We are the web

Becky Hogge
9 April 2007

After the Sandinista government took power in Nicaragua in 1979, its reform of the education system included expanding the country's schools for the deaf. The schools' methods had been harsh and broadly ineffective, consisting of drilling the children in lip-reading and spoken Spanish. But eventually - simply by bringing previously isolated deaf children together - they generated an unexpectedly positive side-effect.

Largely, the children had been living with hearing relatives, and had had no opportunity to communicate with other deaf children. Brought together, however, they pooled the makeshift gestures they had used at home. What resulted was a usable jargon that was all the children's own. When new groups of deaf pupils arrived at the schools - their minds ripe for natural language-learning - they took the jargon of the older children and turned it into a fully-fledged, expressive language. Now known as Nicaraguan Sign Language, or Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua (ISN), this was the type of language, according to the Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, with which "a child can watch a surrealistic cartoon and describe its plot to another child". It is a language that can be used in poems, jokes and life histories, one that "is coming to serve as the glue that holds the community together".

Back in the era of slavery in the west it was common for plantation owners to mix slaves from different language communities in a calculated move, to prevent the labour force from organising itself. Forced to communicate, yet lacking the opportunity to learn one another's mother tongues, the slave communities fostered - as in the Caribbean - their own "pidgin" languages, bolting together words from the coloniser's tongue with words from their homelands.

The children born into these communities, observed the linguist Derek Bickerton, were isolated from their families and looked after by a worker who spoke to them in this pidgin tongue. But as the children learned to speak the pidgin, they gave it its own grammatical structure. What emerged was a creole, a stable language with many features not inherited from either parent tongue.

Any student of linguistics will recognise both of these examples as the stock-in-trade of proponents of generative grammar, the theory stating that the ability to learn language is an innate, time-critical function of the human brain. But to me they also demonstrate something slightly different, and no less exciting. What they show is that language - all language - exists only as a function of the community that employs it. There is no "French", no "English", other than the collective, spoken agreement of communities of French- and English-speakers.

What surprised me most when I was studying linguistics was how little this basic concept was understood by the wider world. Outside of expert and professional circles, the folk study of language abounded (quite often in books about the demise of British English), yet it almost always held the opposite idea to be true. According to these fastidious observers of good grammar, there was an ideal, a centralised authority on proper English located - one can only imagine - somewhere in between Buckingham Palace, the Oxford English Dictionary and the pronunciation research unit of the BBC. Yet, plainly, if it were up to these authorities, we would still be using the word "car" to describe a contraption pulled by a horse.

Formerly openDemocracy's technology editor, Becky Hogge is executive director of the Open Rights Group. Her writing on music, technology and intellectual property law has been published in several British and international publications, including the UK Guardian, Index on Censorship and Dazed and Confused. She blogs here

Read Becky's "Virtual Reality" column on openDemocracy here

The connective tissue

What any of this has to do with the World Wide Web should become clear upon watching The Machine is Us/ing Us, a short film devised by Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist at Kansas State University. This compelling five-minute video takes the viewer on a journey from the pencil and paper, through digital text, hypertext, extendable mark-up language (xml), arriving eventually at the hallowed turf of "Web 2.0". If any of the words in that last sentence mean little to you, watch this video. It does a better job of explaining their significance than I ever could (and after all, in the non-linear world of the web, you don't need me to tell you what they mean any more; you can find out for yourself).

The video's main message is simple: we are the web. Just as the languages created by the deaf Nicaraguan children, or the children of slaves in the West Indies, or indeed ourselves, exist only as functions of the communities that use them, so the web only exists as a function of the people who populate it. Moreover, the way we use the vast bodies of information amassed on the web both defines and generates its structure. Every time we link to a web page on our blog, or tag a photo on Flickr, we are teaching the machine what connects to what. Right now, we do this millions of times every day. We will do it more only as the generation of "digital natives" now populating sites like MySpace begins to reach adulthood.

This new, bottom-up, collaborative landscape has the power to abruptly, and radically, change the balance of power in many spheres. Even when the tools to engage and collaborate digitally were difficult to use (and available only to the few), the emergent mode of production was enough to threaten the largest software corporation - and the richest man - in the world, Bill Gates. Now we have built an encyclopaedia that rivals the best in the world. What will happen next?

"We'll need to rethink a few things," is Wesch's filmic response to this question. In particular: copyright, authorship, identity, ethics, aesthetics, rhetoric, governance, privacy, commerce, love, family, ourselves. Wesch's anticipation of the breadth of impact of this new way of doing things may be typical of an anthropologist, but it also may not be far wrong. What is happening is truly revolutionary; for that reason alone, those at the centre of it should be on their guard.

Five years ago, when I gave up the study of linguistics in favour of the study of the information age, I did so because of a simple passion for free software and the open practices that drove its success. Since then, the profile of open source has grown tremendously, and the reliance on open standards to maintain a generative internet is becoming more and more widely understood.

Those who have found themselves championing these themes have broadened their interest to other, related spheres - intellectual property reform, say, or the right to privacy in the information age. When I approach people at the centre of the digital-rights movement and ask them to describe the underlying values that drive these interests, however, I get different responses. Some see the struggle in technologically deterministic terms, others as a best chance at social justice and pluralism, still others as a fight for individual freedoms.

What most agree on, though, is that the evidence in support of open standards and a generative, bottom-up internet - one that is the expression of the creative powers of the global community - is justification enough for a struggle for internet freedom. Yet, if it comes to "rethinking a few things", as Wesch suggests it will, some underlying values would certainly not go amiss. As the validity of this new way of doing things asserts itself, I feel for the first time that the absence of an obvious, shared set of values might be a barrier to progress.

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