Language and communication in the context of creative diversity

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Mr Sveinn Einarsson

Chairman, Icelandic National Commission for UNESCO
Ministry of Education and Culture

Around the turn of the last century there was a lot of optimism in the air in my country, Iceland. It was the last phase of our struggle for independence from Denmark and we saw the ultimate victory on the horizon. Our strongest weapon, in fact our only munition, was our language, our history, our culture and our national identity. In fact we have never been at war with another nation except this war of independence. This battle was fought with our language and the creative forces it had produced as weapon which was at the same time our national and cultural identity. Progress was all around in daily life, in agriculture and fisheries, our two most important industries, in science and education, in culture and the creative arts and in technology that was bound to serve humankind. We stood on a threshold and the door was wide open to indefinite progress.

Now we are approaching a new threshold, not a new century but a new millennium. The belief in endless development is less rooted and we even have difficulties in defining what we mean with development as we have seen in the inspiring de Cuéllar report. We try to measure our creative diversity on terms of different definitions of the world development; yet we are aware how the context of development is different in different countries of the family of nations. Not least is this apparent in the field of communication technology – a subject we are trying to tackle at this Conference. We live in an age of information and our tools of aid in that respect at least are progressing at a speed that is both imposing and overwhelming. Do we have time to stop for a moment to reflect on the pros and cons of its effects on the old ethical questions of good and evil?
Recently I was attending a colloquium at the Edinburg Festival regarding official support to the arts and culture in general, the means and aims of the subsidies, the revenue of the arts back to society in plain money terms, a subject hitherto rather neglected, the arts management and, not surprisingly, the running of festivals. Participants were from all over the world. Of course the issue of new communication technology was bound to be touched upon. To the participants of some so-called developing countries, the subtleties of normal, legal and linguistic considerations voiced by especially some non English-speaking European countries were wasted. They said: “Why should we bother. We don’t even have computers”.
I am afraid that they are representing the greater part of the world. UNESCO has been aware of this problem from the start. I am happy that the Organization is trying to face the complications accompanied by the immense possibilities that go along with the immense possibilities offered by new technologies in working, for instance, in the field of UNESCO’s competence such as lifelong education for all, Africa, the education and position of women in the world.
But, as with all tools and apparata, it is the question of how the human mind handles it. At the same time as some progressive thinkers scared of the recent excesses of nationalism and racism rejoice in the vision of abandoning the traditional division of national states moving to a Wahlverfreundschaft, to use the old Goethe phrase, of those with similar interests, education and financial position across the former boarders – at the same time there are those who fear that an evolution of that kind might lead to an even more frightful division between the haves and have-nots, the educated and the uneducated. In fact this is a subject of unforeseen consequences because the new technology is here to stay, it is definitely the future and we have to secure the future for all. This is a matter of concern to us all no less than the ecological problems facing us that can only be solved on the basis of worldwide collaboration. UNESCO has to work out a huge strategic plan with the help of all National Commissions and regional centres. The start of collecting used computers instead of throwing them away is at least as good a start as any. But, we need the support of major industrial firms as partners. In fact we need to have the major manufacturer as partners. In stating this I am in full harmony with the statement made in the preliminary results of the UNESCO Virtual Forum on INFOethics that behind must be what there was phrased as a worldwide responsibility for information equity. To achieve this, there is no harm in starting with concrete measures – I will come to that later.
This is an acute matter. It may seem to be exclusively physical, political or social, but that is a narrow way of looking at it. It is also a cultural problem – facing those who already have computers and more or less know how to use them, and the so-called info-poor. One of the newest and most effective slogans within our organization has been Global ethics. At times we have been a little confused as to what we really mean by it and what might be its concrete forms. We at least feel that it has to do with our conscience. May I put it in the following way: it has to do with the range of our conscience. If any of the information technology and its impact is a global issue, then it is obvious that it has to do with ethics.
