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The Connective Power of New Technologies and the Promotion of the Official Languages

Pierre C. Bélanger, PhD
Communication Department
University of Ottawa

"If I am going to lead people, I have to know where they are going."
President Josiah Bartlet, The West Wing, NBC Television

Foreword

Few societies have experienced a wave of technology comparable to what has hit Canada in the last ten years of so. During this time, Canada has become one of the countries with the highest rate of cable and high-speed Internet access. The increasingly fast pace at which so-called mobile technologies are being adopted – from cell phones to Wi-Fi Internet connections, not to mention the Blackberry and a whole range of PDAs – are radically changing not our relationship with information and knowledge but also the nature, frequency and even form of our interpersonal relationships.

For the young people of today, the various technical devices that make up their daily lives are tools that they have quickly changed and adapted to the dominant uses of the moment. For a constantly growing majority of young Canadians, such conveniences as 50-channel television, high-speed Internet access, the exchange of free music files, thousands of thematic music channels provided continuously and at no charge, and reading magazines, newspapers and books on-line are now so commonplace that they have, in their eyes at least, become their birthright. We gladly pay to surf the major digital networks as long as their content remains “duty free,” they can be personalized and can be used interactively.

We often tend to overlook the fact that, over and above their impressive technical features, the new information and communications technologies (NICT) achieve their greatest impact in terms of increasing the degree of interconnection among users. Consider for example that e-mail is the activity occupying most of Internet users’ time and that the revenues generated by Canada’s major telephone companies in two weeks are equivalent to the annual revenues of movie theatres. And yet, the chorus of technological convergence insists that “Content is king!” Perhaps. Except that in reality, the explosion of chat rooms and short messaging systems (SMS) reflects young people’s tremendous attachment to technologies that provide for practically continuous networking with their social circles.

Texto: a French cyber language

In our era’s state of technological intoxication, we should not be surprised to see the emergence of a digital neo-Esperanto. Like the slang of yesteryear, texto is a new hybrid of written French that is based on highly abbreviated phonetic notations and filled with codes borrowed from English. Texto is a pragmatic illustration of the communication strategies adopted by young people in their daily use of digital media.

While the purists decry the debasing of written French encouraged by texto, others regard it as a logical evolution dictated by circumstances whereby language is adapting to the features of new technical devices. For those familiar with Internet chatting and cell phone text messages, the French used meets the conditions of spontaneity that include: 1) not being re-read; 2) a familiar tone that is very lenient with regard to rules and codes; 3) an entertaining style, in which the coining of new words or spellings and plays on words are very prominent; and, 4) an essential social function whereby membership in a peer group is reinforced by the use of common codes, which are often very obscure. For Internet chatters, French is regarded above all as a tool for oral communication even though, paradoxically, it is confined to the keyboard and the screen. Driven by speed, the desire to take part in a number of exchanges at the same time and sometimes also the limited space available, such as the 160 characters available on cell phone screens, it is only natural that a cyber language should develop outside the rules and conventions of the otherwise traditional standards of language, since it is a variant adapted to a specific environment. Does that mean that technologies are conducive to the creation of their own lexical and syntactic ecosystem? It would appear so.

In French Canada, as in France, the French language is highly susceptible to the Anglicisms flooding the new digital platforms. Like emoticons, internationally recognized graphic symbols used in electronic messaging to express emotions, many Anglo-Saxon acronyms are gradually taking their place in the cyber lexicon. For example, users type “WAN2TLK” (want to talk?) at the start of a conversation to confirm that the other person is available; after that the usual introductions begin with “ASL”, referring to age, sex and “living”, or where the person lives. One might type “JK” after an inappropriate remark (just kidding), and sign off with “TTYL” (talk to you later) or “CU” (see you).

It should be noted in passing that, in spite of the customary use of Anglicisms in cyber language, this tendency to shorten words is not unique to users of NICTs. The advent of the telegram led to a style of writing that is similar in a number of respects. The short announcements published in major dailies also use their own codes. In the real estate business, records describing properties for sale also require some initiation. In short, what is happening with the new digital language is not unique. It is a specific form of written expression, deriving from the mega communication channels that have been established and whose benefits in managing interpersonal relationships are gradually emerging. While these channels foster contact among individuals from all over the world, they also give rise to new standard procedures that in various ways tend to reflect the same lingua franca, English, that is used for the distribution and consumption of entertainment and information products available on these channels.

Interconnectivity

If there is one thing about NICTs that the majority of observers and researchers agree upon, it is the degree to which they have become part of the daily lives of most young people. The statistics leave no doubt. North American studies show that 61% of young people between the ages of 8 and 17 have a television in their bedroom. Over half of the young people surveyed (57%) surf the Internet using a computer in their bedroom. Add a telephone to this list, and the traditional parental reprimand, “go think about it in your room,” takes on a whole new meaning!

As strong evidence of young people’s great propensity to use technologies that satisfy their need to maintain contact with their friends, the new cyber forum Friendsters.com has started with a bang. Launched in March as a pilot, this site already has over 2 million subscribers, primarily young Americans at present. Unlike other sites for meeting people, Friendsters is based on a molecular structure, that is, users only meet friends of friends, thereby limiting their network of cyber contacts to those participants with whom they already have some connection, however tenuous. Like a giant virtual address book, this social site demonstrates the connective power of new technologies.

