Photo by Sonny Abesamis on Flickr
How long did it take our world to fit into the palm of your hand?
When did your community expand to include people in every country that you connect with via a device you keep in your pocket?
The Post-Millennials, “Generation Z” are the only ones who can’t remember living in a world smaller than Planet Earth, where one’s community was defined by how much technology you could afford.
Today geographic boundaries don’t exist for purposes of communication. For anyone or anything that may exist “out there”, we’ll find out when we figure out how to expand our communications capabilities even further, unless of course, they come looking for us. The 2016 movie Arrival explored just how monumentally complex it would be to communicate with an extraterrestrial race with whom we have nothing in common evolutionarily.
Not so long ago, unless you were rich, communication with others outside your immediate neighborhood was rare and difficult and required help from the telegraph or telephone company.
A hundred and thirty years ago, your mobility was defined by how strong your horse was. The first horseless carriage changed that and as automobiles swiftly evolved and North Americans built an intricate infrastructure of highways and transportation systems, not only could you make friends and visit relatives elsewhere, but you could even cross the country and encounter fellow citizens you never would otherwise.
Radio brought the rest of the world into our homes for the first time and then TV showed us what it actually looked like.
The explosion of cable TV channels in the 1980s brought us 24-hour news. Our view of the world was no longer defined by the most critical regions that commanded our attention in 30-minute chunks segmented by commercial breaks. In an effort to feed the news monster, journalism took us to every corner of the world and fed us scraps of information about people we would never otherwise have seen. Move over Watts, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Poland, and Watergate Hotel. Where the heck are the Falkland Islands?
Still, we couldn’t talk to these people. We could only watch passively and if the subjects didn’t speak our language, interpreters and subtitles translated on their behalf.
The late 20th-century cyber-revolution
The first true personal computers began to sell nationwide in the early 1980s and included the Apple, the Commodore PET, the Radio Shack TRS-80 and the IBM-PC. They weren’t much good for communicating with others unless you were connected with some obscure government-created computer network called the Internet but only scientists, academicians and hardcore geeks even knew what that was or had access to it. The Hayes modem debuted in 1981 and cost USD$299, which would be over $800 today. It ran at a speedy 300 baud (transmitting about a page and a half of data per minute). Today’s 20 megabit Internet connections are about, oh, 70,000 times faster.
The ever-decreasing price point of new technology enabled the rise of computer Bulletin Board Systems or BBS’s which were pre-cursors to what we now know as the Internet. They were neighborhood computer networks, generally run by hobbyists (SysOps) out of bedrooms and basements with a phone line, maybe two, for other hobbyists to dial in and play games, exchange messages, download files and see if there were any girls to talk to in what was largely a cyber-wasteland devoid of females.
Connecting with other computer systems outside your local area could be complicated, not to mention expensive during the late ’80s-’90s, which was the heyday of BBS’s. Connection was through a POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) line which meant dialing into someone else’s long distance computer and if you downloaded all your messages, responded to them offline, and uploaded them later, which many people did to save on LD phone charges, it was still expensive even though modems had moved to faster 28.8 and 56k speeds. SysOps with money might have a dedicated ISDN line (128K, running about $50/month, not including modem or installation costs). Some of these early networks allowed you to cyber-meet and talk with people in other states and occasionally other countries, at no extra cost. Australia and the United Kingdom were the two most common encountered online but since most of the world wasn’t ‘wired’ you only met a small fraction of their citizens.
The sound of a dialup modem, circa ’80s & ’90s. Graphic & sound courtesy of Freesound.org. This is as grating as fingernails on a chalkboard today, but it was the sweetest sound to technology geeks fighting for a single point of access to their favorite BBS before the popularity of the Internet killed them off (BBS’s, not the geeks)
This is the point where people commonly began to communicate with distant strangers in a cost-effective way. People from faraway were no longer faces in your newspaper or television screen. There was a real coolness factor to talking with a stranger from the other side of the world. The earliest cyber-friendships and romances were born.
Today’s ever-shrinking world
The Internet became popular in the mid-to-late-’90s and today about half the world is connected. The first social media site debuted and no, it wasn’t Facebook, it wasn’t even MySpace, it was Six Degrees, in 1996, and it was essentially Facebook before it was cool, the right idea at the wrong time. True social media would take another few years to catch on and even Facebook wasn’t available to most of the world until the mid-2000s. (Six Degrees is still around by the way)
With the rise of other social media networks like Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat, beBee, Pinterest, Tumblr and many others, people are talking to each other everywhere, around the world, any time, and for a helluva lot less money than it cost back in 1993.
The first tweet, 2006
And the story ends there, right? Well, except for the part where the other half of the world eventually gets connected?
Wrong. Because there’s one piece left of the “We’re all only limited, literally, by the stratosphere” puzzle and that’s how we talk to each other in other languages. In the olden days we did it by learning them. Today, we can talk to almost anybody with translation software and widgets. Social media enables translation simply by clicking a link.
Facebook claims its new machine learning translation is nine times faster than its rivals’. Google Translate and Microsoft Translator (formerly known as Bing Translation) are enabling NMT (Neural Machine Translation) for all their languages and of course Yappn’s enhanced machine translation handles voluminous amounts of data automatically.
With 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created every day, human translators can’t keep up or complete projects in a timely or cost-effective manner. Half of the Internet’s websites are in English, yet only 25% of the world speaks it. India is about to surpass US users on Facebook when only about 30% of the country speaks English and there are more Hindi speakers than there are Americans.
We want to talk to each other, buy from each other, tweet to each other and consume content in our own language. Machine translation is shrinking our ever-more-accessible world as artificial intelligence and deep learning make swift progress on improving accuracy and time efficiency. Voice/spoken translation is perhaps the last bastion preventing us from communicating with our fellow Earthlings, but advances made by Japanese technology companies for the forthcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics as well as Microsoft’s work with Skype Translator are narrowing the clumsiness of verbally conversing with someone in another language accurately.
Soon we’ll be talking to each other in all 6,000+ of our languages. We might be able to save the ones that are dying and perhaps even reviving a few. Then who won’t we be able talk to?
How’s your Mando’a?
Yappn Corp is an enhanced machine translation company offering translations in over 100 languages and a ridiculously high score in Legend of the Red Dragon (okay, back in 1997!). For more information or to buy our cool dragon-slaying Twin Swords or Spear of Gold (if we suspect you’re a girl we might just give them to you) please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at +1.905.763.3510 x246.
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Written by Nicole Chardenet, Sales Development Rep at Yappn