A Dying Language Finds Hope on the Internet

al-Jazeera did a story just a few days ago about a group of Native Americans, the Ktunaxa (pronounced toon-ah-ha), whose ancient language may be in danger of extinction.

The Ktunaxa believe that if their language, a vital part of the makeup of their culture and traditions, fell into disuse, it would be a great loss. By storing hundreds of hours of conversation and language materials on the Internet, they seem to be making the most of new technology in their struggle to preserve their language.

The Internet is making tapes of conversations and only useful cultural materials available to many people who might be interested in studying the Ktunaxa language. Before the Internet, only one person at a time could listen to recordings, and they had to be in the Ktunaxa language facility. No longer is this the case; through the Internet, the language is and will (for as long as the Ktunaxa desire) be available to curious minds far and wide. Its a great way to let the rest of the world know what their culture is all about.

The language learning programs also take advantage of the latest in digital learning technology, using video games to help teach people Ktunaxa. This is a great way to reach out to the younger generation, who will be the future torchbearers of Ktunaxa language and culture. In Now You See it, Cathy Davidson writes of how education in this day and age needs to be revamped to take advantage of the youth’s affinity for and proficiency with technology; the Ktunaxa have done exactly that. Jane McGonical would also agree that video games are a powerful way to train and educate, and that they will only get more effective in the future.

The story of the Ktunaxa people and their quest to keep their language alive is a story of people using technology in a new, innovative way that may not have been anticipated when the Internet was created. It is a prime example of the social shaping of technology. As one elder says in the video, “The Ktunaxa have always made use of new technologies that became available.” This tactic served them well enough so far, helping them live through many a harsh winter in the American Northwest. Hopefully, technology will continue to be a blessing to the Ktunaxa and provide their language with the boost it needs to stay alive.

Commercialization of the Internet

In his latest blog post, Nicholas Carr writes about how commercialized the Internet has become over the last five years. For example: if you look at the online music and video industries, you find that YouTube and iTunes dominate. Both these systems are quite commercialized. All the most popular YouTube videos are made my professionals, who are using the site as a way to advertise. iTunes sells all of its songs for around $0.99. Even social networks like Facebook and Twitter are for-profit ventures, bound by a legal obligation to maximize profits for their investors.

With one big exception, Wikipedia, the Internet is trending towards a system where fewer, larger, commercial players dominate the information economy. This could concentrate so much power is so few companies that they may be able to censor the information we are exposed to. This process, as Carr notes, is right in line with Tim Wu’s warnings in The Master Switch. In his book, Tim Wu shows how this exact process occurred within the phone and television industries in the 20th century.

However, these changes also have implications for generativity. As commercial information sources become more and more popular, they will crowd out and overshadow the little guys, removing all of their potentially great ideas from the conversation. This could prevent small time producers from getting their information out there and severely hamper creative collaborative projects online. Also, paid journalists and bloggers might not always be able to write what exactly what’s on their mind when they have one eye on job security. Freelance writers tend to be more unbiased. The commercialization of the Internet must be managed if we want to keep the generatively of the Internet, the quality that makes it such a great medium, alive. If it dies, the Internet will have gone down the same unfortunate road that its information technology predecessors did.