Default System Language

by | Jul 11, 2020 | ICT4D |

Back in the days of Wordperfect and the early days Microsoft Word, there were little options for language. English was American English so there was no ‘u’ in neighbour or colour and so on. As a young Canadian in those days, I was annoyed.

Times have changed bringing with it the ability in many programmes to change the language. However, most come with the default settings still set to USA values.

Working internationally for over 20 years has made me realise a missing ‘u’ was quite minor in comparison to complete missing languages. Or languages not using the Latin script. Or written and read in a different direction to mine.

Recently, while reading an article about human rights, race, and technology, I came across this phrase:

“The language of digital technology is American English and networked technologies are imbued with American norms…”

Jesse Daniels

This prompted me to wonder what impact this reality has on how we engage with those we seek to serve, the majority of which are not from the US nor have American English as their mother tongue.  What implications, bias, ‘colonial’ perspectives, are we, through technology, forcing on the vulnerable?

I’d be grateful to hear any thoughts or reactions.

Photo by Jason Leung

1 Comment

  1. Nikolai

    Dear Amos,

    I think it’s a useful question, but I also think our use of language in a debate such as this is very important. You use the word “colonial” – many others use the work “imperial” when referring to English or American contributions to the world.

    Both of these words imply an intentional policy of “extending a country’s power and influence through colonization, use of military force, or other means.”

    While such a policy in Africa, South Asia and in the China Sea can certainly be seen from China – can the same be said about Microsoft?

    My point is, success can often be misinterpreted as imperialism by those who are jealous of it.

    When I turn on a laptop, load up MS Word, and it auto-corrects “colour” to “color” it does piss me off. It’s the bloody Americans telling me how to spell again, when they don’t even know how themselves.

    But this isn’t part of a policy to Americanise the world on behalf of Microsoft’s app team. It’s just their huge success, mixed with some assumptions they haven’t challenged, mixed with the fact that their biggest markets by far are American English speaking.

    It is a classic example of Hanlon’s razor: never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

    The fact is, the American model of personal freedom, limited government, and free markets is wildly successful – far more so than communism, statism or state-controlled capitalism. That is why other cultures and companies are relegated to stealing American ideas, rather than making a success of their own.

    There is no intentionality to this. Apple aren’t Imperialist, and yet their default ways of doing things on apps have been implemented worldwide. Microsoft aren’t at the cutting edge of a cultural revolution to do away with unnecessary u’s in words – they’re just yanks producing good software whose yankie assumptions piss me off sometimes.

    So while I agree we need to have this debate, I think it’s wrong to frame it as a push back against colonialism. Successful cultures will naturally be more influential in a connected world, full stop.




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