Global Communication Technology:
Connecting or Disconnecting the World?
Conference paper for Lewis and Clark University International Affairs Symposium
Beyond Globalmania: Pursuing Clarity in an interdependent world
Dr Jerry Everard
Presented 6 April 1999
Thank you for inviting me here from Australia. I am here because of the internet, and that speaks volumes for how far we have come in the few years that the internet has been with us.
The previous speaker (Michael Behar, Technology Editor for Wired Magazine) has presented the affirmative case in terms of connecting the world. He has argued that the internet provides a voice for otherwise silenced groups, and he has argued that the internet infrastructure has linked country after country in a great global web - ultimately to be accessible by cell-phone as well as by computers.
Indeed, there are many aspects of his paper that I would have to agree with. But of course it is only one side of the story. The picture I want to paint today does not necessarily negate what my predecessor has said, but it needs looking at from other perspectives.
The internet is accessible today from practically anywhere on the planet. But not everyone has access. At an optimistic estimate there would currently appear to be around 160 million people on the net. That's lot of wired people. But it leaves around 5.8 billion people unwired. And it's those people I want to talk about today. If we are lucky, about two percent of the world's population will be wired by the end of this year. So ninety-eight percent of the population will not be.
So in the twenty minutes allotted to me, I shall talk a bit about issues of access - and with it issues of information haves as against information have-nots on the highway.
Indeed it is worthwhile illustrating the fact the net is not where the people are, by looking at two maps. The first one shows where the net nodes are - where the net users are, and the second one shows population growth - a good measure of expanding poverty. What is interesting about this is the way the two maps are almost a mirror image of each other.
The other group of issues concerns states. Some proponents of this wonderful age of globalisation and the communication systems that underpin it, suggest that the nation state will in time wither away and ultimately disappear in a puff of irrelevance. I want to suggest here that contrary to that view, I want to suggest that states are here to stay. And I shall begin with the latter point first as it underlines the point about for whom the net hums - if you'll forgive the paraphrase.
Modern states have existed now for about 350 years - since the so-called 'Enlightenment'. And that is kind of interesting, since they have grown and flourished throughout the development of all the global communication systems to date: the postal system, telegraph and telephone - as point-to-point systems, and radio and television as broadcast systems. And then there's the net which arguably combines features of both.
All of these have pointed fairly self-reflexively towards the process of internationalisation - and ultimately globalisation. That is, the process has pointed towards the fact that national boundaries are being crossed. Ironically - this is the very process by which states assert their existence. Indeed states have arguably flourished as a direct consequence of negotiating boundaries between them. The process of internationalisation can be argued to have strengthened notions of nationhood.
The idea of the state is intimately bound up with identity, and in that context, states can be argued to be like a piece of software - it works fine while the power remains uninterrupted and it remains uncorrupted, but change either of these elements and the state will be rearticulated into a structure more like one that people can subscribe to. Indeed states can be likened to email discussion lists - an identity to which one subscribes and which ascribes a sense of community to ourselves. It is the idea around which people can focus their protective instincts when their land or their ideals are threatened. It is also traditionally the largest spatial idea over which people will protect their and their neighbour's boundaries around a piece of geographic space. Even within groups of states that agree to work cooperatively, such as the European Community, it is still nation states that make foreign and defence policy decisions.
States are a product of relationship. They can be viewed as the outcome of a process of defining self from Other - us from them. consequently state making is most vigorous at its boundaries. But, despite the nostalgia of classical realists, it is no a unitary thing. It is always tied to events - ever shifting (essentially contested) and inherently unstable (historically contingent). States are tied to events like a stamp in a passport, a wave of a flag, a 'dot au' on an email address, a signature on a piece of legislation, attempts at censorship, or the flooding of internet with salacious material in the guise of national interest - all of these are acts of affirmation of the state.
So states owe their existence to the inter-national, which I would also articulate as the internotional. And they exist, not in and of themselves, but as cultural artifacts - and that is the important point, because however forcefully they engage with each other - even to the use of actual force, they are always already virtual. Ironically, perhaps, that fact makes them no less real.
Indeed, while states remain collective identities produced as byproducts of their boundary-making practices, then the use and means of waging conflict will remain a central part of a nation-state's constitutive activity
Of course, political power and interest expressed in these terms is, and largely remains within an essentially masculine discourse. But Donna Haraway suggests that this may be changing. As the security state joins the economic state in becoming more of an integrated organism of networks, it seems appropriate to suggest that the terms of the debate are changing and giving way to systemic approaches that strategically integrate a range of historically constituted Others.
