and nurtured, as one nurtures a garden full of beautiful flowers.

Cieling in Bageh Fin, Kashan, Isfahan Province, Iran

What Internet offers to the smaller, more endangered cultures and linguistic communities is a means for them to preserve and propagate themselves. It also gives other rising cultures an ability to find new ways of connecting.

Then, there are cultures that go well beyond linguistic and national borders. For them, the Internet provides a bonanza of expressive power. For example, a Shiite Islam website, Ahlulbayt Global Information Center, carries the writings of its scholars, including Ayatullah Sistani. It carries independent versions (at various levels of completion) in several languages including Arabic, Kurdish (arabic lettering), Kurdish (turkish/latin lettering), French, Urdu, English, Persian, Bulgarian, German, Azeri Turkish (in Cyrillic lettering), Chinese, Bosnian, Russian, Italian, Spanish, Hausa (I'd never heard of this language before), Indonisian, Fulani, Burmese, Swahili, Bangali, Hindi and Thai (I might have got this last one wrong). The same website, provides translations of Al-Quran in these same languages.

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