Monday, February 7, 2011

The Egyptian Uprising, Social Media and Cyberutopianism in the Translation Industry

The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past, even a sense that communication has no history.
Robert Darnton

What a week. In addition to the normal workload, my OS had its by now traditional, bi-annual blow-up. Resetting to previous saved configurations from Safe Mode did not work. Ultimately, I was forced to re-install Windows and all my programs, with the consequent hassle of re-configuring every single application to adapt to my own obsessive-compulsive workflow. No data was lost thanks to my double-redundant back-up, both online and on an external hard drive. My online back-up provider re-loaded all my data very quickly. I was really, really impressed (and relieved).

In addition to these little everyday hassles, I was transfixed by the Egyptian uprising. Looking at the scenes of Tahrir Square in the early hours of the morning and hearing the discharges of gunfire from pro-Mubarak supporters brought back a lot of memories of the Venezuelan 2007 student mobilizations against Chavez’s “constitutional” power grab, which was ultimately defeated at the polls, but not without a lot of really dicey moments along the way.

Photo by RamyRaoof, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.
To describe the selflessness and courage of the East Germans of 1989 or the Egyptian protesters of today is basically beyond my modest powers of expression. Suffice it to say that the deep emotions that the men and women of Tahrir Square evoke in me have to do, I think, with the epiphanic quality of what their actions reveal. 

We live in a relativistic world of moral compromise. I am generally comfortable in that world. I am not religious. Absolute truths, whether political or philosophical or theological, make me nervous.

But events such as the ones witnessed this week in Cairo remind you that, beneath the humdrum rhythm of everyday life, there is perhaps something deep, noble and unquantifiable in the human condition. That men and women do not want to live in oppression. That any form of authoritarian government is obscene. That the apparent acquiescence of the majority is a farce that can melt away in a second. That there is such a thing as good and evil. I generally shy away from such sweeping beliefs, but at the same time it is hard not to think something along those lines when you see citizens volunteering to defend their museums against looters or braving bullets to defend a purely symbolic city square.

In the face of this, the belief that all of this outpouring of breathtaking generosity was enabled by Facebook and Twitter seems at best superficial and at worst distasteful. The issue of social media as a catalyst for democratic movements has been part of the Zeitgeist since the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran and it has returned with a vengeance over the past week and a half. Some of the best commentary that I have read in the past few days challenges the facile assumption that you can crowdsource resistance to oppression. Malcolm Gladwell weighed in on the topic with a blog entry on the New Yorker (I wrote an entry about his longer piece on Twitter and political activism some months back):

People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.

Frank Rich also published a column along these lines in The New York Times refuting some of the Web 2.0 hype. But the two pieces that hit closest to home for me were a review last week by Lee Siegel of a book entitled The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov and a follow-up blog entry by the same writer discussing Morozov’s book and its pertinence for the Egyptian crisis.

Unexpectedly, a line from the initial review summed up very succinctly some of the puffery and hype surrounding language technology in the translation industry:

Morozov urges the cyberutopians to open their eyes to the fact that the asocial pursuit of profit is what drives social media. “Not surprisingly,” he writes, “the dangerous fascination with solving previously intractable social problems with the help of technology allows vested interests to disguise what essentially amounts to advertising for their commercial products in the language of freedom and liberation.”

Some very well-publicized initiatives that combine machine translation technology and crowdsourcing very skillfully conceal commercial interests behind noble humanitarian objectives about the dissemination of knowledge. The ridiculous drumbeat in the media over the past ten days that Mark Zuckerberg is bringing democracy to the bandaged heads of Tahrir Square brought into sharp relief more local concerns for me. These concerns arise when I listen to some of the hucksterism of L10N cyberevangelists.

I haven’t read Morozov’s book yet, but you can be pretty sure that I’m gonna.

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center and H.B.O. International, as well as many small-and-medium-sized brokerages and asset management companies operating in SpainTo contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.


Kevin Lossner said...

Thank you, Miguel, for summarizing similar thoughts and feelings I have had so well. Ultimately people can and hopefully will find their way to dignity, and the medium used to get there is at best tertiary.

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