It is no accident that with the rise of the networked society, the role of women in power is also changing. But, as Germaine Greer has pointed out in her latest book, we have a woefully long way to go before anything resembling a demographic balance is achieved, in politics, or on the net.
We are seeing the rearticulation of relations between individual and global, domestic and international, strategic and economic, masculine and feminine. But states will continue to articulate the political spaces of their constituent populations as new forms of Other-ness emerge between the information haves and the have-nots.
We are increasingly confronting a world of contact and influence between radically asymmetrical economies.
At one level such contact is not new insofar as the past has seen colonisation through the material economy bringing Modern western countries into asymmetric interaction through the material economy of goods. Increasingly we are seeing similar interactions in a post-colonial world in terms of interactions at the symbolic level, perhaps best represented by financial flows and global debt, though not exclusively so. This is an aspect of the information economy.
The world as a whole is not as wired as the proponents of global telecommunications would like us to think. That, according to PANOS Institute figures, some eighty percent of the world's population has never made a phone call should give us pause to think through what this means in terms of the notion of globalisation. According to NUA net surveys, of the twenty percent (or 1.2 billion) of the population who have made a phone call, about 160 million or less than one percent have access to the internet. Clearly while there are people in almost all countries who have some access to a telephone, one still needs to ask 'who, precisely, has access within these countries?'
International telecommunications standards are themselves set by governments in the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) based on choices made available by the existence of a range of technologies, not all of which are sufficiently compatible to enable seamless communication. In addition, the management of international networks requires global flows of capital and finance, and this is where some see a distinct blurring of the boundaries between states and non-state transnational actors. While many countries remain ill-equipped to manage their telecommunications sectors, the management of the network and its connectivity issues requires a growth in the service sectors of the economies wthin these countries. This is evident in the rapid moves to privatise telecommunications networks in countries, for example like Vietnam that has a poor service sector. In this instance government set the parameters of privatisation, including the provision of service agreements, while the private consortia involved provided the technical infrastructure. But this raises issues too, of service provision to those areas that are not commercially viable for privately owned and operated service providers.
As telecommunication becomes increasingly globalised, bringing with it the promise of development and 'catch-up' for developing countries, we should not be blind to the consequences. These developments are not always as positive as some development economists would have us believe.
Marvin Soroos, in his book "Beyond Sovereignty: The Challenge of Global Policy", makes this point in terms of the ambivalence with which developing countries enter the 'global' telecommunications system:
Third world leaders have been intrigued by the possibilities of using the new technologies as instruments for economic development, while expressing concern that they may perpetuate, if not increase the inequalities between rich and poor states.
Idealistic narratives of global access allowing for the Other to speak, or to provide counter-narratives to those of the developed world, stress the non-hierarchical structure of modern telecommunications. What is elided from these narratives is that, as networks are increasingly being run on behalf of developing states by global telecommunications firms, the profits are repatriated offshore and the country ends up no better off -- indeed can become worse off as it becomes hostage to monopolistic practices and increasingly dependent on the single telecommunications supplier. Some developing countries have sought to maximise their short-term gains by auctioning off telecommunications contracts for different regions of the country. This can lead to incompatible systems being installed in neighbouring provinces within the same country as has happened in vietnam and India. In the absence of effective, informed domestic policy-making and regulation, this risks the effective exclusion of 'less profitable' users from access as the infrastructures become ever more closely attuned to the needs and requirements of transnational, globally operating corporations.
The temptation in any such infrastructure development is to concentrate on those centres where there is a high return, with high data density through high-speed lines at the expense of those links to the network put in place for reasons of the social 'good'. Where the infrastructure is being developed, installed and maintained by private firms, it is difficult to see rural populations being supplied with network services. Where aid projects are becoming involved with online projects for rural communities, the funding is typically marginal and can only be put in place where the infrastructure exists already to support such projects. It is therefore an important political decision on the part of a developing country to turn to a private consortium of firms to supply telecommunications infrastructure. The parallel with rail networks is instructive here.
