Technology is a blank canvas and we can use it to reflect our culture in diverse ways
When the Nigerian English Google Voice was launched a few months ago, the responses were mixed. It was expected. On one hand, there were people who were very happy that technology is beginning to reflect humans little by little, sound like us, and adapt to our peculiar outlook on society. On the other hand, there were those to whom the idea of a computer voice that sounds like a Nigerian was abominable. “Why?” Some asked, “does Google want to create a ‘local’ voice when we can continue to use the ‘international’ one with its British or American accents (with its imperfections, wrong pronunciation of Nigerian names, and often inscrutable accent)?”
Passions rose on either side of the debate. From afar, it was fascinating to observe, the argument between presenting our own selves to us through technology and aspiring to what is said to be “global” arose. Those who are familiar with my work know where I stand on this matter. There is a strong need for technology to reflect the cultures under which it is used and deployed. But I have often wondered what the root causes of the resistance to change of this nature are, beyond the usual assumption that its perpetrators are just ashamed to look at themselves in the mirror.
Computer technology, much use of the internet, is a relatively new phenomenon. I remember the first computer I ever touched, around 1994, to have been the only one in Àkóbọ̀, where I lived in Ìbàdàn. I would not see or touch another one until about three years later. They were mostly used for games: Chess or Prince of Persia. Their word processing capabilities were quite rudimentary. The first personal computer I ever had — I bought second-hand — was in the early 2000s, by which time Computer Operating System, Windows, had improved a bit more and Microsoft Word (and its other Office tools) had added a lot of advanced features. But they only worked in English. Maybe there were a few other European language capabilities on the device, but mostly it was a device set up in the image of its American inventors.
Technology has always been that way. When I was growing up, much of the electronic devices I saw had “Made in China” written on them. It conditioned the mind of the child that electronic items were always Chinese, naturally. If not Chinese, they were Korean or Japanese. From cars to televisions to stereo sets. Many times, the manuals one had to read to understand how to operate these devices were written in those languages. So, from the receiving end in our Nigerian homes, we naturally associated them with Asian cultures.
When computers came, it was the same. It was a Western idea and so everything in it had to be Western too. Whenever Microsoft Word underlined our names with the red wriggly line showing that it thought of it as a typo, we just grinned and bore it without complaint. It did not seem like a deal-breaker in a device that did a lot more things for us, like let us connect with people from all over the world at the click of a button. And so the conditioning took place, little by little, over that time. We developed a tolerance for exclusion. After all, everywhere else we looked, we were surrounded by English. Our educational syllabus was based on the British English Language. Our official language was English, as is the language of the courts, and governance. What was a little inconvenience with computer technology that we could not bear?
But what that did was cement an already precarious legacy of conditioning. Yorùbá Language, which had to be written with diacritics to be able to make sense, started losing even more grounds to the Latin script that allowed no such adornment. I would be interested in looking at theses written between 1995 and 2005 in the African languages departments in our universities to see how faithful its writers were to the conventions of the languages in the absence of word processing applications to properly print them.
We are in 2019 now, and things have changed. Well, I should say that things are changing. The African language technology is now a field of interest to many of us interested in creating opportunities for our languages to thrive in the technological age. Believing that not being able to use them online and in our computers and in our mobile phones is as much an obstacle to language growth as not speaking them to our children. There is a long road ahead, of course, but the journey has begun. The creation of the Nigerian English Google voice is one step in that direction, and many would surely follow.
Maybe a little child in a corner of the country will begin to get used to the idea that technology itself is just a blank canvas, not peculiar to any culture. It is what we put on it, and in it, that determines the possibilities to which it can be used. And maybe one day, non-English-speaking Nigerian citizens can use their mobile phones in a Nigerian language. Then we would have begun a journey into real self-actualisation.
Kola Tubosun is a Nigerian writer and linguist. He has worked at Google, Oxford University Press, and as a high school teacher of English. He was awarded the Premio Ostana in 2016 for his work in indigenous language advocacy. He is currently a Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.