If you like to take the long view, beyond day to day business and tech news, Google may have just made its most significant move of all.
The company just announced that it has speech input and translate inside the Chrome browser. Using this, you can talk into the machine and have it turned into any of 50 languages, or hear what that sounds like. Everyone gets their own simultaneous translator – if they have Chrome on a phone, everyone has it all the time.
Doubtless it is going to be a little buggy and awkward at first. Microsoft may well do something similar, and it may also be derided. Pay no attention – these companies do translation, and many other things besides, with a belief in the power of a steadily-improving feedback loop.
The more people use it, the more data Google with gather, and the better it will be, in speed and accuracy. Soon enough, it will exist for video too – stored, desktop and mobile.
That is why this is a big deal – soon enough, language may not be a gating factor in any human interaction. This is obviously good for commerce, because it increases the number of potential consumers who can hear a producer’s message. But the implications are far greater than that: Since the mid-16th Century, language has been at the heart of political identity. More than anything, Nationalism counts on a common tongue in order to justify itself.
More than anything, speaking French is what makes Frenchmen interesting to each other. Likewise German to Germans, Finnish to Finns, etc. (If you’re really interested in the topic, check out Benedict Anderson’s excellent “Imagined Communities .” Look at America’s own longstanding issues with whether everyone should speak English.
Now, all that political construction matters less. If language is just one more thing that joins people, what might be the new factors behind political power? In Tunisia and Egypt, it seems to amount to the right to be heard, or better still, the injustice of not being listened to. Elsewhere, it is access to information, or the ability to move around and seek work freely, or some ideas about environmental justice.
Nations won’t go away, just as native language won’t. But nations may have to accommodate new political powers, just as the Catholic Church had to accommodate the advent of nations.
If there is a common theme in the first stirrings of this change, it is the right to connect to the world in entirely new ways, across traditional boundaries. Perpetual simultaneous translation will accelerate that trend