June/July 2014

You’ve heard of the Tower of Babel, the story of which is found in Genesis 11:4-9. A united humanity, all living in a city called Babel, enjoyed a single language and was convinced it could achieve anything it set its mind to. The citizens decided to build a biblical equivalent of a skyscraper to prove the point. Of course, this extraordinary project was the very definition of hubris, extreme pride or self-confidence, and caught the attention of God. Clearly, the tower project was competition on a grand scale, and one that God could not let pass. So, he disrupted the project by dividing humans into diverse language groups, leading to collective dysfunction and eventually to the dispersal of humanity across the planet.
Humanity’s struggle to work together has always been intensified by language translation issues.

There are libraries filled with research and studies about how the language we are born into shapes our view of the world, and how even the most gifted linguists still do not have a complete understanding of the context being expressed by the words they speak in languages other than their “native tongue.”

Fast forward to the very early 1900s, and Esperanto comes on the scene. According to Wikipedia, it was designed to be politically neutral, transcending nationality. To this day, it is claimed to be the most widely spoken “constructed” international auxiliary language, where constructed means “consciously designed for human or human-like communication, instead of having developed naturally” (Wikipedia on “Constructed Language.”)

Esperanto has competition, including Klingon. Yes, the language Worf speaks in Star Trek.

Hold on, are we over-achieving humans getting back on the path to a single language? Will the everincreasing connectivity of humans on the planet drive us back to a common language? The thing to focus on here is the emphasis on spoken language.

I am not so sure that a single spoken language is in our future. We note with increasing interest ongoing efforts, with a nod to Star Trek again, to develop the universal translator, a device that will instantaneously enable understanding between people speaking different languages. Companies such as Sigmo are bringing pocket sized devices to market that can do near-instantaneous translations between people in 25 languages. Such a device, especially if it is contextually accurate, would eliminate the agony of learning a second language for millions of high school kids.

With the continuous integration of enhanced capabilities into smartphones, tablets, and wearables (think Google Glass), all of which are massively connected devices, it is conceivable that we can reasonably expect to converse with people speaking in other languages as part of our business or personal activities.

Let’s be realistic; we are in the very early stages of universal translation capability. Sustained conversation at a highly technical or otherwise detailed level, such as business or legal negotiations, is well down the road and will require significant investments by companies that will tolerate longer return on investment periods than are presently accepted.

Spoken communication is just one way humans interact, however. Written communication has been with us for a very long time, enhanced along the way with critical improvements in the dissemination of the written word starting with Gutenberg’s printing press.

In the connected world, abbreviated written communication has been a feature from the beginning, spurred to new levels of intensity as a result of the demands of social network interactions and well-defined constraints imposed by service providers such as Twitter. Abbreviated communications predate the Internet, social networks, and Twitter, of course, and the paramount practitioners have long been military organizations. As a Marine officer, I had to learn myriad acronyms such as “moosemus,” “dilligas,” and about 300 more just to be functional.

So it comes as no surprise that acronyms used as a means of abbreviated written communication proliferated as the capabilities of connected devices grew; we all know “LOL” (laughing out loud) and other acronyms that facilitate accelerated communication without sacrificing understanding between the parties in the conversation.

Note that acronyms are still letters that relate to words and phrases that must be intelligible to people in the language that the words they represent are spoken. How many English-speaking people can interpret the acronyms based on other languages? It is the growing phenomenon of emoji that represents the leap into visual communication tools that transcend spoken and written language issues.

Never heard of emoji? Have you seen a smiley face :-)? That is an emoji. They, too, have been around as long as connected devices. It probably will not surprise you to learn that they were invented by the Japanese for use in electronic messages and Webpages. Let’s also remember that Japan had smartphones long before they were introduced and popularized in the West. It makes sense, does it not, that a language based on pictographs, such as Chinese and Japanese, would think of introducing new pictographs for electronic communication.

In fact, there is an exciting new way to teach Chinese, called Chineasy. Using pictures that embed the character for the words they represent, such as the character for water outlining a drop of water coming out of a faucet, pictures are integral to the memorization of the character, which when standing along, has no frame of reference for the learner. This is a bridge to the pictograph becoming the character itself.

You see pictographs every day. When you are in an airport or train station, they help you figure out which restroom you should use based on gender representation in a picture. In fact, there are more than 15,000 pictographs that are regularly used to symbolically represent an idea, product, or command in a way that is universally understood regardless of language. They are part of the Unicode, which you regularly use when inserting a symbol in a Microsoft Word document, such as the © symbol for a copyrighted reference or ™ for a trademark.

The number of officially recognized emoji is increasing annually, and this expansion is introducing a dimension that may better succeed in crossing cultural divides than any constructed spoken language has.

As I write this, there is a campaign being waged by a Chicago restaurant owner to include the pictograph of a hot dog as the emoji representation of that food product. Picked up by television and print newspapers, the campaign is intended to support the case for inclusion because there is a committee in the Unicode standards group that must vote on the inclusion of a pictograph into the official canon.

Emoji will be important to the future of communication in the connected world as it will expedite understanding of a concept across cultural and linguistic borders, as well as facilitate processes in which they will be representations of actions to be taken on the part of the user.

It will be their inclusion in applications running on wearables, such as Google Glass, that their full impact may be seen. In the materials handling industry, headmounted wearable devices are being introduced that visually and vocally direct workers in warehouses to find products to pick as they fill customer orders. The vision path depends heavily upon pictographs overlaid on the realtime view to guide and direct workers to take certain actions in a logical sequence to successfully complete an assignment. In fact, words may not be needed if the pictograph captures the nature of the required action in a highly intuitive way.

Thinking back to the Tower of Babel story, the next effort humanity makes to demonstrate mastery of its domain, and to overcome the confusion of tongues imposed so long ago, may be more like building a nervous system rather than a skyscraper. Individuals will mimic synapses, individually connected to the global social nervous system. They will function collectively and holistically, using their connected devices enabled with some combination of visual and verbal assistants that overcome language and cultural barriers.

Interestingly, a scientist and theologian, Teilhard de Chardin, thought the same thing, anticipating the Internet by about 50 years. He called the global nervous system the “noosphere.” Even Wired magazine (Issue 3.06, June 1995, “A Globe, Clothing Itself with a Brain”) picked up on his impact to leaders such as Al Gore.

Will the Tower of Babel story be offset by the “Global Nervous System” story evolving around us all?


Tim Lindner is senior business consultant with a software company, and a regular contributor to Connected World. He can be reached at tlindner@connectedworldmag.com

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