In a country like Canada that includes many languages, cultures and ethnic groups, the launch of a national Friendsters site, in order to stimulate discussion and networking in either official language, could really appeal to young users of NICTs. Girls especially, and high school girls, who are twice as likely as boys of their age to cite socializing as their favourite feature of the Internet. For the boys, on the other hand, the Internet is used for recreation and entertainment purposes, two things that are hardly incompatible with social sites such as Friendsters. Moreover, since each new participant is already part of his or her sponsor’s network of friends, the risk usually associated with meeting people over the Internet is thus significantly reduced.

Future development

In considering the potential of NICTs, it would be ill advised to ignore all the concerns about the consumerist view of users. This view is promoted by the consumption of ordinary and standard products that are marketed with lots of advertising by communication conglomerates. The recent tidal wave of “reality shows” around the world is a striking example of a new kind of television without borders: even the format is sold and adapted to a multitude of local markets. It is not surprising that with such homogenization of television content, local artists are rising up and demanding a production industry that reflects their local values and heritage.

In the world of new media and digital content, the issues are equally pressing. Given the significant amount of time young people spend using new technologies, it is essential that the content they consume provide as many opportunities as possible to help them better understand the world they live in and in turn gain a better appreciation of the latest major issues. Even though they have access to millions of Web sites, young people do not really know what to make of this mass of information. It is quite likely that this tremendous redundancy of information does not enlighten but rather confuses young people, who are ill prepared to make objective and informed choices from among what the media have to offer.

There is no doubt that the advent of digital technologies was a shock to the media world in Canada. It has brought an explosion of specialized television channels, personalized and ubiquitous telephone services, distance education, downloading of content from the Web, video on demand, teleshopping, etc. In short, an impressive array of services and content of all kinds, the vast majority of which are owned by corporations that are of course motivated by profit and seek the broadest influence possible.

Unlike traditional media such as television, the print media and film, a number of new digital media allow for asynchronous use, making it possible for users to create their own personal listening packages. Similarly, the compressibility of digital information greatly facilitates the storing of media content, in turn opening the door to a variety of uses that were heretofore unimaginable, as some people might wish to store and give new life to material regarded as a having some heritage value, in the broadest sense of the word.

Citizen zones

Cyberspace does not have to be colonized by private interests. On the contrary. With the collapse of the business model initially intended for the Web and the gradual but steady rise in user-pay content, public institutions now have an opportunity to express their difference and thereby contribute directly to the development of zones and content that cultivate a civic spirit and diversity rather than perpetuating the reductionism of “one world, one voice.”

At a time of tremendous technological change, public services face a great challenge. They must not only anticipate the next waves of technology in order to gain a clearer picture of the future. In my opinion, the fundamental issue is instead what the future should look like and what role government can plan in achieving that ideal. With a mission involving both youth and new technologies, there is every reason to think big and bold since these two elements are essential to changing the current order of things for the better.

Renowned British communications researcher, Sonia Livingstone, from the London School of Economics, reported a few weeks ago on the results of her major study of young people and their use of new technologies. One of her key recommendations encourages the development of on-line environments specifically designed for young people where they can learn to make “intelligent” and creative use of the Internet and its derivatives. There are already some Canadian initiatives serving this purpose.

The Canadian Culture Online project, sponsored by Canadian Heritage, is without a doubt one of the best examples of government providing educational and socially significant online content that highlights the main turning points in our country’s recent history. CBC/Radio-Canada, a partner in this project, has developed two mirror sites, one in each official language, providing access to a hundred or so files. The noteworthy thing about the CBC/Radio Canada project is not so much that archival exhibits were created in each official language about Robert Bourassa, the flooding in the Saguenay or Wayne Gretsky’s career, but instead that they contain references to the files produced in the other language. This kind of cross-promotion would be difficult to achieve in the traditional media in view of the constraints of serving target markets, not to mention the pitfalls of Canadian communications regulations. But on the Web, a medium with an open and tree-shaped structure, no path is forbidden and no content quotas are imposed.

Public services must strive to imagine scenarios that will allow young Canadians to use new technologies to access local content. Content that is germane to their interests and concerns and produced in one of our country’s official languages. Thematic digital counters could be created, for example, based on partnerships between the public and private sectors. These bilingual digital counters would invite young people to discover and become familiar with the best that Canadian producers have to offer in information and entertainment, in both English and French. Becoming familiar with and learning to appreciate media products from the other culture is already a decisive step in developing an interest in acquiring the language skills in order to delve more deeply into that culture.

The revolution brought about by the new technologies is much more than the digital revolution, the information revolution, the Internet revolution or the telecommunications revolution. It is more specifically a revolution of social interaction that these new technical devices have now raised to a higher level. In this sense, it must not be left solely to the manufacturers, digital network service providers and private media conglomerates to decide how the knowledge society is being and will be developed. Public services must play a leading role with respect to awareness, encouragement, support and promotion of the key issues relating to the current changes in technology. At the heart of these concerns is the training of critical and responsible users who are aware of the potential repercussions of NICTs on the common good.

There is no doubt that these new tools and digital screens are fully compatible with the promotion of languages and culture. In a number of ways, they are in fact the very cornerstone. And young people quickly capitalize on their connective powers. We must therefore now define their parameters and invent forms in cooperation with young people and the partners who chose to contribute to this plan to shape society.

The views expressed in this document are those of the author.