Ana Deumert – Abstract

How diverse is the internet? Lessons about digital media (and language management) from the global south

In 1989, more than twenty-five years ago, Susan Gal published a paper with the programmatic title “Language and political economy.” Gal argued for a theoretical perspective that links signs and sign-making firmly to the material world, and to the inequalities that shape this world.  This also applies to digital media. Online practices such as chatting, blogging or texting cost money and are embedded in larger economic relations: they are produced, consumed and generate profit.  Like all resources, digital technologies are ‘placed’ or ‘situated’ resources: their use is shaped by local contexts, needs, practices, and the material conditions of the everyday. The internet and associated networking applications might be “new” technologies, but they reflect and reproduce historical continuities of socioeconomic structural inequality, reinforcing the imbalances, silences, and marginalizations that continue to define the global world system.

In this talk I explore the political economy of digital media in the global South and focus on the visibility – and invisibility – of linguistic diversity in online spaces. The overall picture is straightforward: there is ample digital access in the global North, but limited access in the global South, especially in Africa. In other words, those parts of the world which show the greatest diversity of languages, remain also those with least access to the internet. While digital media have the potential to support a diversity of languages  – to make them visible in a global space without incurring high production and distribution costs – the persistent realities of digital access still limit this potential. At the same time, the situation is highly dynamic: growth in digital access between 2005 and 2019 has been more than ten-fold for Africa, and five-fold for Asia/Pacific. What might the linguistic future of the internet look like?