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The world’s imperceptible slide towards standardization

This article appeared in MIT’s “The Tech” newspaper on Tuesday 12th October 2010 and is available at the following link:

I’ve now spent two months seeing gas priced per gallon and I still can’t tell whether it’s good value compared to back home. You tell me that it is 70 degrees outside and I agree that what you say seems plausible — I’ve realized that you are talking the Fahrenheit language. I suppose I’m lucky here in the States, coming from an English speaking country, that communication is somewhat easier for me than for those who have learned the language at a later stage of life. And often, when I see others or when I find myself lost in translation, I ask, will mankind ever standardize communication?

A single language seems, on the surface, an idyllic aspiration. We might suggest English, the Chinese might say Mandarin, but Spanish is conceivable too. And there problems begin. Still, a worldwide language seems quite a worthwhile notion, providing entry through the cultural mouths of world rivers, all feeding one great ocean, to a bouquet of flavours, an orchard of tastes, an anthology of literature and a compendium of science, all comprehensible and open to worldwide discussion. Yet, is there a point at which the benefits stop, when a chorus of dissenting voices begin to trump standardization?

You’re sitting, crouched over lecture notes, under the Barker library dome. The sun has fallen while you’ve been kept up by a single equation. The trouble is, you’re not sure whether it’s a fundamental truth or a mortal’s definition, so often indistinguishable. And yes, you’ve discovered one flawed aspect of convention, its ability to disguise and replace the fundamental.

So you close over your books and snap your binder shut, happy to leave such distinguishing to those who have gone before. You shuffle out from the library and step into an elevator of foreigners. Two speak an Asian language while the others are Europeans, speaking what is probably French or German. Then again, it could be Irish. Conducting research through a different language must be like painting with different colors, or even a different canvass or brushes. Were a linguist to be present, they would say each language is an alternative approach rather than an alternative means of communication; each with unique foundations from which inspiration is drawn. Yet, this random subset of students, with whom you now share an elevator, may have something else in common: a prior education conducted through English. They have forgone their linguistic uniqueness to sing from a universal hymn sheet and to be inspired, at least in part, by a standardized muse. That’s what I did, through inevitability rather than choice, and maybe not even reluctantly. Mankind faces a challenge, because in the time frame of an individual’s life, uniqueness and isolation have recently become synonymous.

While, based on instinct, we may say to ourselves that diversity should be promoted, enhanced and protected, the truth is that in absorbing aspects from all cultures worldwide, we sometimes forget the great importance of protecting our own. In our attempts to be inclusive we cast our nets out far and wide, seeking the popularity of common ground. On a more frequent basis, the approach, whose goal was to combine the best of all approaches, has become a process within which diversity is weeded out in the first phase, a process seemingly justified by consensus.

For centuries now, foreign travel and international communication have been rising in tandem. Immigration and integration have risen long ago to the top of the political agenda, and I wonder, do we yet know what we mean by integration? Have we lost the run of ourselves, feeling responsible for not being everyone else? Instinct incites us to preserve our own customs and pride. Yet, over time customs evolve, combine and divide in a way that is intriguing.

I wonder how the tide is turning. What if we sang from the same hymn sheet, all painted with a single color, spoke a universal language and agreed on scientific nomenclature? Could our world become so melancholy, dreary and dull?

These are farfetched possibilities, about which we needn’t worry. And yet, simultaneously, in our technological drive for omnipotent channels of communication, we seem to acquiesce, albeit unwittingly, to a world of standardization.

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