Who is writing the future? Those who write the language for computing!

 "We sleepily assume that the Internet and English language together will unite the world."

The world is getting smaller, but it is not coming together. Languages and writing systems are the crucial variables behind how the Information Age impacts the peoples and cultures of the world.  As a Bahá'í I see 'Abdul-Bahás principle about a common second language, an universal auxiliary language, as one of the most important on the world's agenda today. We sleepily assume that the Internet and English language together will unite the world. But no - I think that instead we are moving towards a tripartite world, which will significantly retard world peace. 

Who is writing the future?” – is an often cited phrase in Bahá'í context. The answer is: those who write, of course. We are moving against a tripartite world where the Chinese writing system, the Roman alphabet and the Arabic writing system are future power bases.

 Globalization is simultaneously integrative and disintegrative. Globalization, quite simply, is shorthand for economic, political, social and cultural “world system processes.” These processes - trade, conquest, migrations, religious diffusion - are evident in pre-modern “known worlds” and provided a background for western colonialism.  The Information Revolution was obviously based on the Roman alphabet, a writing system as well suited for the computer as it had been for the printing press. The Roman alphabet, which provided the syntax for world interchange: economic and political treaties, military alliances, literature, encyclopedias, religions - and computer operating systems. The Roman alphabet has been locked in as the standard writing system on a global scale; it furnishes an inter-civilizational or supra-cultural mode of communication. Chinese and Arabic writing systems represent enclosed spheres within a western-oriented (for now) world system. Both Arabic and Chinese writing systems are laying the basis for the formation of powerful, increasingly-autonomous blocs that rival the West.

"An universal auxiliary language is the most important on the world's agenda today"

If writing systems are a measure of balance or imbalance of world power, then “tripartite” composition is compelling. The world has reached the limit of westernization and is returning to a pre-1500 “balance of civilizations”. 

The near future may look like this:  A newly formed pan-Islamic, largely Arab, supranational superpower would add destabilizing ballast to any new global balance. Further, the potential Asian masses, forming a supranational superpower from China, Russia, Japan and India (making up a massive half the world's population), would also rival the Western cultural and economic brand of influence and globalization, and therefore complicate the “coming together” even more.

China, for example, is developing computer platforms and operating systems based entirely on the logic of ideograms, without programs that interface or mediate with English. Actually, China is developing an “Asian” operating system that combines features of Chinese, Japanese and Korean writing systems. Chinese ideograms tend to stimulate the visual and creative right-hemisphere of the brain, crucial for a more interactive and synergistic relationship between humans and computers. Alphabets and syllabaries, by contrast, fire the neurons of the analytical left-hemisphere. This has been observed by Robert Logan in The Alphabet Effect (1986), and in later publications by other researchers. It is of course too early to predict the implications of such scientific results, though a simplified Chinese writing system would appear to have global appeal in the virtual world. Harnessed to the world's fastest economy, Chinese-based computer technology has revolutionary potential.

Today's modern technological changes enable the Middle East and China to revitalize ancient traditions and identities. This runs counter to a common assumption: that western technology reproduces western culture and society - that modernization equals westernization. Despite modern technology stimulating worldwide consumerism, more basic social institutions and practices, such as marriage, family and religion, and more basic social identities, such as tribalism and nationalism, remain relatively unchanged.

"Evolutionary forces favor the expansion of Chinese and Arabic writing systems, not English, in cyberspace."

The propagation of Chinese and Arabic writing systems in the digital world makes sense from a long-term, evolutionary point of view. If the world system is in fact a complex adaptive system, then there would be self-regulatory mechanisms in place to inhibit monolithic or hegemonic forces, to prevent excessive homogeneity. Evolution, after all, insists upon periodic rounds of “variety-generation” and “innovation.” From this perspective, evolutionary forces favor the expansion of Chinese and Arabic writing systems in cyberspace.

Kenneth Keniston has made an interesting observation. He says: “I argue that the language in which computing takes place is a critical variable in determining who benefits, who loses, who gains, who is excluded - in short, how the Information Age impacts the peoples and cultures of the world”. Writing systems and permitting the imperial expansion of economic, political and cultural power.

The tripartite world is not something that benefits the discovery of unity and the elaboration of unity and consensus. The Bahá'í world may be busy with what they call core activities. But wake up! It is about time for linguists of Bahá'u'lláh to take shape now, to develop an auxiliary language, so brilliant and simple, that the IT world cannot dispense with it.

Stefan Back, the Bahá'í community of Umeå, Sweden

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