Globalization of Computing

Globalization of Computing

GLOBALIZATION OF COMPUTING ________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________

"The Globalization of Computing: Perspectives on a Changing World," in Comm. of ACM, Vol. 34, No. 1, January 1991, pp. 19-21. by S.E. Goodman

Are the computing and telecommunications technologies making the whole world a better place in which to live?

A large majority of the readers of the Communications would probably answer this question affirmatively and without much hesitation. After all, we make our living by developing and promoting these technologies in various ways. Much of what we read reinforces that view. American and Japanese "techno-advocates" write about such things as global companies and information systems, the "global village," and how the information technologies are making the world into a smaller, more efficient, happier, richer and more homogeneous place.

But what do most of us know about what is going on beyond a few professional communities in a few technologically advanced countries?

The world is still far from homogeneous. In particular, the production, availability, and applications of computing and telecommunications among and within countries is very uneven. It is not a simple statistical fluke that the U.S. has roughly one telephone per person while Indonesia and China each have one telephone per 200 inhabitants.[1] What is there to compare between the semiconductor industries of Japan and Nigeria? There are important historical, social, cultural, and economic reasons for such disparities and, for better or worse, these differences make the world a more complicated and interesting place.

Today, a great many countries and regions are looking to the information technologies as a means to further their economic and social aspirations. The "International Perspectives" section of the Communications of the ACM is being created to describe and examine the issues, problems, and solutions that contribute to or hinder the globalization of computing and telecommunications.

The potential subject matter for this column is rich in both its substance and its differences in perspectives. The following four subject areas are a suggestive sample.

Different paths to "informatization."(*) How are countries approaching the problems of the widespread and effective absorption of the information technologies? Do the United States and Japan have so much cultural, technological, and economic influence that their "ways" are, in effect, the only, or best, or most interesting, or most appropriate ways for everyone or every place to develop and use the information technologies? Are there a few other fairly widely used "models," and do all countries more-or-less follow a single or hybrid approach chosen from this small set? Do most internationally successful and widely used computer systems, like those for financial services or transportation reservations, become homogenized as a result of such factors as explicit standardization or various forms of technical influence through powerful vendors and publications?

Although rarely explicitly stated as such, much of what is published in the computing literature tends to support and publicize the approaches of a small number of prominent nations. We would like to provide a forum for alternative perspectives. Among other things, this column will be used to examine problems and accomplishments where national character or circumstances -- e.g., culture, history, natural factors -- played a decisive role.

[ (*) footnote. By the way, "informatization" is not an official English dictionary word. But I think it should be. It comes from a Russian word currently used by analysts and legislators in the Soviet Union in connection with efforts to bring about a radical change in the ways information is generated and distributed in their country (or in its increasingly independent parts). Perhaps it is fitting that our brief, initial discussion of the subject should start with the adoption of a term from a country whose past history and current struggle with this problem is of such great importance to the entire world.]

Major regional issues. The passing of the era of the dominant bipolar superpowers has been accompanied by regional political and economic transformations that have been influenced by, and which in turn will greatly influence, developments related to the information technologies.

This is most dramatically evident in Europe. A collection of the most fratricidal countries of the first half of the 20th Century, forced into a 45-year high-tension peace by the superpowers, Europe now has the opportunity to end the century with some world-historical changes. The impact on the information technologies promises to be enormous. Three macro-problems and macro-opportunities stand out. In terms of increasing scope, complexity, and immediacy, they are: (1) the reunification of the two Germanies; (2) the political and economic recoveries of six post- communist and reform-communist countries (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia); and (3) the full or partial integration of the core West European economies, along with significantly improved ties with countries at the northern and eastern extremities. If successful, Europe would likely become the world's largest integrated market in terms of total manufacturing and buying power. But there may be many "insurmountable opportunities," and it is not difficult to imagine some dismal consequences of failure.

The European and other regional situations are both so unsettled and so ripe with potential of one kind or another that it is impossible to say much with great confidence. What roles have the information technologies played in bringing about these situations, and what impacts are these regional transformations likely to have on the development and application of computing and telecommunications? How are relations between regions going to be affected? Are we likely to see an evolution to three inwardly focused and more protectionist super-regions? Although it is too early to provide much more than speculative answers, these issues are of such consequence that they need to be addressed here, even if only speculatively.

