A few weeks ago, I needed to grab dinner after a long day covering a tech conference in an unfamiliar town. It turned out that the number one restaurant in the whole burg, according to TripAdvisor, was on the way back to my hotel. So yay, I wandered over there. Handsome place, wood paneling, nice little bar; I was seated near a window as the sun set on the bustling street, and soon a lovely, willowy girl arrived who took my order for chicken curry and a glass of wine.
Then she noticed my new phone lying on the table. "Is that a Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket?!" she asked excitedly, her eyes shining.
"Beats me," I said. "I just got whatever 4G phone that seemed like the best deal." She was exactly right, though. (And it was a crazy good deal — 20 bucks for a refurb on AT&T. I had dropped my beloved tiny little HTC Aria once too often.) I handed her the phone so she could mess around with it for a minute or two. How crazy is it, I thought, that this kid knew exactly what kind of phone it was — aren't there millions of kinds of phones? Especially since we were in downtown Belgrade.
Technology has become the lingua franca of the world's under-30s. They don't just all speak English — they speak Rails and Ubuntu. They know how to work every telephone, and they know all the ins and outs of Tumblr and Twitter — 107.8 million of Twitter's 140 million active users are international users, while 750 million of Facebook's 900 million users are outside of the U.S. This fluency is quite thrilling to us dinosaurs; it's fantastic the way the youngs can operate in any new environment or on any new device without a moment's puzzlement.
Even though I programmed my first database application in, like, 1991 (Paradox!! so fun!), my first hard drive held 20MB and I still kind of miss Windows 3.1, it still takes me a while to get up to speed on a newfangled phone, tablet or camera. Not so for those who grew up on a digital interface, rather than an analog one. And this combination of fluency, brains, optimism and general tattooed awesomeness is apparently the same whether you are in Serbia, France or the U.S. These are the international digital natives.
This is a little-understood dynamic of the Internet age; since today's young people get perspectives from everywhere at once, they've created a global youth culture of immense power, size and uniformity. The Serbian kids are just like the ones in London and Brooklyn: short beard, sleeve tattoo, left politics, espresso, bicycle, faded t-shirt, beer, narrow trousers. Along with the global spread of technology has come the global spread of its lingua franca — English — and these powerful twinned forces are unifying the youth cultures of almost every nation. These are the first true citizens of the world, who can relate to their peers from anywhere on earth in a newly comprehensive and inclusive manner.
In the olden times, when we went abroad and met our fellow twenty-somethings, there were a few things we all had in common, to be sure. Beer has been the lingua franca among the twenty-somethings forever. And music. But to share ideas with a stranger who didn't speak your language used to be very difficult, and necessarily resulted in relatively primitive exchanges.
Now there is a technologically derived division of Us and Them: those who have mastered the 21st century literacy of the Internet, and those who haven't. It remains to be seen what effect this will have on geopolitics, though the rise of the Pirates in Europe is beginning to provide interesting indications.
The Pirate Party was founded in Sweden just six years ago, seeking to reform copyright laws, abolish the patent system, and protect freedom of information, privacy and anonymity. Last month, representatives from 28 countries convened in Prague for the Pirate Parties International General Assembly. The party has already achieved an incredible 11 percent penetration in recent polling in Germany, despite their stripped-down platform, and has taken 45 out of 1,890 seats in regional parliaments. The Swedes have elected two Pirates as Members of the European Parliament. As German novelist Juli Zeh wrote the other week in the Guardian: "Anyone who wants to understand the potential of the Pirate Party must first realise that the internet is more than a technical means to an end and more than a playground for file sharers. The internet is the birthplace and living space of a communication society and therefore the key to the transformation of an era."
It would be a mistake to discount the global spread of English as a factor in the unification of youth culture, but the kind of English that is required for tech fluency is fairly rudimentary. That is to say, today's real fluency comes less from having mastered English, and far more from having mastered the intricacies of science and technology, as the global character of academic and tech conferences increasingly shows — English as shorthand, used globally to facilitate many another purpose. "It is an indisputable fact that in the 21st century English has become a global lingua franca with non-native speakers of the language outnumbering its native speakers," as Hülmbauer et al. wrote in a splendid 2008 paper in Synergies: Europe that argues for a mellow response to the increasing adoption of English. "[English as a lingua franca] is not, therefore, to be regarded as a fixed, all-dominating language but as a flexible communicative means interacting with other languages and integrated into a larger framework of multilingualism."
It should be noted above all that English isn't just the language of Western culture anymore: far more importantly, now that it is the language of the internet, the need for technological fluency is likely driving the need to learn English, rather than the other way around.
If you want to understand websites that teach you how to flash a new ROM onto your phone or to program in a new language (or, indeed, how to build a website), your options will multiply very rapidly with even a rudimentary knowledge of English. If you want to hire a programmer at vWorker, or take a job there, you have to do it in English. This is in addition to the ordinary venues where English has traditionally been an enormous boon. For example, the top scholarly journals are still published in English; "English is given the status of royal road to journal pages," as Serdar M. Değirmencioğlu wrote last year in the Journal for Social Action in Counseling and Psychology. In his 1983 book Haphazard Reality, Hendrik Casimir, a Dutch physicist, gives a terrific description of the pragmatic, if somewhat inelegant "broken English" used to get by in so many international contexts as "[the] general language that is used by waiters in Hawaii, prostitutes in Paris and ambassadors in Washington, by businessmen from Buenos Aires, by scientists at international meetings and by dirty-postcard peddlers in Greece—in short, by honorable people like myself all over the world."
Modern developments will always create nostalgia and regret for the world that is passing. I can't deny that traveling in Europe now makes me a little sad for the excitement and mystery of learning about new people in new countries that I felt when I first arrived there so many years ago. Nowadays, I think, we already know a great deal about one another before we set foot in a foreign town; this is doubly so for those who grew up on the Web. The whole idea of "a foreigner," I suspect, is already growing obsolete. Though one can't help regretting the passing of exoticism, just a little (the harmlessly breathless and awestruck parts of exoticism, at least), who can regret the coming of a world in which the brotherhood of man seems close enough to touch?