It has to do with ethics in a manifold way. I presume that others will deal in more depth with the political, economic and social aspects that I briefly referred to. But, we have also the legal aspects since the new technology is short of defying our former rules of procedure where each state had its sovereignty in terms of laws regarding copyright, neighbouring rights, etc.. However, these of course have not been confined within national boundaries and we have several international agreements that can guide us in finding new ways of tackling new problems that have arisen in this field. It is obvious that the initial payment to artists and holders of copyright has to be increased since the percentage system for later stages of reproducing and broadcasting, etc. has become totally unrealistic. I am firmly convinced that there are solutions to these problems and that UNESCO, the Council of Europe and other international bodies will have their share in solving them. I therefore welcome, when treating the public and private goods in the proceedings of the above-mentioned forum, that a distinction is made in the following way: “The role of copyright should be reconsidered as well in order to define a new generally accepted fair use of information. By encouraging free access to the world’s public knowledge (the people’s own heritage), UNESCO can contribute to establishing a counterweight to the power of the market where information is considered a commodity to be paid for. UNESCO should use a set amount of funds to support the digitization of public material (e.g. finance portable scanners). The role of copyright (so far only used to enforce market rights) should be reconsidered. Particularly, the right of users to access public materials should be balanced against the predominantly private exploitation of information. Preservation and transmission of information was considered as among the ethical responsibilities of the present for future generations.” Summing up, it is stressed that a different answer may be required with respect to entertainment and literature which, of course, has become acute.
As for violence, sex and drugs, privacy, confidentiality – e.g. on the Internet, the question is more complicated. On one hand we have to defend the freedom of expression, on the other we have the fact that traditionally each nation tried to adopt a code of conduct whether through legislation, supervision and blocking access to certain movies, etc.. I have to admit that I have no practical formula for solving these questions, but it is obvious that they have to be dealt with. UNESCO’s INFOethics Virtual Forum is fully aware of this even if concrete proposals seem need to be worked on.
The third aspect is the main focus of my contribution to this debate and it has to do with language. At the outset I mentioned the importance of the language as a symbol of our national identity in Iceland. I do not know how many of you are aware that Icelandic, as spoken today, is one of the classic languages in Europe. It is the roots of the other Scandinavian languages and has changed so little that the vast classical Icelandic medieval literature, Icelandic Sagas, the Eddas, etc. written in the 13th century are still easily read without any sort of translation. Although being puristic, the language is also very elastic – it is a living language coping with the notion of time including new technology. A computer is called tölva in Icelandic to give you an example – a word describing the function of that apparatus.
Now language is thus both a symbol and a practical tool of communication. At the last UNESCO conference in Paris, it was obvious that a great majority of Member States did not look upon language as merely a tool of access to information and communication, but that language has an intrinsic value in itself closely connected with the cultural identity that we have been mentioning. Languages of the world are precious parts of our cultural diversity – again I refer to an important report.
If modern technology will be shaping our future at the beginning of the next millennium, as it now appears pretty obvious, in what language will that shaping take place and how will it affect our identity and the cultural and creative diversity? Coming from a small nation with limited resources, I have often been somewhat surprised when realising how deaf English-speaking people are to problems regarding the language. I suspect that they would, for example, have to change the contents of their TV programs radically to understand what we are talking about – e.g. if half of it was in French or in Chinese. It would certainly influence their youngsters and their sense of language. And not only that, since the programs would be a reflection of an alien society twisting the set of value and cultural background of TV listeners. Some people look upon this as a desirable internationalisation bringing us better understanding of each other as it is called. That I sincerely doubt. And on what premises? At least I am profoundly convinced that programs such as the popular and not unintelligent Frazier, do definitely nothing to deepen my understanding of Asian or African countries or even European for that matter. In that respect the menu is too small and uniform dictated by totally different aims.
And when it comes to the new pet tool, the computer with its vast and exciting new channels of spreading information and knowledge – and also its, so far, not wisely explored possibilities of artistic creativity – what language does it speak?