True Globalization. For all the hype (and some reality with respect to the masss media) about the electronic "global village," it is important to recognize that it extends to only a small fraction of the world's population. Huge portions of the world remain outside, and sizeable fractions of the populations in some of the relatively more developed countries are at the margin.

Have many poor countries been abandoned by the technologically advanced countries and companies because they have so little money and infrastructure to build upon? What successes and failures have come from efforts to bring computing and telecommunications to so-called third and fourth world countries and to regions outside of the main cities in almost any country? Do economic and political leaders of the have-not countries view the information technologies primarily as means for the invasion of popular American or French culture and Japanese goods, or are there more positive and carefully formulated possibilities? What roles do the information technologies play in a chaotic and complicated world of concurrent trends towards both democratization and "tribalization"? This column would welcome perspectives on these problems from people with extensive first-hand exposures.

Global macro-problems. Today there is great concern about the capacities of human institutions and of the earth itself to provide for worldwide growth and improvements in standards of living. Three of the most prominent of these macro-problems are: (1) increasing limitations on the exercise of national sovereignty; (2) limits on the capacity of the environment to sustain and nurture civilization; and (3) uncertain and weakened control in technology-based societies.[2] In very important ways all of these phenomena are the result of accelerating S&T trends. The traditional forms of sovereignty of nation-states have been weakened by applications of the information technologies, e.g., through satellite observation and assorted forms of transborder information flows.[3] Medicine and agriculture have enabled the rapid growth of human population, and other technologies have magnified the damage that this population can do, to the point where huge sectors of the global environment may be seriously damaged over both the short and long terms. Almost every major technological domain -- e.g., nuclear, computing, petroleum, biotechnology -- now has the kind of "extended reach" whereby human error or malice can cause damage affecting large numbers of people in many countries.

Despite certain improvements in productivity and standards of living brought about by technology in general, and the information technologies in particular, counter-trends are such that per capita levels may be declining when averaged worldwide. By far the most overwhelming of the counter-trends is that of population growth, with net increases of over 50 million people each year (i.e., a "new" France) and countries growing as rapidly as 4 percent annually (Kenya). In some ways, the information technologies may have widened the so-called have/have-not gaps, or at least made them more visible.

Some grim or draconian possibilities notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine dealing with these problems without the extensive or imaginative application of the information technologies. This is certainly evident in the traditional but fairly limited improvements represented by information systems for environmental monitoring, communications for disaster relief, the use of satellites for agriculture and resource exploration, efficient control of power grids, etc. But the information technologies are relatively clean, resource intensive, and multipurpose, and massive infusions of products do not dig up, use up, and clutter up the world the way, for example,automobiles do. As such they would seem relevant to more basic changes to our socioeconomic systems, e.g., a cultural and economic reorientation away from material acquisitiveness and consumption, and toward some more benign form of striving. We hope this column will be able to provide some encouraging ideas and examples in articles to come.

This brief introduction to the prospective coverage of "International Perspectives" is hardly all-inclusive. A sample of other possibilities might include cross-cultural comparisons (e.g., the use of computers in the education of young children), and the many contentious issues that exist between countries (e.g., intellectual property rights).

No editor can do justice to this range of subject matter and perspectives without the assistance of others. Readers are encouraged to send me comments, suggestions, anecdotes, insightful speculation, short essays, and raw data on any subject relating to international aspects of the information technologies. At least initially, I would like to cast a wide a net in order to help me identify reader interests and sources of information and expertise. Contributions from non-U.S. readers are especially welcome. Of course, any information used in this column will be gratefully acknowledged.

I would also like to publish some "guest columns" written by other observers of the international panorama. To this end, readers are invited to submit essays of no more than 1500 words for consideration.

All correspondence should be addressed to:

S. E. Goodman MIS/BPA University of Arizona Tucson, AZ 85721 USA or or (fax) (602) 621-2433


[1] International Telecommunications Intelligence (UK), Oct. 31, 1989, pp. 14-15 (JPRS-TTP-90-001, Feb. 12, 1990)

[2] Kenneth H. Keller, "A World Transformed: Science and Technology," Foreign Affairs, Fall 1990, pp. 123-138, and private communications.

[3] Walter B. Wriston, "Technology and Sovereignty," Foreign Affairs, Winter 1988/89, pp. 63-75.

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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