Tag Archives: technology

LifeTech: Cultural Issues in Tech Adoption

iPad with flags of the world

The Apple iPad is not just translated into other languages, but other cultures, as well.

Tech users worldwide bring their cultural biases to the use of new technologies. Even product safety standards are largely based on a nation or region’s reigning sociocultural values. For global companies—what firm isn’t, what with the Internet, FedEx, and consumer electronics with components from different continents?—understanding these cultural issues is essential. Working toward that understanding along with a growing number of consumer-tech firms are researchers, anthropologists, and (yes) philosophers.

Formed from culture and tradition, a people’s collective mental model defines everything, including color. In China, black borders mean a pictured person is deceased, so the first digital photo frames with thick black bezels—as on the original plasma displays—did not do well there. (White has other issues.) Everything from design and production through marketing and sales must pass the culture test, lest a product fail because people don’t “get it”—or worse, because something is silly or offensive. The classic, possibly apocryphal example? Citroën sold few cars in Holland because its name in Dutch means “lemon.”

IBM, True Blue Trailblazer

Making sure to consider all “society-based cultural factors…in the design of technology” is difficult, according to Geert Hofstede. Hofstede first studied, then strategized the international spread of IBM’s business in the 1960s and 1970s, back when “computer rental” meant paying by the hour to use what was essentially a refrigerator-sized tape deck (with no spell-check). At least IBM’s management team was smart enough to put even smarter academic researchers on the job. Hofstede developed the landmark four dimensional framework for adapting technology to particular cultures (later upped to six dimensions with long-term orientation and indulgence).

Writing in 1980, Hofstede posited four adversarial principles at work across human cultures:

  • Weak vs. strong uncertainty avoidance. Some cultures, such as Greece and Japan, place great importance on avoiding ambiguity, especially in interpersonal relations. This explains the Japanese preference for video-calls, which they make in the billions on every phone, PC, and tablet available. Video-calls require being seen, but also positively ID the caller. In Scandinavia and Hong Kong, on the other hand, more ambiguity is tolerated and video-calls are less numerous.
  • Individualism vs. collectivism. The UK and U.S. cultures idealize self-sufficiency and independence, whereas Venezuela and Colombia are proudly collectivist. While people use laptops in the U.S. for a variety of personal and/or corporate reasons, a marketing campaign in Colombia would focus on group collaboration. Traits such as confidence and creativity develop in individualist cultures, while cooperation and conformity are strongly encouraged in collectivist ones.
  • Small vs. large power distance. A large “power distance” exists in cultures like India and the Philippines, where the privileged classes use all the latest tech while the powerless remain “unplugged” on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. Austria, Sweden, and other Western nations—where high-tech devices are commodities that even “the poor” can afford—have “small” power distances.
  • Masculinity vs. femininity. Cultures that are task-oriented, and emphasize material success, are called “masculine.” Ones that are people-oriented, and value quality of life? They’re “feminine.” Such previous markers as the American female’s mythical affinity for frilly pink things are in flux, however: Apple’s MacBook line now includes “girly” light-as-Air models that guys seem to like just fine.
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It’s James T. Kirk’s World, Not Luke Skywalker’s

If you’re keeping track, the world is turning out a lot more like Gene Roddenberry visualized it in Star Trek than how George Lucas did in Star Wars. (And isn’t trekking better than warring anyway?) While we’re still waiting on Death Stars, light sabres, and ’droids with English accents, the technology of the United Federation of Planets has been showing up for some time now—their communicator became our clamshell cellphone, their data cards our flash memory, their tricorder our iPad.

The latest time-warped delivery from the crew of the U.S.S Enterprise? Mobile, universal speech translators. Yow!

Developers have worked on universal translation for years, and a slew of apps are already running on common digital appliances—Apple products from iMac to iPhone, plus Android smartphones, tablets, etc. The goal: instant spoken translations for natural, seamless conversation, with optional onscreen text display, too.

Some voice-translation apps may offer versions for every flavor of computer operating system (OS), too—PC, Linux, OS X—so as to ensure desktop functionality. But Skype and FaceTime videophone calling with built-in, real-time universal translation remains the Holy Grail, so there are major areas of development for both “static” environments like the office (relatively settled and slower-changing) and “dynamic” ones like the mobile market (experimental and faster-changing). You’re going to see better and better apps, for all kinds of devices, starting… well, yesterday.

Jibbigo

Life moves so fast now that it does seem like “just yesterday” that the first version of Jibbigo, Spanish-English, debuted in September, 2009. Many translation apps require a constant Internet connection to access online databases, but Jibbigo is an offline app that needs no phone or data connectivity to function. It now includes 20+ language pairs available from both Google Play and Apple’s App Store.

Developed by Carnegie Mellon professor Dr. Alex Waibel and Mobile Technologies, LLC, Jibbigo was among the first ”mobile language translation apps” and is quite simple to use. Say a phrase in your language and the words appear as text in both languages on the screens of phones or tablets—while being spoken aloud in the target tongue. Lag is apparent, and varies, but is acceptable.

Multitasking language app

Jibbigo has other features that keep it in the leading-edge position, such as free and unlimited online use, an “add name” function, so-called “Regional Bundles” for travel to various nations with neighbors you’d also like to visit, and the ability to translate both written text and speech. The iOS version plays nice with VoiceOver, so vision-impaired users can still use small devices with small screens.

Featured in an episode of Popular Science on the Science Channel in 2010, and a Nova episode dubbed “The Smartest Machine on Earth” that aired in 2011, Jibbigo has attracted plenty of notice. So has another firm with its own first-rate universal translator, a company whose name we hear quite a bit…

Google Translate

Google actually does want to dominate the planet—really, you can read about it on the web!—so it upgraded its Translate app, which began life as a standard, online-only translator. As the number of superior offline apps grew, however, Google got the message: The current version of Google Translate has more than 60 offline language packs.

While it is true that you can access most of Google’s services via any browser, whether it’s running on a MacBook Pro with that dazzling display named after your eyeball or a Google Nexus 7, translation apps are much more useful on smaller digital devices. This is why the “app model” succeeds.

Domination through, er, popularity?

Google Translate’s menu shows you every available language pack. You only download the language pair(s) you want to translate between. Although the company calls them “less comprehensive than their online equivalents,” the smaller dictionaries are still useful and will doubtless be continuously refined. Google Translate also deciphers camera input, including vertical text in Korean, Japanese, and Chinese.

The app has a version for iOS, too, but as yet it has no offline mode and the development roadmap is not being shared with the public. But this—like, oh, everything else—will likely change as we continue to replicate the Star Trek tech environment. Speaking of replication, 3D printers are already producing food, so the day is coming when you just might tell your “kitchen app” that you’re ready for a cup of “Earl Grey, hot.”