Can we honestly go to some scientist and say
the reason you haven’t found a cure for cancer
is you don’t have access to information about cancer research? No!
—Malcolm GladwellIs the language barrier an obstacle to knowledge? People with technologically oriented minds would immediately respond in the affirmative. They are frustrated by the language barrier. They feel it is irrational. They equate immediate access to every single bit of information as liberating.
I’m not saying that the language barrier is a good thing or a bad thing. All I would caution is that the belief that it is the cause of ignorance or underdevelopment is perhaps accepted uncritically by supporters of what one might euphemistically call “language technology.”
A late chapter in The Shallows analyzes the attitude of Google’s founders toward information. Brin and Page are, famously, computer engineers. In Ken Auletta’s phrase, “Google's leaders are not cold businessmen; they are cold engineers.” Of course, the dominant ideology of Silicon Valley in 2012 consists in invoking lofty goals for very non-lofty business models. For instance, universal access to information is invoked as the end, and the means is the sale of (slightly tawdry) online text ads. The cure for cancer is invoked as the ultimate goal for selling mp3s, etc., etc. Which prompts the question, if the ultimate goal is to cure cancer: why not, uhm, devote your life to cancer research? Inquiring minds might want to know. But you’ll never get a response.
Google’s goal is, as former CEO Eric Schmidt famously wrote, to “gather together all of the information in the world in a single place.” The current dispersal of information is an obstacle to knowledge, and that is true, to some extent The key linkage between the Googlevi’s engineering backgrounds and the ambition of digitizing every single bit of information boils down to efficiency of access and distribution.
Now, I would like to make a heretical assumption: perhaps the language barrier is not as much of a barrier to science as one would imagine. For almost a millennium after the fall of Rome, Latin was the lingua franca of learning in the Western world. The fragmentation of the Tower of Babel only entered the ivory tower of science until well after the Scientific Revolution was underway, probably due to the influence of the ever-increasing power of nationalism and the Reformation, but also because of the growing importance of science itself and the desire to get out from under the constraints of Thomism, the heavy legacy of the Middle Ages, and its exclusive use of Latin. Perhaps if Latin had remained as the lingua franca of letters and science, we would be further along the path of progress today, but I doubt it. The movement away from a single pan-European language of knowledge that knitted together scholars from Toledo to Warsaw was in part due to factors such as the Reformation and the rise of nationalism. But it was also due to the fact that the gentleman-scientist of the seventeenth century need not have attended the major learning centres of his time. The exclusive use of the common Latin language for learning might have actually shut out these individuals from the pursuit of scientific truth. Or it may have loaded up a scholar with a lot of prejudices about language and thought that were inconvenient.
In our day, English is the lingua franca of science. I find it hard to believe that the language barrier is a problem when a pre-requisite for being a scientist is to be fluent in English. And, let’s face it, the only type of knowledge that is crucial for the advancement of humanity is scientific. Helping sailors maintain email correspondence with the cutie they met at the last port may help humanity somewhat, but not as much as a cure for malaria. (Would it be churlish to ask to which of the two Cheap Localization has contributed more over the past decade, I wonder?)
If English as a lingua franca for science leaves you unconvinced, listen to this argument about how connectedness inhibits inventiveness. This more sophisticated counterargument comes from novelist Neal Stephenson. It is a parable of how interconnectedness depresses innovation:
Most people who work in corporations or academia have witnessed something like the following: A number of engineers are sitting together in a room, bouncing ideas off each other. Out of the discussion emerges a new concept that seems promising. Then some laptop-wielding person in the corner, having performed a quick Google search, announces that this “new” idea is, in fact, an old one—or at least vaguely similar—and has already been tried. Either it failed, or it succeeded. If it failed, then no manager who wants to keep his or her job will approve spending money trying to revive it. If it succeeded, then it’s patented and entry to the market is presumed to be unattainable, since the first people who thought of it will have “first-mover advantage” and will have created “barriers to entry.” The number of seemingly promising ideas that have been crushed in this way must number in the millions.
So is efficient information exchange a pure good? Not necessarily. Sometimes, the walled garden and the solipsistic bubble are crucial for creation and innovation. Think about Descartes in his man-sized oven. Or Proust in his sound-proof bedroom. The absence of space for unmolested invention may be part of the reason for our current Great Stagnation, pace naïve connectivists such as Mark Zuckerberg and his legion of wannabes.
The amount of information flow does not produce qualitative jumps in our knowledge or social wealth. Our current period is marked by the fastest transmission of the largest amount of information ever amassed in the history of mankind, and yet its is also marked by the slowest economic growth in many decades. The Scientific Revolution came after the invention of the press, but it was not caused by the printing press, as is wrongly believed by a lot of people who know exactly diddlysquat about history. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a fallacy, but, as Roland Barthes wrote, it is the foundational premise of narrative.
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 Spain. To 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.