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This chapter is from the book

The Limits of the Networks

El-Ghar is a town of around 100,000 people, situated in the Nile basin about 50 miles from Cairo. Most of the inhabitants work on farms surrounding the town, with the burgeoning market providing an outlet for their produce. Despite the basic day-to-day life of its inhabitants, there are many poorer areas in Egypt, and certainly through, Africa. Among the 100,000 denizens of El-Ghar, there is precisely one telephone line.

This solitary telephone line is not a shared commodity, but the proud possession of one of the town's wealthiest people. The United Nations Development Programme has sponsored more than 80 access points to the Internet for poor people in Egypt and has provided Arabic-language content that is specifically useful for farmers and other rural poor. The program's volunteers came to El-Ghar, intending to show people the resources they could access, but at the last minute, the telephone line owner changed his mind about allowing them to use his precious status symbol. As a substitute, the volunteers downloaded some of the system's pages onto their laptop and used them to show the villagers what they could access if they went to the Internet center in the nearby city. One of the farmers later happily reported that he'd discovered improved fertilization methods on the system.

Sitting comfortably in the United States or other highly developed countries, calling colleagues on cell phones, picking up our email on mobile devices, and downloading music files on the Internet, it's easy to forget quite how starkly different life is for the majority of the world's population. Our lovely planet Earth is packed with well over six billion people. Of those, probably close to half have never made a telephone call, and less than one in ten has access to the Internet.

The global networks that are the focus of this book link not everyone on the planet, but for the moment just those one billion people or so people who are "wired" to varying degrees. The implications of this gap are central to the future of our world. Today, connection to the global networks is the primary means of production and wealth. In economies based on scarce resources such as land, if someone else gains, then you lose. In an economy based on networks, you not only don't lose if someone else connects, but you and everyone else benefit as the networks grow in scope and diversity, as I describe in Chapter 2.

I hope that the evocation of the living networks in this book underlines how critical it is that we bring as many people as possible in to participate, to join us in this exciting adventure. Endeavors such as the Internet access centers in Egypt described previously are small but essential steps to help bridge the divide. In Bangladesh, just three percent of homes have a telephone. Grameen Bank, set up to lend small amounts to the poor to help them become self-sufficient, enables villagers to buy mobile phones, which they pay for by charging others for usage. In one step the whole village becomes connected. As with much of the developed world, mobile telephones are enabling connections where installing a fixed telephone line would be prohibitively expensive.

For most of the more than one billion people who earn less than $1 a day, food and clean water are probably higher priorities than Internet access. However, beyond the absolute basics, access to the networks will be critical in helping them to improve their lives and to participate in the potential ahead.

Shock! Horror! Globalization!

The battle raged for five days in the streets of Seattle as the World Trade Organization met in late 1999 to discuss lowering barriers to trade. More than 40,000 antiglobalization demonstrators were met by riot police lobbing tear gas and spraying pepper-spray pellets and rubber bullets. A state of emergency was declared as shops were looted and vandalized, buses smashed, and the city center closed down. As the trade delegates and protestors left the city and the tear gas slowly drifted away, the world had gained a new symbol of globalization.

Globalization seems to have become something not to mention at a dinner party. People are sharply polarized over whether it's a good or bad thing, but in doing so, they are usually attributing quite different meanings to the same word. Of the multiplicity of themes encompassed by the term "globalization," two are especially relevant to the emergence of the living networks. The first is the increasingly borderless nature of the global economy, especially when the majority of economic activity is comprised of information-based services. The second is the apparent cultural integration of the world.

An executive from an animation company told me that he was choosing between Chinese and Hungarian animators for a particular project. The Chinese were excellent at depicting action scenes, but the Hungarians were especially skilled at rendering subtle facial expressions, he said. What was clear and remained unsaid was that, for such labor-intensive work, he wouldn't dream of hiring expensive American or Western European artists. It didn't matter a jot to him that the animators would be on the other side of the world; he could see their work daily and communicate closely with them at all stages of the project.

For a very large and increasing proportion of work, it doesn't matter where in the world it's done. This creates many opportunities for developing countries. The Philippines is a major call-center location for the Asia-Pacific region. India's software engineers do work for companies globally. Ugandan companies provide data-entry services for U.S. clients. At the same time, this puts pressure on developed world workers. The solution is absolutely not to stop these services being done overseas; among other issues, this would hold developing nations back in an agricultural economy. The simple and inevitable result is that developed world workers must upskill themselves and do the higher level work that differentiates them. We can give thanks that, during the last half-century, the economy has shifted to virtually eliminate production-line jobs, allowing people to shift to more meaningful work. A similar process is at play now.

Vietnam is a delightful country, with warm, friendly people and beautiful scenery ranging from the ethereal floating world of the Mekong Delta through alpine vistas to spectacular craggy islands. However, it took someone else to point out to me one of the things that makes it so different from everywhere else I've been: There is no McDonald's or Coca-Cola. Almost anywhere else in the world, there is no escaping the golden arches or familiar curlicued white-on-red logo.

Certainly brands are becoming increasingly global. Entertainment is transnational. Hollywood films can be seen almost wherever you go. People from around the globe chat in English on Internet sites. Of the more than 5,000 living languages today, as many as 80 percent are expected to become extinct over the next century. So are we moving toward a single uniform culture worldwide?

If so, that's something we must guard against. The value of the connections that bring the global networks to life is not in producing homogeneity. If everyone's the same, why would we need to collaborate? The true value is in bringing together the greatest diversity. That is the source of higher intelligence. Multiple perspectives lead to richer, more complex mental models and ways of thinking about the world. It is critical that we encourage and nurture diversity and different approaches.

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