07 August 2005

Web Globalization

Earlier this week John Yunker spotted a job advert. This job advert gave him an excuse to link back to a piece he did last December in which he said that 2005 would be the year when Web Globalization Goes Mainstream. Web designers are now being asked if they are also "web globalizers". Can they, that is to say, design websites that reach out successfully beyond their linguistic base, with well placed "change the language" buttons, which route viewers to their local supplier of the global goods or services in question?

One of the most portentous questions about cheap global electronic communication generally, and about the internet in particular, concerns whether these technologies will unite mankind, regardless of race, colour, creed, or language, or whether, by making global communication far easier between all those who share the same beliefs, cultures or languages, it will merely allow mankind to remain as divided and quarrelsome as ever.

But this latter tendency may only be the first consequence of the new technology.

Throughout the history of communications technology you get these first-this-then-that stories. Printing began with Latin Bibles, which seemed capable of uniting all of Christendom. But soon, printing presses were the basis of different, nationally distinct, church systems, each with their own particular Bibles, like the Church of England. Printing turned out to be divisive and nationalistic.

Our current electronic communications devices, when they first got started in the 1840s, when the Morse Code was first devised, seemed at first to hold out the promise of global unification. Yet the electric telegraph fed nationally selected news to national newspapers distributed on national railway systems which were themselves only made manageable by telegraph wires besides the railway lines. And when the nationalism thus democratised and inflamed culminated in the First World War, telephones enabled a new sort of twentieth century warlord to supervise battles that stretched over hundreds of miles and thus killed soldiers in unprecedented numbers.

In short, these things can be very hard to predict.

The tendency that John Yunker has noted suggests that the internet may now be engaged in yet another of these communications technology about-faces. Yes, the internet, during its first few years, has allowed people to concentrate on the easy stuff, of talking only to ideological allies, of uniting only those most easily united, of selling products only to those who already understand your language and already love your sales patter, needing only to hear it. But once that is accomplished, the balance of reward shifts, towards those who are able to reach out beyond the confines of shared belief, shared culture, or shared language. Selling across language barriers, with effective multi-lingual websites, is all part of this latter process.

Originally published on the Globalization Institute Blog by Brian Micklethwait.

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