The Digital Ideograph: An East Asian History of Unicode

Uluğ Kuzuoğlu
Washington University in St. Louis

Critical Chinese Humanities Colloquium

Kent Hall Lounge (Kent Hall 403)

Unicode is everywhere and nowhere at once. Since its invention in 1993 by lucrative American companies, including Xerox, Apple, and Microsoft, Unicode has been the global standard for information exchange, enabling the transfer of data across the world by converting more than a hundred and fifty world scripts into standardized bits and bytes. Its spread throughout the world is so expansive, its technical complexity so elaborate, and its integration into daily lives so seamless that Unicode has become a natural part of the world––used everywhere, yet seen nowhere. This talk seeks to denaturalize Unicode by examining its origins from a global perspective, and by demonstrating its particularly contested history in East Asia. It contends that Unicode, engineered at the “end of history,” embedded the techno-liberal value of limitless information exchange as the solution to global conflicts. And yet, in order to create a world where information could travel without any barriers, the engineers of Unicode often coerced the non-Western world into adopting the new international standard, sometimes at the expense of jeopardizing native writing systems. In fact, one of the greatest obstacles to Unicode’s birth in 1993 was the presence of East Asian “ideographs,” the sheer number of which challenged the very possibility of a globally standard system for information exchange that American companies were trying the propagate. The result was years of negotiations between East Asian nations and the American corporate empire that eventually pushed, pulled, and squeezed ideographs into the global medium. Tracing these negotiations, this talk investigates the global contradictions generated by techno-liberalism and places East Asia at the center of Unicode’s history.

Dr. Kuzuoğlu is an assistant professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis. He works at the intersection of science and technology studies and media studies to explore the social and political history of information technologies in China and the world. His first monograph, Codes of Modernity: Chinese Scripts in the Global Information Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2023), examines the political economy of information in China through a history of Chinese script reforms––the effort to alphabetize and simplify the writing system––from the 1890s to the 1980s.