Finding Digital Humanity: Global Society in Online Environments

Traci is a bicultural polyglot who started traveling the globe at 14. She founded Apto Global to create a cross-cultural, social learning platform that her emersive ESL learners told her they want and need.
As a consultant, Traci teaches clients English at various levels and helps them and their families adapt to a local community by equipping them with the cultural context to know what to say and why, and how to express themselves based on their own personality and identity.

 

First and foremost, this article is absolutely about language — all of them in fact. It’s about how they have the ability to separate us or connect us deeply.

 Now for the disclaimer. 

You’ll have to read this article from start to finish in order to even see the word “language” appear a second time. In the meantime, another word to center your thoughts on will present itself much sooner.

Perhaps you’ve noticed a recent trend across media, technology, and even commerce pushing a single word to the forefront of our collective minds. Prior to its adoption, the word was rarely uttered outside of academic and exchange circles.

In The Shop, Lebron James and guests often refer to it with a preceding definite article “the” in order to claim it for a specific purpose and connotation, namely that of the ethnicity they represent. Facebook Groups and TikTok are literally shouting it from the rooftops via prime time television ads. Even Amazon is popularizing it with their new “Explore” product now in beta on their app.

 To what word am I referring? 

A single word that for most of us in the business or study of it, would either be referred to as big “C” or little “c.”

 Yes, you guessed it…“culture.” 

A word that just a few short years ago, as I and my colleagues sat on the campus of a major mobile phone manufacturer to discuss the distribution of our application, was deemed “unsexy,” and “not consumer-friendly enough.”

What’s changed? Certainly not the definition of the word itself, or the way it just rolls off the tongue.

Rather, our global society has embarked on yet another evolutionary journey. It has been categorized by some, including Klaus Schwab, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is a journey into a fully digital world, where global populations are so interconnected through technology that we are literally beginning to live our lives online. This means that the proximity we used to experience with only our closest circle is now available to us with anyone, anywhere in the world.

Now, let’s drift back in time for a moment and imagine the ancient days of yore. The year is 2004, and although the concept of social networking is already known among some, our world is about to be forever changed. Mark Zuckerberg, from a little-known institution called Harvard, is onboarding the first 500 users onto a web application called The Facebook. 

As Paul Adams enlightens us in his book Grouped, when social networking truly went big for the first time, it was based on the premise of “strong ties.” The idea that how we socialize in real life, by forming network connections first and foremost through the people we love and trust, could essentially be mirrored online. And so it was, quite successfully, that an algorithm was born and perfected — but not without unintended consequences. This same network that gave you ties to your closest friends, family, and community also granted immediate access to a whole world of people who were, simply put, not just like you. Only without the benefit of proximity.

This is what I like to call “the proximity problem,” one based on a strange aberration of human behavior. People who are in close proximity to us are to be treated as fellow humans and with due respect, but those who are far away we can easily justify as being an “other.” To put it more plainly, they’re not like us. To what remains of our reptilian brains, maybe they can even be considered a threat. 

Fast forward and come back to 2021. We see this behavior played out day after day on social media as individuals who tuck their children in at night and care for their parents and grandparents use those same hands to type atrociously inhumane words to “others,” should they disagree with their point of view, culture, or belief system.

Another compounding factor of the proximity problem on social networking sites is that we now have technological proximity, with not only cultural barriers, but — yes, allow me to reintroduce the word — language barriers. Not even the most superior machine translation can uncomplicate that dilemma. 

Why not? Because this is what I like to call the “hyperlocal dilemma.” This dilemma is grounded in an understanding of the work of Gary Ferraro and others like him in Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective. They recognized through their research that language is intrinsically tied to culture at a hyperlocal level. In other words, the meaning(s) and/or articulation of a single word or phrase may vary — not just country to country, or region to region. It literally may change within and around a 30-60-mile radius, depending on the surrounding ecosystem and the context of the variety of ethnicities and identities forming its population.

For example, if you travel to Memphis, Tennessee, and engage the local black population in informal conversation, or slang banter, you may hear the word “junt” uttered. And even within Memphis, depending on the context, the meaning may change. Consider the following dialogues and their interpretations:

  • Person A: “Did you see the news today? Can you believe the new legislative policy in Texas?”
  • Person B: “Nah man, that junt is unheard of.”

