Author: Yogi Schulz
Some commentators would have us believe that the Microsoft dominance in operating systems is just a stepping stone to total world domination. Supposedly, Microsoft has begun to influence cultural diversity; not just in the United States, but for the rest of the planet as well. Outrageous Microsoft bashing? I sure think so. To some, the pursuit of Microsoft by the United States Justice Department apparently doesn’t go far enough. At this rate, Microsoft will soon be blamed for ills like high golf scores and bad hair days.
Reducing cultural diversity is a trend that has been going on since the Pharaohs first introduced hieroglyphics and wiped out many minor cultures through conquest. We’re not talking about a new trend here. To pin the problem of ever-reducing cultural diversity on Microsoft requires incredibly twisted logic. Let’s explore some recent events that demonstrate that Microsoft is not driven by cultural imperialism.
Language Support in the Operating System
Microsoft recently decided that it would not include Icelandic as a supported language for its Windows ’98 operating system. Predictably, this decision created an uproar in Iceland. “[Microsoft] . . . is destroying what has been built up here for ages,” says Ari Kristinsson, the director of the Icelandic Language Institute. Microsoft stuck to its position even after the Icelandic government offered to pay for some of the costs involved1.
Microsoft made this decision on purely commercial grounds. Motives like cultural imperialism weren’t even on the radar screen. How could we expect otherwise? The market for an Icelandic version of Windows ’98 just isn’t big enough to interest Microsoft. I don’t know what makes Icelanders or anyone else believe that Microsoft should make its decisions on any other grounds. Microsoft is a business; not a foundation or a charity. Its mandate does not include the protection of cultural diversity.
Microsoft recently offered a bailout investment to a near-bankrupt Korean software firm called Hangul & Computer Co. This firm holds 80% of the Korean market for word processing software while Microsoft holds only 20%. The Microsoft offer sparked suspicion of foreign encroachment on Korean language and culture2.
Microsoft subsequently withdrew its offer after a backlash among computer fans and software companies. Microsoft’s motives are quite clear. Microsoft wants to become the dominant software supplier in Korea as it is in other parts of the world. To impugn Microsoft with motives like deliberate cultural imperialism, as some Koreans did, appears xenophobic.
If protection of cultural diversity is a priority for a country, then the suitable response to a perceived threat from Microsoft or anyone else is also clear. Money and resourcefulness can carry the day. In the Korean example, Hangul & Computer Co. found another investor that was domestically more palatable.
I wonder if Microsoft bashers are ready for the opposite argument that Microsoft encourages cultural harmony. In this view, Microsoft is actually contributing to strengthening peace and brotherhood. Some academics say that language loss is an inevitable consequence of progress and promotes understanding among groups3. I would offer Bosnia as an extreme example of cultural diversity run amuck. The presence of fewer linguistic and religious groups in a country or a region tends to reduce tensions and difficulties. Wouldn’t the world be a safer place without a Serbo-Croatian version of Windows?
Microsoft Making a Determined Effort
We can point to areas where Microsoft products provide considerable support for cultural diversity.
Recently I purchased the French language version of Encarta for our children who are enrolled in French Immersion. Oh non! Le magicien d’installation parle seulement français. Here I was expecting English language installation instruction for a French language product. How imperialist of me.
In Germany, the keyboards come with umlauts and the funny ß letter that are unique to German. For all languages, the Word menu item Insert Symbol provides some support for multi-lingual documents and addresses unique situations reasonably well.
The Language menu item in Word 6 lists 19 available languages for spell checking and proofing. In Word 97, this list has grown to 61 languages including Icelandic. This latter list includes variations on specific languages that is quite rich.
I think Microsoft is providing meaningful support for the linguistic idiosyncrasies of various countries and cultures. There’s no cultural imperialism in evidence here.
Those who feel threatened by the forces that are reducing cultural diversity could pursue the course of the Luddites of the Industrial Revolution. The Luddites smashed production machinery in the vain hope that they could return the British economy to the previous era of hand crafted manufacturing.
In our era, burning boxes of Windows ’98 or burning Bill Gates in effigy are antics that are not likely to be any more successful.
We can not stop the march to improved information technology even it means sacrificing cultural diversity as an indirect consequence. Microsoft is a commercial undertaking behaving as one would expect. No one is Redmond is asking: “Which culture we can wipe out today?”
We can however, apply the information technologies of today to capture the cultural diversities of the past. For example, an Alberta group has created a dictionary of the Cree language using desktop publishing technology. Also linguists and anthropologists are documenting the music and languages of rare cultures using video and audio tape 3. Some of this material is readily available to us through the various encyclopedias on CD including the Encarta CD. Wait a minute, I thought Microsoft was causing culture problems; not contributing to solving them.
- “Windows won’t compute into ancient Icelandic language”, Mary Williams Walsh, Los Angeles Times, reprinted in The Seattle Times June 30, 1998.
- “Microsoft Fails to Clinch Deal with Hangul”, Don Kirk, International Herald Tribune, 21 July 1998.
- “Endangered Languages”, Anthony Woodbury of the University of Texas at Austin, www.lsadc.org/Woodbury.html