Event: Precarity and hope for digitally-disadvantaged languages (and their scripts)


On March 28, I attended the digital life seminar at Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island. The topic was Precarity and hope for digitally-disadvantaged languages (and their scripts).

What happened at the event:

Isabelle Zaugg, the guest speaker, who was from the Institute for comparative literature and society, Columbia University, gave the audiences a brilliant speech on her topic: mass languages extinction(figure1) and her case study: what can be done to close the digital divide through an instrumental case study of Unicode inclusion and the development of supports for the Ethiopic script and its languages, including Ethiopia’s national language, Amharic.

Language extinction:

Figure 1

Mass languages extinction has been happening worldwide for a long time. In linguistics, language death occurs when a language loses its last native speaker. The extended meaning is when the language is no longer known, including second-language speakers(“language extinction”). The reasons why it happens are colonization, globalization, urbanization, oppression, and digital communication technologies(Zaugg). As we all know, knowledge can be stored in people’s mind and books or databases. However, we can retrieve important information from the books and databases more easily than from people’s mind. If we do not record the knowledge in people’s mind in time, the knowledge will all be gone eventually as the years passed. Language and scripts are the precious wealth our ancestors left us, and we must protect them from disappearing. Nowadays, people get plenty of insights from ancient books or archives to create literary works, artworks, music, even scientific inventions. Here is a very convincing example to show why we should care about the language and scripts extinction: Tu Youyou, the winner of Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015, is a Chinese pharmaceutical chemist and educator. She discovered artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin, used to treat malaria, a significant breakthrough in 20th-century tropical medicine, saving millions of lives around the world. The plant she found the chemical comes from, Artemisia annua L. (sweet wormwood), was used to treat fevers perhaps caused by malaria as early as the third or fourth century CE (Totelin, Laurence). Tu discovered the properties of artemisinin (qinghaosu in Chinese) after reading ancient Chinese texts from The Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies that dated back to 341 B.C. listing medicinal herb preparations. If the book did not survive during the thousand years, a much longer time would be needed to find the insights and exact Artemisia to treat malaria.

Case study: Ethiopic language and script

Figure 2

From Zaugg’s speech, I learned that language is a system of communication used by a particular community. A script is written characters. Languages and scripts do not always have a one-to-one relationship(Zaugg). Some scripts are gradually becoming obsolete. The invention of Unicode helps to record and save the scripts. Unicode(figure2) is a computing industry standard for the consistent encoding, representation, and handling of text expressed in most of the world’s writing system(“Unicode”).

Figure 3

In Zaugg’s case study(figure3), mixed methods have been used in the Ethiopic language and script research. The common language of Ethiopia is Amharic, with 345 letters. Its history can be traced back to the 4th century A.D. and it is one of the oldest words in the world today. Because the alphabet contains far more letters than the 26 letters in the Latin alphabet and is complex and difficult to distinguish, it is difficult to be compatible with modern science and technology communication networks. In 2004, with the participation of linguists and scientists from Ethiopia and the United States, and professors from the University of California, researchers reduced the total number of letters from 345 to 210, and then further reduce them into 28 basic alphabetic letters in Unicode. With this development, it has become possible to use Amharic to communicate in text on mobile phones, and Ethiopia’s communications have entered the 21st century rapidly.

Figure 4

Zaugg oversees Unicode and ISO subcommittee working group, interviews with Ethiopic digital pioneers and linguists, and analyzes the non-traditional content of Ethiopic script and languages choices on Facebook, Wikipedia and .et country code top-level web domain. Some recommendations are put forward to save the Ethiopic language and script(figure4): Linguists should collaborate with IT professionals. Governments should optimize the Ethiopic keyboard standard and produce products that implement a free, open-source standard. International IT companies should support language diversity as part of corporate social responsibility(Zaugg).


Technology can mitigate language/script extinction and help to preserve culture heritages. Thanks to technology, scientists can save scripts by converting them to Unicode and spread it through the internet. However, technology is a double-edged sword. While it is helping to preserve languages and scripts, it can harm them in a way. When we were kids, we did not have so many digital devices as the kids have now, such as phones, pads, and laptops. We wrote our research paper on actual paper. We write a lot. Nowadays, most of the keyboards have the character/word suggestion function. A lot of young kids do not need to write by hands and they sometimes do not know how to write actual words because the keyboard suggests them the correct words all the time. In some cases, new immigrants in America cannot communicate with their grandparents smoothly in their native languages. Their grandparents come from the countries which English is not their mother tongue. The young generation cannot inherit the speaking and writing ability of their own languages from their parents or grandparents, therefore, native languages cannot be passed on. The young generation will lose their identity in a way and lose a sense of community and belongingness. In the article Digital Cultural Heritage: Concepts, Projects, and Emerging Constructions of Heritage, Marija Dalbello says: “The significance is related to cultural motion and public endorsement; significance processes are the basis for cultural inventions and collectivist traditions”(1). Only when the public realizes the severity of languages extinction and the significance of cultural heritage, can the technical professionals and the society take actions together to make progress on preventing the language extinction and the loss of cultural heritage.


Zaugg,Isabelle. ‘Precarity and hope for digitally-disadvantaged languages (and their scripts)’. 2019. Lecture.

Wikipedia contributors. “Language death.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 24 Mar. 2019. Web. 31 Mar. 2019.

