THE SPECIAL ROLE OF GLOBALIZATION
Over the course of American history, it was often easy to see the adoption of new information processing tools occurring most quickly in the United States. Americans were quick to apply the telegraph, telephone, radio, and computer. In some cases, as for example with the computer, the lag time between the start of widespread American adoption and that of other nations ran to a half dozen years or more. However, the Internet is a clear example of where the historic pattern is the weakest. Despite development of the Internet in the U.S., because of the fact that once it was made available to the public at large there were no real technical inhibitors to others using it, people around the world began to get on the Net. All they needed was access to a phone line and a PC. As those items dropped in cost and became increasingly available in other countries, more people gained access to the Internet. In time, governments in Western Europe and East Asia encouraged citizens to leverage the Internet. Today no self-respecting national leader would be caught without a national policy to move his or her nation into the Information Age.
Every major forecast of future use of the Internet published since 1998, either by Americans or by the OECD, predicts rapid adoption of the Internet by individuals and companies around the world. Every time there was a major new forecast, the rate of adoption and total number of participants had to be increased over prior forecasts. Because of the Internet, geography increasingly is not an issue. If you are in Madison, Wisconsin, it takes just as long to order a product from Chicago as it does to place a similar order with a firm in Germany. E-mail travels just as fast, and cost is becoming less of an issue. Time zones matter more. If you are in Chicago and you e-mail a friend in Paris and want a quick response, you have to remember that there is a seven-hour difference in time. You would send the note out in the morning, knowing that your friend is reading it in the late afternoon. Distance is disappearing when it comes to Internet-based transactions but time zones remain.
Governments are struggling with the issue of the Internet and, therefore, I have more to say about the subject in subsequent chapters. The problem is that they are losing control over the flow of information and business within their borders. Chinese dissidents can get information on what their government is doing off the Internet from ABC News or CNN. American popular music can be downloaded off the Internet in Iran, in direct violation of local laws designed to prevent the pollution of local culture with Western influences. Then there is the real matter of taxes for goods bought over the Internet and now crossing borders. This last item alone is one of the greatest motivators influencing public officials in Western Europe to develop more transnational economic policies for the European Union.31
While the sociologists and economists will have to study the question of why the Internet spread around the world so fast, I can suggest that many of the conditions evident in the U.S. were also at work elsewhere, particularly in more economically advanced societies. These conditions included experience with television, telephones, and PCs (or at least terminals at work). Literacy rates are high, and in highly industrialized countries large segments of the population can afford PCs and telephones. Where they cannot, you see low rates of adoption of the Internet (e.g., China and India). So economics does count, but so does preconditioning. Portable information appliances, because they cost less, are also making their way quickly through various societies around the globe. International policies that facilitate use of cell phones in Europe make it easier for the Finns, or West Europeans in general, to adopt cheap cell phones and other Internet-based tools than Americans. Other forms of information technologies are nearly as ubiquitous in economically advanced societies as in the U.S. In the case of books, for example, there are more of those per capita in Western Europe today than in the U.S. TVs and telephones are widespread, while in some societies that are slightly less advanced economically than the U.S., newspapers per capita exceed those in the United States.
What these various trends suggest is that America's unique feature of having the most the soonest in the way of information technology may be a statement of how it was rather than what it will be. While globalization sounds like a wonderful idea for businesses wishing to export goods and services, they are learning that markets change quickly as a result. Just as American culture was an important North American export, it becomes just as easy to bring new cultural forms into the U.S. (such as Cuban music in the late 1990s even though the U.S. government still maintained a trade embargo with Fidel Castro's government). Americans will have to begin thinking about the implications of a globalized use of the Internet, a medium so rich in content and potential effects that one would have to go back to the invention of the book or the modern international monetary exchange systems to find anything of equivalent effect on the course of nations.