Well, I do not have to tell you that. And I do not have to tell you either how the domination of one foreign language in this field is incoherent with your own cultural identity, not to mention if you, like me, use computer for writing every day. It simply drives me schizophrenic. We have examples of writers who have been forced to write in other languages than their own – sometimes with good and creative results. But that is totally different. The aim is the opposite: I want to use the new implement in exactly the same vein as an English-speaking colleague of mine would do – but on my own premises and in the language that is the expression of my thoughts and feelings and is the embodiment of my artistic taste.
I am told this is a financial matter. You come from a small nation, speaking a language that few speak. You are not a market to be reckoned with by the profit-making manufacturers of the new technology. So much for our creative diversity.
Well, let us be realistic. The manufacturing of the new technological instruments to the greatest extent is seen as a product on the market. The nouveaux riches in many countries are those who profit from this industry and this market. It is a profit-making process. And, if the creative diversity that UNESCO, thank God, is trying to protect as richness of the world, is not in conformity with the aims of profit-making of the highest common denominator of the market – the impact of new technology will be so great that all the small markets with languages, customs, history, arts and literature – all those strange varieties that at least for me are the fascination of the world, will be at stake.
The laws of the market are cruel and they can be pretty blind to values of this kind. I think, however, in terms of accessibility that it is necessary to start a dialogue with leading manufacturers of hardware and software, as it is so fittingly called, and the dialogue shall be about global ethics – about those who do not have access to the computerised world and do not know how to use the tools they do not have. This dialogue should also be carried out with representatives of other major industries and international financial corporations, leading universities, governments in view of forming a network for the globalisation of accessibility to the future, if I may be so bold to word it.
Then to languages. It is as simple as this: if we, who represent the small nations regardless of whether our culture is small or big in creative terms, do not want to become second-class nations with a second-class language – i.e. a language that may be used for home talks or even writing – but not the computerised language that will shape the new generations and be the window to the world – then we have to do our homework. First of all, we must unite our forces and learn from each other’s experiences. And we must be aware that protecting our culture and language means costs in plain money that presumably no one else pays for us.
At the last UNESCO General Conference in Paris, Professor Robinson from the Summer School of Languages, drew the attention of the assembly to the new possibilities of simultaneous translation in the computer industry. It costs a lot, but the technical prerequisites are already there.
Since then several things have happened – e.g. here in Europe. Within the European Union there has been a project called EUROMAP. The aim was to investigate the position of member languages vis-à-vis the new information technology. Now the second phase of the project, called EUROMAP II, is starting and the aim is a network in coherence with the five-year plan finishing in 2003. I mention this here as to give an example of some reactions to the questions of computerised language techniques. Within the EU and the EEC there is also the data base called Parole. I am sorry to admit that Icelandic is excluded from this data base. Last year Icelandic, Norwegian and Irish scientists asked for the inclusion of Icelandic, Norwegian and Gaelic in the data base where all the EU languages are represented. Unfortunately, the EU rejected this proposal maintaining that the costs were too high compared to what the EU might gain from its inclusion. So, even there the market views prevail.
Are we generally aware of these problems? Don’t we care or do we think that others will do our homework? And, what can we do? I will give you one concrete example. Last June the Minister of Culture in Iceland, Mr Björn Bjarnason, sent a letter to the directors of the Microsoft Corporation regarding a meeting to discuss the Icelandic translation of the Microsoft software. The discussion was linked to the celebrations in the year 2000 of the Norse discovery of America in the year 1000 which Ambassador Einar Benediktsson had voiced at a meeting with Microsoft officials in Seattle.
There was a prompt answer from Microsoft given in a letter of 3 July, signed by two of the leading officials of the company, stating that Microsoft has a sincere interest in meeting with Iceland’s wishes in this respect. The company expressed its intentions to have good collaboration with language institutes and governments worldwide and considers it an honour to be instrumental in protecting and cultivating the language of Leifur Eríksson, the discoverer of America.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have not much to add since I would like to conclude on these notes of optimism. We have talked a lot and the word is still at the outset in spite of all progress. We have been talking about some of the values that in life are dearest to our heart. We have been talking about the identify that every living soul needs and since time remembering language has been at the core of the identity. But now it’s time to do something and I hope that I have given you hints of what we might do.
I thank you for your attention.

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