The Tower of Babel

In the Bible, The Tower of Babel explains why there is such a diversity of languages. Language could become as irrelevant in the digital age as stone tablets were in the Industrial Age.

I’ve seen a statistic stating that in the near future there will be three languages on earth: English, Spanish and Chinese. It doesn’t surprise me. This article in Wired magazine [1] points out the rapid rate with which we are losing languages.

The truth is, you may not even need a language (for many computer driven tasks). How many Spanish Double-think readers use an English version of Word or Explorer? Several, I assume. I constantly move back and forth between a Spanish system and an English system. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know to translate between “Salto de pagina” and “Page break”- and I didn’t have to. As long as I knew where “Page break” normally was in my English version of Word (menu: Insert; Break) I could go to the same place, blindly, in Spanish and get the same results. I am quite sure that I could do the same with a German or Korean version of Word- because the language doesn’t matter. I do not use the application by reading the menus.

We are all used to using icons to surf the web or “undo” an error or print by clicking on the “printer”. However, I’m referring to contextual navigation.

The first time you use Microsoft Word, you have no idea where anything is. After a while you are quite comfortable using the application. Before long, you end up using keyboard short cuts- bypassing the menu altogether.

The same applies for the language. At the beginning you read everything; looking for the word “undo”. Then, you know where “undo” is; you’re not really reading anymore and finally you just press Ctl Z (or Command Z for Mac) and that’s it. “Command Z” works just fine- no reading, no language involved.

I’m not saying that you could use a version of Word in Korean with no problems. Microsoft has not been entirely consistent with keyboard commands (Ctl N in Spanish makes a word Bold, Ctl N in English gives a new document). But, you can see the trend. And, I’m sure you wouldn’t find “Page break” on the first try either- you are still dependent on the words to guide you.

However, with a little practice, you would be amazed at how much work you could get done on a Korean version of Word- without reading anything. It is simply a matter of location. You learn where something is.

It’s the same thing as turning on a light. I’m still baffled looking for light switches in Europe. Usually they are outside the room. Or inside. Or on the other wall. Never just inside the door, like in the US. But, that’s ok. I know, more or less, where to look. I don’t look on the floor for a light switch.

And the same applies to the Word example. You know, more or less, where to look for “Page break”- you don’t look in the “Help” menu; so your transition to a foreign language version wouldn’t be that difficult.

With the advances that are being made in 3D (see adobe atmosphere), maybe we could expect a 3D version of Word in the near future- where the application is a house. Each room in the house could represent an item on the Menu. For example the Kitchen represents “Format”. By opening drawers, turning on the stove or toasting a piece of bread, you could give commands like: Font, Paragraph, or Change case. Then language become completely irrelevant; all activities are motion based or depend on location.

Yes, languages are dying. However, they may not be that useful in the near future after all for many icon-based, location-based and contextual activities.

Finally, after thousands of years, perhaps we can go one step further than the Tower of Babel- and do away with language all together.

Until next time- Happy Babbling!

Jason Ball

[1] “The Tower of Babel Is Crumbling” Wired News http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,44631,00.html

* Editor’s Note: In the previous Double-think message, “Wishful Wireless” the service provided by Amena was inadvertently called “Auna.” Its correct name is “n” (available at: http://www.amena.com/default.html?_menu=donde ). Sorry for any misunderstanding, and thanks, Rafael, for bringing it to my attention.

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