June 8th, 2006

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The problem of "English"

I confess to rather mixed feelings about the current row over making English the "official language" of the US. On the one hand, the pro-officialness side does have some valid points to make, about the way that Spanish in the US today is qualitatively different from most previous languages imported into the country. (In that the Latin population is so large that it resists the traditional American assimilation mechanisms.) OTOH, I do find a subtle culture-of-fear racist undertone to the whole thing, and despise that on principle -- on the memetic level, this is a proxy argument for the nastier side of the immigration debate. And overall, I think the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot -- yet another distraction from more important issues.

All that said, though, my biggest problem is this: how the heck do you define "English" enforceably? Good law should be crystal-clear and well-defined, so you can unambiguously say "This is legal, but that is not." But English is anything but well-defined: it's the loveable mutt of world languages. I mean, the winning word of the National Spelling Bee was "ursprache", for heaven's sake. From grammar to vocabulary, English is the slipperiest of languages, melding and mixing with everything it comes in contact with.

Okay, yes -- there are sentences that are clearly English, and others that are clearly Spanish. But Spanglish is a very real phenomenon, so this isn't an academic question. Is that English? How much Spanish is too much to consider it no longer English? Where are the boundaries of the English language?

The classic example of a language that enshrined itself is French. Once upon a time, it was the world's language -- there's a reason for the term lingua franca. And it got so full of itself that it went and declared that it was "official". That inevitably led to a large, messy and sclerotic bureaucracy to regulate the language, defining what was "French" and what wasn't. And guess what? It wound up losing out to the vastly more fluid competitor, English. Yes, national power has a lot to do with that, but so does English's adaptability, and the way it is constantly (and rapidly) evolving to keep up with the times, and with the cultures it encounters.

Hence, I find myself opposed to the idea of formally making English the official language of the country -- not so much because the idea is fundamentally daft, but because it invites a problem of definition that we're better off leaving alone...
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Speaking of mixed feelings...

The Net Neutrality thing is coming to a head, and again I don't think it's quite black-and-white. Make no mistake: the issue matters, and I think it's important that the Net Neutrality amendment pass. I dearly wish this issue hadn't been brought to this pass -- I think the best situation is the sort of squishy gentlemen's agreement that has prevailed until now, where everyone more or less treats packets equally and there is room for experiments and violations. But the big broadband carriers turned this into a Big Problem, and that being the case, I think that official Neutrality is the best of the plausible options.

(Those options being: no legislation, in which case the carriers have expressed a fairly clear intention of using their semi-monopoly powers to screw the information providers; Net Neutrality, which skews the economics in a different but fairly even-handed way; and price regulation -- the option that no one is officially talking about, but which I suspect the carriers would *love* to present as a "compromise" alternative, and which would almost certainly be the worst of all possible worlds for the consumer.)

All that said, both sides are guilty of pretty serious exaggeration. This was driven home by the NPR report I heard this afternoon, which said (paraphrasing) that "both sides agree that the decision made here will shape the Internet for generations to come".

Oh, come on. "Generations to come"? Get real.

Let me make a bald prediction; I don't think it's by any means certain, but the odds are good. Within 15 years, this whole thing will have been written off as an irrelevant historical footnote, because the big broadband carriers will all be out of business, at least as the business is currently understood. They'll be out of business because their business model is probably doomed.

The Internet as it currently stands is all about democratization of information -- anybody can get to anybody else. But the current broadband business models are built on top of the assumption that the pipes are controlled by what amount to mostly-unregulated utilities: semi-monopolistic companies like Comcast and Verizon who mediate that information getting to the consumers. I believe that anyone who thinks that's going to be the case in the long run doesn't understand the technology picture.

Mesh computing (with end users passing packets around to each other) is in its infancy, and far from ready for prime time -- there are many theories, but no real standards yet. That's going to remain the case for a while, as the technologies compete and evolve. But once they do, the controlled-pipe model becomes tenuous at best. Just as the information revolution sent the information providers scrambling, so will the provision revolution do the same to the broadband providers. Some will transform and survive; others will cling to the fat-pipe model and fail. But either way, I think that this whole question will become fairly moot, because once those packets are mainly flying from person to person instead of from middleman to consumer, no company is going to have enough control to be able to enforce differential pricing.

As I said, this issue matters for the medium term. If Net Neutrality fails, I suspect that the next 2 - 10 years will have a lot of pain, many legal fights, and a lot of businesses forced out of business by broadband extortion. But it will also speed up the death of the broadband providers, by giving consumers and information providers an excellent economic incentive to speed up the adoption of mesh networking...