Totelin, Laurence. “Could Ancient Textbooks Be the Source of the next Medical Breakthrough?” The Conversation, 13 Sept. 2018, theconversation.com/could-ancient-textbooks-be-the-source-of-the-next-medical-breakthrough-48612.

Wikipedia contributors. “Unicode.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 31 Mar. 2019. Web. 31 Mar. 2019.

Dalbello, Marija. (2009). “Digital Cultural Heritage: Concepts,Projects, and Emerging Constructions of Heritage.” Proceedings of the Libraries in the Digital Age (LIDA)conference, 25-30 May, 2009.

Xi Chen INFO 601-02 Assignment 3 Event

Observation: Museum of Modern Art


The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is located in Manhattan, NYC. MoMA exhibits modern and contemporary art, including architecture, painting, sculpture and new art forms integrated with technology. MoMA is a world-famous museum, attracting a large number of visitors every day, which makes the process of information dissemination and acquisition particularly important. People acquire information in different ways, including taking photos, listening to commentaries, reading instructions and etc. Museums disseminate information through electronic display boards, text instructions, and broadcasting devices.

I went to the MoMA in the afternoon on March 19. In the lobby of the museum, it was not that crowded. Most people walked in twos and threes. Some of them were reading the introductions next to the sculptures, some of them were taking photos, and others were talking about the sculptures (figure 1). When I walked towards the stairs, I saw the sign on the wall which guided the visitors to the exhibition hall they wanted to visit.

Figure 1

Figure 2

After I climbed to the second floor, I saw an information desk. The lady who was sitting behind the desk gave me a map which showed the floor plans of the museum. On the desk, I noticed several different colors on the covers of the brochures (figure 2) and one color corresponded to one particular language that the brochure was written in. The brochures were a really cool design that let people from all over the world feel the warmth and respect in this museum. As I continued walking, I noticed that the free audio commentaries were a great design as well. The visitors can borrow free audio devices from the desk and use them to play the commentaries while walking in the gallery. The commentaries are translated into nine languages so that the majority of the visitors can find their preferred one (figure 3). It is so convenient for visitors that they do not need a commentator to explain the exhibits. However, mobile exhibitions only have the English version of the commentaries. The translation process now is much easier than the old times, so the museum can improve it by using artificial intelligence to translate the majority of the commentaries into different languages and refine the translations through professional editors. It will save a lot of manpower, material, and financial resources and give the visitors a better experience.

Figure 3

Then I followed the map and went to the third floor. When I arrived at the third floor, I saw an electronic screen on the wall (figure 4). Some of the visitors was looking at the screen and tried to find the collection that they wanted to see. On the third floor, it was exhibiting the furniture and decorations of the house. Visitors were watching the introduction videos which were projected on the wall. I have visited the latest exhibitions and events page from the MoMA website in advance and found Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern exhibition is on display. I went to the entrance of the exhibition hall and a lady asked me if I had the membership card because this collection was only open to members. I took out the card and she scanned the two-dimensional code on the back of the card and let me in. Compared to the traditional ways of verifying visitor information, this indeed is a new and efficient way to admit the visitors to the special exhibitions.

Figure 4

Figure 5

On the fourth floor, the art pieces were combined with technology and created a strange but special and novel feeling (figure 5). The dynamic space guided the visitors to look around and listen to the sound. The dark room, the bizarre lights and shadows accompanied by the background music let people experience the wonder and beauty of art (figure 6). I like these art items because when technology gets involved, everything becomes different and new. In Georgia Guthrie’s article “Art+Technology = New Art Forms, Not Just New Art”, she answered people’s question– “Why should we even try to use technology in art?” with this: “Because using technology in art has the potential to create entirely new art forms, and therefore new experiences for us that can be thrilling, illuminating, and just plain fun”. Technology is not only changing the pace of our lives but also shifting our appreciation of beauty in life. Technology gives us infinite possibilities to explore the beauty of the world. I am looking forward to seeing more intelligent art forms and art pieces in the future because our technology is developing rapidly day after day.

Figure 6

Finally, I got to the fifth floor where it was very crowded. The worldwide famous painting The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh was exhibited on this floor. People come to see this world-famous painting excitedly, whether or not they have an artistic background. People recorded the special moment by taking photos of the painting (figure 7). Some people did not turn off the flash, so the security guy reminded the visitors again and again. It is better to have a sign on the wall in an obvious place to remind the visitors so that the security guy does not need to remind the visitors all the time.

Figure 7


I enjoyed this observation and found out how people interacted with the information in a museum. In the article Fundamental Forms of Information, Marcia J. Bates says: “Anything that human beings interact with or observe can be a source of information”. The museum is a very important place for people to experience and absorb information. Bates writes that recorded information is communicatory or memorial information preserved in a durable medium(Bates 4). The documents and photos in the museum are recorded information. People read the documents and watch the photos on display and feel the history of the exhibits that satisfies their needs for aesthetic and the desire for knowledge. The museum is a medium to communicate cultures, a force to promote social change and development, and one of our most important wealths in the world.


Guthrie, Georgia. “Art + Technology = New Art Forms, Not Just New Art | Make:” Make, Maker Faire, 31 Jul. 2018,https://makezine.com/2013/11/15/art-technology-new-art-forms-not-just-new-art/.

Bates, Marcia J. “Fundamental Forms of Information.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, vol. 57, no. 8, 2006, pp. 1033–1045., doi:10.1002/asi.20369.

Xi Chen INFO 601-02 Assignment 3 Observation