All the Wiki'dness in the world...

Beware the Law of Unintended Consequences.Take this proposal: grab an RSS feed, feed it to a machine translator and then put the results into a wiki.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Beware the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Take this proposal: grab an RSS feed, feed it to a machine translator and then put the results into a wiki. Then, bilingual readers can polish the output and produce high quality translations with minimal effort. With luck, the system will combine the efficiency of machine translation with Wiki's ability to scale quality with readership - allowing any popular site, and eventually the Web as a whole, to become largely self-translating.

This is a smart and useful idea. Proponent Brian McConnell says that language is the last barrier to communication - it's certainly a biggie - and I've long considered the lack of decent cross-language translation to be far more worrying than the dominance of this or that language. As an anglophone, I would say that - but it's better that language doesn't matter than it matters more than anything.

Or so I thought, until last night. As part of an effort to make a (as yet unlaunched) Hauppauge TV stick work under Ubuntu, I thought it a good idea to compile a kernel. My first attempt produced an odd error message - which, of course, I immediately plugged into Google.

It turned out that my error had only been mentioned in one place on the Googledweb - an Arabic open source forum. That's OK, I thought - Google's language translation service has Arabic-English in beta: the good thing about high technology is that the sense of a technical discussion tends to come across without too many idiomatic pitfalls.

As it did in this case. What also came across was enough vitriol in the signatures and asides of the discussion to put me at risk of an armed response unit putting their size 13s through the front door. I don't know who the posters were, but they bore a great deal of animus to a great many people (I think I fell into about three of the eight categories of those deemed worthy of violent death).

Online discussion is a great place for bombast: there is no shortage of those who play out a completely different persona there than in real life. And I'm a reasonably peaceable chap, who's happy to let people say what they like and tries to filter out how they say it: even I would have a problem discussing a make file output error message with someone whose signature prescribed me immediate and painful death.

Now, imagine the effect of people so motivated let loose on the content of the Web, when they come into direct contact with people motivated in a different direction. Wikipedia has enough flame wars as it is, and each Wikipedia is largely the product of people with common cultural backgrounds.

As Douglas Adams (may his name live forever) said: by removing all barriers to human communication, the Babel Fish was responsible for more and bloodier wars than anything else in history.

On the upside, we'll have to learn to sort ourselves out sooner or later, and the overriding advantage of the Web is that you can't actually hit someone over it. The idea of the autotranslating Internet may be the virtual battlefield on which we can finally sort out whether the Enlightenment has the upper hand over the medievalists (as you may have gathered I'm on the side of the Enlightenment, on the grounds of dentistry if nothing else), with the self-limiting factor that if the medievalists win, the Internet stops working anyway.

I do like these uncontrolled experiments with reality.

Editorial standards