Translated, “junt” is simply a placeholder word representing the “object” or thing being referred to in the context of the preceding sentence.

In scenario two, “junt” takes on a more literal meaning.

  • Person A: “Have you heard the new Anderson Paak and Bruno Mars tune?”
  • Person B: “That junt is bangin’.”

In this case, “junt” is a derivative of “joint” and is used to refer to a song. This meaning has evolved from black musical culture and has a similar articulation in almost every musical city in the United States.

Were you to drive three hours due east and arrive in Nashville, Tennessee, “joint” would be more readily used than “junt,” which is known to be “Memphis slang.”

In either of those cities, of course, people outside of these, for lack of a better word, subcultures, might only recognize the word “joint” when used in the context of anatomy, recreational or medical drug use, or a piece of hardware. An older generation of listeners might recognize it as referring to a popular place or hangout, without context.

The point is that language is innately tied to the people and places who give it life, and with technology, we now have greater access to those unique people and places than ever before.

What does this mean for us as a society that has already begun its rapid foray into the Fourth Industrial Revolution? How do we change the way we think about teaching and learning language in order to more effectively and humanely connect across online environments?

 Let’s begin by considering the following. 

First, language is not an academic event that can be isolated and captured in time, but rather a dynamic and ever-evolving process of understanding and being understood. 

For this reason, we must imagine a world in which language is first “experienced” through the lens of the local culture, context, and environment. And, if it is to be experienced through that lens, then surely it must also be extended to us from the local people who birthed and continually evolve it. 

These micro-cultures are the keepers of these microlanguages. And recognizing and promoting their value is the first step to creating a world of digital humanity that counters the online world of polarization and hatred.

That benefits us all, because it allows us to more effectively live, work, and play in a global society that is likely never returning to pre-internet isolation.

The population is larger than ever before: 2.8 billion people on our planet and growing don’t just want but need the skills to be able to connect across languages, cultures, and geographies. And not just the most popular languages. According to Halle Sok with Global Trade Magazine, 65 percent of organizations deal internationally. Twelve percent of the student population generates 30%+ of the revenue (Melanie Hanson,
EducationData.org). Fifty percent of expat relocations fail due to cultural issues, according to BGRS’s 2016 Global Mobility Trends. The market for cross-cultural aptitude is $1.22 billion (Jesse Maida, BusinessWire). Experiential and virtual tourism is growing exponentially at $183 billion (Statistica). 

Humans are hungry for a new world online — a more digital humanity — one where language connects us and culture makes us curious. In fact, 80% of all university students polled believe that hate speech on social media is a serious to very serious problem.

Imagine if as a student, you could easily gain access to the education and soft skills that would prepare you for the exact career of your dreams.  

Imagine if, as a professional, you could easily learn the language and cultural context needed for the destinations and situations you had to navigate on a daily basis — relationship and trust building, negotiations, presentations, business travel relocations, and more.

Government could solve foreign direct investment problems. Communities could solve immigration and refugee issues.Imagine as an individual, connecting to your family in diaspora — a grandchild being able to understand their grandparents in a way that no amount of grammar drills could prepare them for. 

Life beyond Google Translate. Accessible. Relevant. Real-time.
So when preparing our curricula, or selecting our trainers or teachers, or evolving our pedagogy, have we contextualized the learning, by accounting for their:

  • Culture of origin/cultural biases and beliefs?
  • Hyperlocal destination for exploration or interaction?
  • Personal/professional/academic goals and interests?
  • Ethnicity/identity?

Have we ensured that we are exposing them to the local language through the unique lens they wear based on the above?

Have we socialized their eductaion/training to include experiential learning through connections with relevant locals?

Have we maximized the use of technology, tools, and resources in a way that is relevant to their demographic?

The world desperately needs to learn to speak human. How are we changing the way we approach language teaching, learning, and pedagogy to lead that charge? What are we doing differently to be that change we want to see in our world? 

Collectively, we must thoroughly yet dynamically ask and answer these questions if we have any hope of stepping forward into a truly integrated society of global citizens. In the words of the very students denouncing hate speech on social media, we are to “…create the kind of world we all want to live in together.” In this world, differences in language and culture are no longer viewed as barriers but as bridges to our next great adventure in a big, beautiful world that gets a little smaller and safer for all humans with every passing day.