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Software for the World

06 April 2007
Q: How many Californians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Just one. He holds it up and the world rotates around him.

In the US border states there used to be a phenomenon called "sombrero politics". During election season the gringo politicians would go to the Mexican parts of town, put on a gaudy sombrero, eat a burrito and give a short speech (in English). Then they would leave until the next election season. That's about where we are now with software. We take a bit of time out of our busy lives, code some functions, test the Unicode support, and go back to the important work.

When a typical US programmer thinks of "internationalizing" software, he does it superficially. Porting your software to another culture is much more complex than porting to another OS or browser. Like the plates of the Earth's crust, language and mythology sit unseen underneath, shaping the mental landscape.

Language indicates profound differences in how people think. For example, there is no satisfying equivalent for the Spanish word "travieso". It denotes a young, puckish, clever, likable little bastard. The trickster archetype is an important part of that culture; in English there is only a fuzzy cloud of adjectives [1]. There are emotional states that would take a dozen words to translate. Time is expressed as a quantity; the Anglophone time-as-distance is slightly weird. Compass directions (i.e., "turn North") are deeply weird and complex. The 12-hour clock and mm/dd/yy format are as archaic as feet and pounds. Why are they the default in so much software? Cultural bias in the programmers.

Bias seeps in everywhere. I grew up in the desert. I don't think much about seafood. If I were creating a recipe site I would lump all seafood into one category and put beef, lamb, etc into their own categories. To me, fish is fish. To someone from the coast that's backwards: meat is meat. Fish is one type, shellfish another. There are mussels, lake fish, river fish, seawater and briny. That is a cultural disconnect at work. If only desert-people wrote software, their view would appear to dominate even though there are many more people who live on coasts.

The LikeBetter guys [defunct as of 2009 - ed] have a test that compares you against all the YCombinator startup founder's scores. From a series of pictures, it inferred a lot of things about me: I am a female who doesn't like spicy food, is uninterested in politics and who doesn't like pranks. Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong. What I really don't like is snow, and 7 or 8 of the pictures featured brain-damaged people up to their hips in that stuff. Without feedback likebetter is just shouting in an echo chamber.

They got my arrogance right, at least.

Add all these differences up and you get a kind of cultural accent. As with verbal accents, the thicker it is the less people take you seriously. You might still succeed internationally but only by chance or lack of choice. The most popular chat software in South America and much of Europe is MSN. Do you know why? MSN doesn't either. Google's social network, Orkut, was flooded by Brasilians in 2004, even though the site was in English. Even the Brasilians don't agree on why. But consider that Orkut was invite-only, that three big signs of cultural status in Brasil are sexuality, popularity, and connections with the United States... and there are a lot of brasileiros working for Google [2].

US programmers often reply that it's the features that matter, not the funny squiggles over the vowels. Business folk will come back with the size of the US market. But that's short-term thinking. Treating entire continents as rounding errors only works when you are the only game in town.

[1] A reader suggested "rascal", which captures the flavor very well. Try to remember the last time you've heard that word in casual speech.

[2] Do you know who is big in Japan? Pat Metheney, Frank Zappa, and all the outré jazz composers you would only know if you are a hardcore music geek. In this case it's not US cachet. Experimental jazz has never been widely popular in the States. The conventional wisdom in music schools is that average ear doesn't get it, that Anglophones focus on lyrics over melody. But the average Asian ear is trained from birth on tonal languages in which a slight inflection changes meaning.

Also: Globalization Test