There are 1 billion of us. We should build our own Internet and lock out the English-language Internet! That was the undercurrent theme I encountered last March at a Taipei conference titled “A Chinese Language Based Internet Economy.”
There is ample justification for the Chinese, and other non-English speakers, to be frustrated over their inability to access the Internet. They want to participate and benefit from this huge socioeconomic revolution. But the overwhelming majority do not understand English, or the other mostly European languages of the Internet, and they feel left out. For the Chinese people, the problem is worse because of their many ideograms, which make keyboard use nearly impossible. The Chinese, like all the rest of us, will have to live in a world of many human languages. What might they and we do about it?
The Chinese should begin by forgetting the absurd idea of a linguistically private Internet. In a Chinese Internet, who would buy the millions of computers, cell phones, TV sets and other manufactured goods now sold by the Chinese to Western companies? With 80 percent of the Internet’s economic activity business-to-business, and with economic globalization expanding, such a move would spell economic suicide. Instead, the Chinese, the other non-English speakers around the world, and the English speakers, should shape the Internet into a truly international medium that is equally useful to all its participants. This is not a utopia! Before we show how it can be achieved, let’s take a peek at the potential benefits.
Take information access. There is a huge amount of educational, cultural, governmental and other information within China that will benefit the Chinese, in the same way the current mass of information on the Web benefits English speakers. Information access between China and the West would be just as beneficial in both directions, for example to exchange information about Chinese and Western medicines, culture, tourism and trade.
Next, take Internet-mediated human-to-human transactions, which include the purchase and free exchange of goods and office work. The Chinese would profit from sharing among themselves information on recreation, trade, health, government, education and a myriad of other services. They would also benefit from a brisk international brokerage and trade activity with the rest of the world. And, who knows, the increased proximity among them from these activities might even help heal China’s political split.