Technomagicology

Technology doesn’t make people stupid. What makes them lose their senses is their obsession with technology, their simplistic claims, their disregard of the complexity of problems in life and society.

Technological magic thinking is no better than other types of magic thinking. This type of thinking makes people forget to do any research on translation before making big claims about the development of “Universal Translator” — as in the story below.

I was reading an article about Microsoft’s attempt to integrate a universal translator with Skype, and the following incidental techno-magic thinking made me think, oh, yeah?:

With 300 million people around the world connecting to Skype every month it makes a lot of sense to remove the language barriers between them. For business users especially, it’s going to make Skype look very desirable for those international calls and video meetings, and eventually much cheaper than actually hiring a translator. / We’re still a long way off clipping a Universal Translator to our shirts, but Microsoft is working hard to ensure that when we do, it has the Skype logo on it.

At first, I thought it’s this particular venue, but then we’ve seen a lot of snake oil being pushed as a replacement (not careful adaptation, not just a means of enhancement) for established systems of education. This kind of logic about largely context-free algorithms to “remove” all “language barriers” between everyone is all over much more prestigious venues of publication these days. (In fact, even on much broader and much more complex issue such as cross-border higher education, there are similar news reports that accept and promote thoughtless ideas like “education in a box for the developing world”; here’s an article on MOOCs that I analyzed on this blog some time ago).

Just to give you a sense, let me compare Bing’s translation of some basic Nepali news into English with my translation.

First, my translation (I used to work as a professional translator, but I don’t claim accuracy because I know how mind-boggling translation can be even at the level of syntax, not to mention when we consider specific contexts and cultures behind language use):

New York, June 1 – Mount Everest Day has been celebrated on the occasion of the 61st anniversary of the first climbing of the peak by humans, amidst a program here on Thursday. / May 29th has been celebrated as Mount Everest Day every year. Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Nepal’s Tenzing Norgay Sherpa had successfully reached the summit for the first time on May 29th in 1953.

Now, here’s Bing’s translation (the same Bing translator that the writer seems to believe is getting closer to making “international calls and video meetings . . . much cheaper than actually hiring a translator”:

New York by one paper, senior 16-sagramatha shikhrama human arohnako karyakramko pugeko aun avsarma here’s a 61 year planning gardai bihibar sagramatha day manaieko. / Tarikhlai sagramatha divsako rupma manaundai every year to 29 in aieko. Sun tarikhka day nyujilyandaka 29 in 1953, Sir hilary and Tenzing Norgay, the Nepali tenjing amended sherpale gareka thie sagramathako Pinnacle successful ascent was first activated.

Now, that’s not English, is it?

Let us say that Bing misidentified Nepali as Hindi (it shouldn’t), but look at this Hindi translation of a few basic sentences from a news item:

Some time ago Mumbai news was that Salman Khan and katrina Kaif movie kick in two years later, the large screen with will, but now think the audience will remainincomplete at the moment, these aspire. katrina has rejected the news completely.

The real question here is not (as the author of the article I cited says) how far we are from the magic world of technology; it is about the social consequence of technomagic thinking on our social institutions right now.

Sometimes, I just laugh at the absurdity of this technomagicology. But I don’t think we can only laugh at it. At a time when the general public, academic institutions, government policy-makers seem to be listening and believing the nonsense that is peddled by too many “players” in our education “market,” there is real danger that, metaphorically speaking, in ten or twenty years, the world will have very few flying cars and a lot of given-up highway construction/modernization projects.

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One Comment

  1. I like the word you coined — technomagicology. While I (as an optimist) want to believe it will make tremendous progress in the days to come, I do agree that the consequences of this absurd mentality will have lots of casualties along its way.

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