14 October 2013

The Babel Fish Paradox

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy radio, book, and film franchise by the late Douglas Adams is one of the greatest works of science fiction comedy ever created. Part of what makes the series so wonderful is Adams' willingness to satirise social and political issues. One well-known but sometimes overlooked bit in Hitchhikers helps to illuminate an important point about the future of Internet Borders: the "Babel fish".

(Stick with me here. I promise to bring it home.)



Those of you who are already fans of Hitchhikers will recall that the Babel fish solves a problem faced by most science fiction stories - how do all of these strange alien races from far away planets and different biological systems manage to talk to each other, anyway? In Star Trek (the original 1960's series) we were introduced to a piece of technology called the "Universal Translator" which did this job. (Computer scientists and script writers rejoice!)

Adams took a different approach. He rather implausibly hypothesised a living creature (the eponymous Babel fish) that fed upon and excreted brain waves. So what? The practical impact is that anyone in Adams' Galaxy who stuck this little creature in their ear would understand what everyone else in the room was saying - no matter what language they were speaking. In other words, the Babel fish was a naturally occurring animal that served the same purpose as Star Trek's Universal Translator.

(Seriously, in just a few sentences from now you'll start to see how this applies to the Internet.)

Adams used the outrageously unlikely existence of anything so useful as a Babel fish to drive a tortuous and funny philosophical argument about the role of God in the universe. That argument (as funny as it is) has nothing at all to do with this article.

And then, in a passage that is sometimes forgotten by Hitchhiker fans, Adams describes the dramatic impact that the fish has upon the safety and security of the Galaxy:
... Meanwhile the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different cultures and races, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.
With this one sentence, Adams acknowledges - and dismisses - a common theme presented to all of us who studied political science and political history in the 1970's and 1980's: the idea that wars and bloodshed are caused primarily by misunderstanding. This theme is so commonplace in works of diplomatic history that it's almost a cliche. A diplomatic history often presents a detailed forensic study of mountains of source material documenting communications between two states prior to war. There then follows a comment like, "If only the staff at the Foreign Ministry of Freedonia had taken more time to understand the final communiques from Ambassador Smithinson of Ruritania, these two great nations could have avoided conflict. If only Freedonia had invested more resources in staffing its Ruritania desk, then they might have had a really lovely relationship with Ruritania instead of a war."

With his single-sentence comment about the impact of the Babel fish on galactic politics, Adams touches on a truth that many do not want to acknowledge: better communication and better understanding do not always lead to agreement, peace, and harmony. I like to call this "the Babel Fish Paradox": the idea that obtaining a better understanding about another group or society might (in fact) reinforce disagreement and/or prejudice.

Coming back to the real world of the 21st century, we are fortunate that we live in a time that disagreements between sovereign states are (usually) not solved by recourse to warfare. They talk. They negotiate. They try to understand each other. They try to agree.

But sometimes, sovereign states (and the societies they represent) disagree about major or minor points. What happens when states disagree? Well, these days they (mostly) leave each other alone unless the disagreement involves a clear threat to international peace. Disagreements that do not rise to this level, for the most part, become the subject of further talk and the hope that the future might bring agreement. Those of us who grew up during the Cold War are especially grateful for this non-violent approach.

What does the Babel Fish Paradox mean for Internet Borders?

Over the years I have found many people who work with the Internet believe that it will somehow bring about a world with a single set of shared values and policy goals. Two decades ago, people were talking about the death of the sovereign state. I well remember at a London conference on Computers Freedom and Privacy (1992) drawing the ire of most other attendees when I expressed my doubts that the sovereign state would be disappearing anytime soon. Two decades later, and the sovereign state remains the fundamental unit for understanding and managing international relations and international peace - and "Cyberspace, the new home of Mind" is not. (With all respect and apologies to John Perry Barlow.)

So here's the thing: the Internet might make the world a better place. The Internet might help people to understand one another better and facilitate better trade relations. But the Internet (like the Babel fish) will not, on its own, remove all of the significant cultural differences that exist between the peoples of this world. So long as that remains true, sovereign states - and their citizens and businesses - will continue to find it in their interests to enforce (to some degree) their sovereign borders upon the Internet.