Spreading the net

Spreading the net

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How technology is changing the world

This post first appeared on Caroline Alberoni’s blog “Carol’s Adventures in Translation” earlier this year.

Not long after I was kindly invited to write this post, my eight-year-old son started doing some work at school on inventions. That got me thinking about the changes in the world in the more than forty years since I was his age – and there have been quite a few. I suppose the most obvious one is the role played by computers and the Internet. When I was eight, no-one even dreamed about having a computer at home, and the idea of millions of computers being connected in an interactive network was the stuff of science fiction.

By the time I started work in 1986, things had changed considerably. Working on a local newspaper in eastern England, although I trained on a typewriter, I was part of the first generation of journalists to work with computers. We had Tandy portable word processors: a kind of laptop with a tiny screen only useful for writing. And we had to send our copy using a very primitive gadget that coupled the computer to an old-fashioned telephone receiver.

The Internet didn’t arrive until many years later. I used it a little while still a journalist, but I didn’t realise its potential until I moved to live near Barcelona and switched professions to translation. There will still be colleagues who remember the days of paper and typewriters, but I find it impossible to conceive of translation without computers, e-mail and the Internet. Aside from many other advantages, it’s now possible to check or look up things in seconds which in the old days must have required a whole day in a library.

But it isn’t really that side of the Internet I wanted to talk about in this post. What I’d like to concentrate on is the aspect that makes it possible for me to be doing this at all. Because, if you think about it, in the old days it would hardly have been possible for me, an Englishman living near Barcelona, to write this article for a person in Brazil (thanks for inviting me, Caroline), to be read all round the world. It’s easy nowadays to take these things for granted but the enormity of it shouldn’t be underestimated. Nor should the impact of the various networks we belong to, stretching across national boundaries: social networks, groups, e-mail lists, and so on. It’s easier to get professional information, advice and support than it has ever been before.

This, of course, is wonderful for us, but I think the ramifications go a lot further. In fact, I sincerely believe that these cross-national networks, which now exist in all sorts of areas of life, not just translation, are bound to have deep and long-lasting effects. We are probably still some years away from seeing exactly what these will be, but, when there are lasting links between so many people in different countries, it’s difficult to see how national boundaries can continue to mean as much as they do today. Whether this can prevent or end wars remains to be seen. Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and other continuing conflicts suggest otherwise. But it’s also clear that repressive regimes like the ones in China and North Korea, for example, fear the power of the Internet, and they may not be able to resist it for much longer.

Our networks also provide a powerful weapon for individuals against the power of large and multinational companies. Online product reviews and opinions can cut through the lies contained in expensive advertising. And any freelance who has ever seen a slow-paying client suddenly rush to the bank to pay when we threaten to destroy his good name online will know the importance of protecting a cyber-reputation.

If I’ve learned one thing from a lifelong fascination with history, though, it’s that the really important results of a change or initiative are rarely the ones we expect. To take just one example, we planned a mission to the moon believing it was the first step to the stars and we ended up still earthbound but with non-stick Teflon saucepans and Velcro-fastened shoes we don’t have to tie. Following this principle, the true results of the development of the Internet and social networks are likely to be unpredictable and unexpected. Perhaps readers of this blog would like to suggest some possibilities?


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