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My inbox served up the following email just now:
I mention I have 62 years and are of Swiss nationality. I contact them in this way because I want to do something that would me very important. And this argument that worries him so much, is make a gift of my good fortune, they are still conscious of my actions despite the short time I have left to live certainly still on this earth.
The email goes on in this way for 500 words. Obviously, it’s an email scam, and I would be a fool to go for it. But here is the thing. It was originally written in Italian. Thanks to a Google Labs feature that I have enabled on my email account, I can see a translation by clicking “Translate this Message.”
Now, you might say this is not that helpful because the translation is vaguely broken. Consider that the message was probably written in some other far-flung language and then electronically translated several times until it finally came to me. Considering that, this is pretty impressive.
Last month I received a message from Israel. It was written in Hebrew. I enabled the translation to see a very clear question. He wanted to translate a Mises.org article into Hebrew and was seeking permission. I answered in English. He received the message and translated my message into Hebrew. He wrote again in Hebrew and I translated this back into English. We did several rounds this way in a period of about one minute.
Do you see what is happening here? For the first time in the history of the world, I’m able to communicate with anyone in the world instantly, regardless of language, and they with me, regardless of language. The great barrier of all of human history has been overcome.
Has there been a headline about this? Of course not. It’s not even news. It is technology, buried inauspiciously in a tiny tab in a seemingly mundane piece of software. Not only does it not make history; it is not enough that people are inspired to tell others. It’s just something that washes over us without notice.
And yet: at any time, any place, through the whole of human history, if I said that I had come up with a way for anyone to speak to anyone with understanding, without the aid of knowing the language, I would have been called a liar or a miracle worker. If I had demonstrated that what I was saying really worked, I would be regarded as some kind of magician or prophet. Google does this and no one seems to care.
I mean, when this happened at Pentecost it was news enough to make the pages of the Bible, specifically the 2nd chapter of Acts.
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God. And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this?
What meaneth this, indeed? What we have in Google’s gmail translator roughly approximates this, in the same way that a robot might approximate the movements and the behavior of a real person. It is not a miracle. It is technology. But technology can approximate miraculous things. And it does so often in our times, so often that we hardly take notice of it anymore.
But we should. If we did, we might learn some things about the world, namely the self-organizing capacity of free enterprise. Google is a private company. No one ordered this company to invent this technology. It did so and deployed it because it is the interest of the company serve others. By serving others, it makes a profit. And it also profits in unpredictable ways, not by selling this particular service but rather by giving it away to you for free. A seeming miracle for free!
There is no one on the planet who could have anticipated this, not one person. And yet here it is, courtesy of the capitalism that everyone is so happy to hate and blame for all ills in the world. But look at reality: capitalism is bestowing blessings on one and all, and hardly ever getting the credit.
And yet, perhaps this is what we might expect. Recall what happens at Pentecost when others have witnessed this miracle. Some people gather around supposed that they have been drinking too much wine. Then and now, the crowds just don’t get it. But history proceeds, miracle after miracle, driving progress forward, uplifting humanity, bringing glorious things to life on earth.