Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Homo Interneticus: Why the internet will change humanity as we know it

Last Thursday, the BBC hosted a unique experiment called "Superpower Nation". The climax of a season of programming on "the internet", it was a 6hour event where people from all over the world connected on the internet and were encouraged to carry out discussions on any topic they desired. Of course it was a little bit more complicated than that but that was the gist of it. One of the aims of the experiment was to test the efficacy of a language translation engine; anyone could use whatever language they wanted and the engine would attempt to translate their sentiments.

The statistics speak for themselves but, like all statistics they don't quite reveal the human stories behind them. I took part in this experiment along with @CplLo and I was impressed by the simplicity of it; there I was, connected to all these people and we could discuss anything. The technology is not quite there yet but you get a sense of the general direction. In the not so distant future, any group of people will be able to hold a seamless, uninterrupted discussion/forum/class/rally in real-time complete with audio and video AND language will not be a barrier.

The experiment was carried out on several platforms including twitter, facebook, blogs and a video conferencing platform developed by Nefsis. I just had to try out the translation engine and since I could see it was doing a good job with the international languages, I fed it a few sentences of Rukiga. Naturally, it couldn't even spit back one word in English and so I let it be. Unbeknownst to me, a few seconds after my entry, @darlkomu read it and posted a translation for it and just like that, the engine had (of course with human intervention) translated a few sentences in an obscure African language that the wider world would never have understood. I think I should have said something poignant but all I said was "Ninkunda internet munonga ahabwokuba eine amagezi gabantu b'omunsi yoona" which loosely translated means "I love the internet because it has all the knowledge of all the people on earth". While this is not actually true, I think it's only a matter of time before the internet becomes what it truly should be, a marvel of the modern age, the sum of humanity's shared knowledge and creativity. It is at once the great library, bookstore, bank, supermarket, record store, cinema, boardroom, church, secret meeting place, etc. The road to this point is not quite clear; there are so many issues not least of which is the traditional view of copyrights, business and state secrets, privacy and libel legislation, etc.

As the internet becomes a permanent fixture in our everyday lives, those in authority will try to control its influence as perhaps is their obligation because any tool can be used to perpetrate injustices. In so called democracies where such fundamental human rights as the freedom of expression and by extension of the press are routinely abused under the pretext of national security, the battle lines are slowly being drawn. It will take an enormous amount of ingenuity, much like the stuff that created the internet, to open it up to the billions in the developing world that truly need it.

It is levelling the playing field in many an industry; where it was once a minor nuisance, it is now a threat to established business structures and models that not many people seem to have an answer to it. The recording industry was the first to fall prey to this technology, with the release of Napster (an audio file sharing tool) back in the 90s. The idea behind such software is simple, that if I have a music collection and you have a music collection, we can share our collections and together have access to more music. Innocent isn't it? Kind of like when you move in with a new roommate or better other. Yet that little software brought the entire recording industry to its knees and by the time Napster was shut down, the idea was already out there. Today, such tools abound on the internet and those of us who use them are labelled criminals and "pirates" but the truth of the matter is that not all of us can afford to own the entire discography of U2, Tracy Chapman and all our favourite musicians but we would like to be able to listen to it. Most of us are willing to contribute to the welfare of the people who provide such goods but at the current market prices, we can't quite afford to. The recording industry soon realized that it was impossible to win this war and that instead of fighting the technology, they had to use it to their benefit and so the internet became a new distribution channel and now a music album that would have cost me $30 will cost me about $12 or less, approximately $1 per track.

Interestingly, artists soon realized that this technology could be used as a promotional platform, instead of having to audition to god knows how many hundreds of record label executives; they made their music and put it out there for the world to hear. I imagine the idea was to get noticed and then use this as launch pad for a career in the recording industry. This was simply the market evolving from a closed business model to something more open and much fairer. In 2007, Radiohead's recording contract with EMI expired before the release of their 'In Rainbows' album, the band decided to release their album on the internet and invited fans to "pay what you wish" -- even nothing -- and a "digital tip jar" was set up to collect voluntary payments. "The Radiohead Experiment" as it would later come to be known elicited strong reactions from all sides. Today, what was once radical is now considered quaint with many emerging artists experimenting with different models.

However, the true power of the internet lies in the fact that it connects people. Ever since some guy decided to beat some drums to send a message to the next hill, and another one thought a few smoke rings would do the trick, humanity has always been looking for better ways to communicate and express itself. Enter the most open and ubiquitous technology yet. Today, you can have a real-time conversation with someone thousands of miles away at a reasonable cost. Halfway through the superpower event, a 70 year old Eritrean lady, who was at the event HQ in London, had a question for the participants in Uganda. "Why does your country impose sanctions on mine? Why do you make the people of Eretria suffer?" Carlo and I had no idea what she was talking about and while she (the old lady) poured her emotions, we did a quick Google search and discovered that Uganda, as part of the African Union had recommended to the UN that an arms embargo and other sanctions be brought against Eritrea because apparently the country (more precisely some guys in the country) supports the Islamic fundamentalists in Somalia. I wanted to tell that lady that just as she rightly thought that I should have an explanation for what my government did in my name, she too bore the same responsibility for hers.

For me, it's that simple, a global conversation, real people and real issues. It may seem fleeting, impermanent but in this day and age, much like at any other time in history I imagine, there are few things in which we can have steadfast belief. One of these is that humanity as a whole shall always attempt to move forward, to build better and more permanent bonds amongst its members.


zsamm said...

in one word...AWESOME!!
so jealous of you and CplLo!!
Was a possible official launch date for the translation technology announced?

Spartakuss said...

Hey, this feels good. but actually you know that IBM is developing systems that run in this exact manner real time translation of languages? that's what that IBM guy at the digital Africa summit said here:
definitely the future

zsamm said...

thx 4 the link spartakuss