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Friday, September 19, 2008

The Internet of the Future

Internet Users in Beijing: Photo by

What is the Internet? Seems simple, but in truth that's an increasingly loaded question; one that we can answer only by bringing our own cultural values and historical background to the table.

In short, as long as we're working from the same baseline, we're good. Add an alternate set of norms into the experience and the definition grows messier. Add in a different language (with its linguistic consequences), platform, or even pay scheme and the idea of a singular Internet becomes unattainable. So where does that leave those of us hoping to understand the future of the Internet.

This is what Genevieve Bell is muddling over.

This afternoon, Bell, an anthropologist at Intel, outlined some of the challenges facing users and developers as the Internet grows in its reach, sophistication and speed without abandoning its most basic cultural markers.

Confused? Try this:

In July, Chinese mainland users overtook Americans for the first time. As Bell notes, "this is a trend unlikely to reverse." Most of those users are launching sites or posting content or sharing information in Mandarin—a language that, like any, has a set of signifiers unique to it. In this case, says Bell, "it's a language highly oriented to subtexts and interstices." The unsaid in an article speaks volumes about the topic.

As English speakers, how can hope we bridge this gap? Given how rarely a translation service works on a basic level (I'm looking at you, Babel Fish), making one that can understand the value of contextualization must be nearly impossible. When you unpack even the simplest and most ingrained of words (surfing the net, information superhighway) and discover that a whole slew of cultural history went into your being able to understand these metaphors, can Internet across the globe ever be a connector? That is our challenge.