4.5 Information technology and language: Access and participation

Just as not all multimodality derives from technology, not all technology produces multimodal texts. This part provides a brief outline of some of the ways in which developments in information and communications technology are linked to changes in language, as well as how we communicate with each other via technology. We have insufficient space here to discuss in detail the implications – political, social, commercial – of such developments, but you may wish to follow these up yourself. Some connections between language and technology are pretty banal and unproblematic; others are profoundly political or financial in nature, and have to do with the globalising business practices of large corporations, and concomitant effects on smaller local communities, or the status of minority languages. It is clear, for example, that the availability of information and communications technology is not evenly spread around the world – there are vast inequalities in terms of access and use. Accurate statistics on internet use are difficult to find, but it is possible to find some broad indicators such as number of users worldwide, and the languages being used by them. The website Nua Online, for example, makes what it calls an ‘educated guess’ as to numbers of people online, based on results of a range of surveys. The figures for February 2002 are shown in Table 4.

Table 4 Numbers of people online

World total 544.2 million
Africa 4.15 million
Asia / Pacific 157.49 million
Europe 171.35 million
Middle East 4.65 million
Canada and USA 181.23 million
Latin America 25.33 million
Nua Online, 2002

Others give figures in terms of percentage of population, which is more useful for drawing conclusions about comparative levels of access, although still not very precise about countries. For example, Singapore’s high number of users is not obvious from the United Nations Development Programme’s ‘Annual Report’ (see Table 5).

Table 5 Internet users by region

Percentage of population
United States 54.3%
High Income OECD (excluding US) 28.2%
Eastern Europe and CIS 3.9%
Latin America and the Caribbean 3.2%
East Asia and the Pacific 2.3%
Arab States 0.6%
Sub-Saharan Africa 0.4%
South Asia 0.4%
United Nations Development Programme, 2001

According to Global Reach, an internet site containing information about e-commerce and demographic data, the online language populations in December 2001 were as shown in Figure 1.

Global Reach, 2001
Figure 1 Online language populations

The data in Figure 1 is problematic, of course: it shows what the site calls ‘native speakers’ of each language, but doesn’t show how many people are speakers of more than one language; nor does it show actual internet ‘traffic’, that is, the amount of communication actually taking place in each language. However, it is clear that some developing countries are more or less excluded from the ‘technological revolution’, as Rassool points out:

[T]he cultural and economic heritage of colonialism and the reinforcement of inequalities in postcolonial contexts, have contributed to the fact that many developing countries, especially in Africa, still lack the necessary infrastructure to support the development of an adequate industrial base, let alone having the capacity to enter the technological development paradigm as equal competitors in the global market place.

Rassool, 1999, p.145

Even where technology is available, it does not necessarily bring an appropriate model of communications to countries with different cultural and traditional practices. Many countries still struggle to provide basic education, with even chalk and slates being in short supply in many areas (see Rassool, 1999, for more about development and education).

In the developed world, however, the introduction of new information technology always brings renewed claims that it is revolutionising the ways we communicate with each other. New media of communication have always brought with them new linguistic forms, and have required us to adapt established practices in order to use them. Often this is because of the limitations of new technology (think of the short, pared-down style of writing used on the early telegraph and then telex machines, or the many symbols and abbreviations used now in text messaging on mobile phones). There are also some less obvious, but interesting, effects of technology on language itself, or on the choice of which language to use.

4.4 The notion of ‘design’

4.5.1 Computer keyboards