A number of issues arise from the spread of such a communications network. As Soroos notes:
Technologies that can transmit information over great distances have significant implications for the flow of communications across national boundaries. Taking advantage of the tremendous potential in the field of telecommunications requires a high level of international cooperation. For example, steps must be taken to ensure that the equipment which sends signals from one country is compatible with the receivers located in other countries. Thus, one of the earliest as well as one of the continuing challenges for global policy makers in the field of communication has been to establish technical specifications for equipment ... Coordination has also been necessary in establishing international networks, such as in the laying of cables over land and across the oceans, which link national communication networks. Cooperation is also imperative in the handling of payments for transnational communications as well as in formulating operating and administrative procedures. (Soroos 1986: 324)
Moreover, there are issues of cultural hegemony that flow from the fact that, while some other languages are appearing on the net, the content is still overwhelmingly in English.
In addition, with some 75-80 percent of content coming from the US the issue arises of one country purporting to speak for others. This has not gone entirely unnoticed. For example in Malaysia in 1995 Prime Minister Dr Mahathir noted that too much information on the internet about Asia was sourced from the West - particularly from the US. He called on his ASEAN counterparts to become more assertive about their presence on the net and to produce more content from an Asian perspective.
We have seen that the flow of information across borders has political implications, both for the ability of the Nation state to maintain control over its domestic development, and for its ability to shield the domestic economy from fluctuations in the global flows of supply and demand, resulting in perceptions that the nation-state is losing relevance.
In addition, the establishment of a global telecommunications infrastructure requires international cooperation. This is being managed at the inter-national level through organisations such as the ITU. It is one arena in which national governments of developing countries are working in a situation of notional if not actual equality under international law with developed countries to establish international technical standards.
Developing countries cannot establish their telecommunications infrastructure without international cooperation, which can lead to an erosion of national sovereignty. Developing countries need to call on developed countries to provide the technical expertise in both the construction and continuing maintenance of their telecommunications infrastructure.
But there are difficulties. For example, a call placed in Dakar in Senegal to Lusaka in Zambia has to be routed from Dakar to Banjul in Gambia, from Banjul to London, then London to Lusaka (PANOS 1995). This means that telecommunications revenues that might otherwise have stayed in sub-Saharan Africa, flow to those in the developed North.
All this is because Nineteenth-century Britain felt it important for the 'periphery' to maintain contact with the 'centre' to the exclusion of neighboring countries which may be part of someone else's empire. Hence a system was established, and migrated from telegraph to telephone, which operated on a different technical standard from systems used by other colonial powers
So Africa 's colonial legacy has left it with deep problems of technical compatibility. These incompatibilities result in greater expenses for economies already stressed in providing essential services to their domestic population. These expenses result in greater movement offshore of funds normally kept within the domestic economy, in a continuing flow to their former colonisers.
As economies become increasingly globalised, so too, do they experience erosion of cultural diversity, as they strive for symbols of modernity inextricably tied to Western cultural value systems. What is particularly insidious about this is that the very striving for modernity is undertaken in order to show that they are now free of their former colonisers. From this, many developing countries fear cultural dilution through over exposure to what is perceived as Western moral decadence. These concerns have been voiced from Singapore to China as they embark on increased connectivity with the global economy.
In order to maintain the global network, the management of the network itself requires global flows of capital and finance. This results in increased interdependence, both economically and administratively between the developing world and a relatively few large transnational corporations. Such firms will typically focus on higher-return, high-density service-industry-oriented urban networks, rather than on providing an effective country-wide infrastructure. This is another example of where we have yet to see a drip coming from the trickle-down economy of market forces.
Management of a telecommunications infrastructure also requires a growth in Service sectors of the domestic economy to manage the process. Some see this as colonialism by other means, as developing countries out-source technical and managerial skills to reap what benefits they can from being plugged into the global system. While some will find at least short term niche markets, there are dangers that even such growth in Service industries as is occurring in some developing countries (those that are English-speaking and literate) may be short-lived, leaving greater debt and opportunity costs in its wake.
Some countries, such as Singapore, and possibly Malaysia, will benefit greatly from globalisation, and some will 'leap-frog' their economies into burgeoning Service-sector markets (such as the burgeoning pornography and gambling industries). Others will not. For many, the issue of identity will remain. It is in the politics of Self defined as against the Other that these issues will find their ultimate expression. At stake on the one hand is the Developed world as Self, continuing to maintain structural relativity against the Other of the Developing world. On the other hand lies the definitional struggle for developing countries to establish and maintain a sense of Self as against their former colonisers. At this level the nation state will continue to play a pivotal role in mediating between the domestic polity and the international/internotional economy.
information, see Chapter three of my book:
Virtual States: The Internet and the Boundaries of the Nation State
published by Routledge UK.