As the world gets smaller, your life gets bigger. As a species, we are in the process of wrapping the planet in light – and it’s going to reach your home soon. Fibre. It will change your life. It will redefine your limits, and completely redraw the boundaries of your existence.
It’s not just about downloading movies, and simultaneous gaming with international teams of twenty-odd people scattered all over three or four continents. There is absolutely no argument that information and communication technology (ICT) has changed the world, and continues to do so at an increasingly rapid rate. Think of the way the internet and social media have influenced the way we do business, and the way we socialise. Because innovations like Skype and other VOIP products offer us the opportunity for real time communication with people on the other side of the world, we have changed our concept of working hours, with leisure and business seamlessly segueing into a boundaryless concept of being – unlike our parents, who differentiated strongly between office and home, work and leisure, and us and them.
And, while most of the changes are generally considered to be positive, the tools that we create to build things can also break them. Technology can be a factor in promoting cultural dominance, and it can pose a real threat to minority cultures and languages. In the same way that big planets, wealthy benefactors, and attractive alpha males or females of primate troops generate a disproportionate gravitational force, languages that are considered universally useful – like English and Spanish – attract more and more new students. That’s why native English speakers can travel the world teaching English, and why the smaller languages are dying out as the widely spoken ones become more and more dominant. And when a language dies, a culture dies.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. If the tools that build things can also break them, they can also fix them and make them stronger. Take Skype. Skype Translator kicked off in 2014 in an Alpha version, and a Beta version is planned for the foreseeable future. It’s an awesome product – or at least it will be when it’s working well. So far, it can do sub-perfect but – to a greater or lesser degree – understandable translations between English, Spanish, French, Italian, Mandarin and German. And the plan is to continually add more languages until every language in the world is incorporated. Yes, it does sound rather like a Douglas-Adamsish babel fish fantasy but it’s possible. Imagine a Sepedi speaker in Thohoyandou discussing alpaca nutrition with a Quechua-speaking farmer in Peru. OK, it will be a while before Sepedi and Quechua are incorporated, but it could happen.
But not without bandwidth!
So all hail fibre and the potential of breaking down the barriers of – not only time and space, but also language. With fibre in your home you can do so much. Document and file sharing can be instantaneous so you can work on projects with people all over the world suffering no loss of productivity due to delays. Promising young musicians can study with the greatest teachers on the planet without leaving their homes. Learn the secrets of French cuisine with a real, French-speaking chef in France – while gazing out over the Indian Ocean from your kitchen, and hearing the instructions for how to make a roux in English.
But there are limits. Real limits. We are – almost all of us – incapable of fully comprehending what we would do with more bandwidth, with instant, hyperfast connectivity. Would we just carry on doing the same old things a bit faster and a bit more efficiently? Or will we find completely new ways of working, of interacting, of playing? And – most important – will we use our new-found super-fast access to the rest of the world to just get more – more stuff, more movies, more money? Or will we use it to foster greater understanding and greater co-operation, to become fully human world citizens.
It’s estimated that only ten languages are spoken as a first language by almost half the people in the world, and half of those (ie 25%) are native speakers of Mandarin, Spanish and English. And when it comes to second, or supplementary languages, English and Spanish rule the roost – although Mandarin is likely to catch up.