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Rob Strover [opinions]

Free Software and the State of the World [free-software] [politics] [languages] [culture]

Today I want to talk about free and open source software in connection with the them and us feeling that I believe is widely felt all over the world.

Initially you might think that these two topics have nothing to do with each other but hopefully by the end of this post you will understand that these two topics are actually connected in many complex ways.

# The issues

Whether the us mentioned previously refers to some European-style culture and them to another culture with significantly different values OR the reverse position OR even between nations or peoples of more similar cultural style, the sense of a conflict in cultural values still remains. Does this feeling reflect reality? Yes, but the propaganda on all sides has, I believe, made the problem appear larger than it is. Terrorism is very real, but those who are the actual perpetrators are a small minority in any culture - most people just want to be able to get on with their lives, raise families in safety and make a reasonable living. These ordinary people also want a sense that others do not denigrate their cultures. This is not meant to imply that everyone must accept all values that a given culture embraces, but rather that any dialogue must be respectful in approach.

I believe that much of the distrust by non-European cultures towards cultures based on various European models is that the former feel that the latter devalue their cultures and maybe even wish to destroy them. In many cases this may be based on experiences when their lands were colonised by various European-style nations. This distrust can also exist between more similar cultures, such as between Japan and a number of her neighbours or between minority language and cultural groups in various countries. The distrust may also be engendered by a feeling of being overwhelmed by various societal changes related to the push towards economic globalisation.

Imagine that you could get an office suite, Internet browser and other major software categories with all menus, help information and more in your local language. If your local language is a form of English, French, Spanish, Portuguese or Chinese this is most likely readily available even with commercial software, but if you speak Basque, Xhosa, Vietnamese, Lao or some other language with a relatively small population profile then this is far less likely. You could perhaps manage with using software written for a major language in which you are literate, but this might not be a very comfortable experience. Add to this the issue of many people not being able to afford computer software which can often lead to wholesale piracy of commercial software in an understood major language. With major commercial software, the creation of versions translated into less dominant languages would make little economic sense.

Imagine that you could get high quality software in your local language and that mostly it would not cost you anything

So What Could Help?

Consider now the relatively new class of software known as 'free and open source'. This includes many different types of software, including office suites, graphics programs, e-Mail clients, Internet browsers, games and even operating systems. These are mostly available free of charge (in an executable form), but what makes them really special is that their source code is also readily available for anyone who is interested. Most computer users will have absolutely no interest in that, but what it means is that the source code can be altered to, among other things, display the user interface in a different language. In fact, many open source programs are actually written in such a way that changing the displayed language is a relatively straightforward task.

I read somewhere that one of the worst things that can happen to a person is to lose their sense of identity. One such situation I can readily think of is that group of Aboriginal Australians generally known as the Stolen Generations where Aboriginal children of mostly mixed racial descent were taken from their parents to be raised in a white environment and thus supposedly to eventually fully assimilate into the predominantly European-based culture. Similarly where minority or non-dominant cultures and languages have been actively suppressed.

The availability of computer software in many non-dominant languages is a way for cultural groups to strengthen their identities, allowing their children to not only be involved in a wider world through the Internet, but to be able to do so via software which recognises their heritage and indeed celebrates it!


It would be naive to suggest that having software available in many different languages will solve all the problems related to cultural tensions between different groups of people. Where these clashes do cause people to feel that they are in real danger of having their own cultural identities crushed, perhaps having such software will help them to repair some of these feelings and allow them to move forward in the knowledge that their heritage can be seen and felt both by their own people, but also by a much larger world.

Many people can express themselves eloquently in their own language, but may appear far less confident when expressing themselves in another one. Now, using these multilingual tools, many different cultural groups can get their ideas out to a larger world on their own terms. Hopefully people gifted in their ability to translate from their own languages to more widely used ones will make the best of these ideas available to much larger audiences.

This after all is one of the main planks of the open source philosophy: To promote and celebrate freedom of expression in both the cultural and technological realms.


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