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World: Analysis From Washington -- A Tectonic Shift

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 4 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The countries of the Asia-Pacific region in 2005 will pass the United States in terms of the number of Internet users, a shift that will change both the nature of the Internet itself and its impact on both the countries of Asia and others as well.

That is the conclusion of a report released on 3 May by the International Data Corporation, an Internet monitoring group. The report found that the number of Asia-Pacific web users, excluding those in Japan, will rise from 64 million at the end of 2000 to 240 million in 2005. Users in just three countries, China, South Korea, and India will account for almost three-quarters of that total.

For most of its existence, the Internet was invented and has remained a largely American institution, with the United States setting the standards, responsible for most innovations, and ensuring that the dominant language on the web has remained English. And even the rise of Internet use in Western Europe has done little to challenge this American dominance.

But the rise of Asia on the web seems certain to have three major consequences for the Internet that will affect not only that region but the entire international environment.

First, most Asian web users connect to the web wirelessly -- via cellular phone technology -- and their growing number is likely to follow that pattern. Indeed, the IDC report predicts that new Asian websurfers will increase the percentage of wireless web users from the 2.6 percent now to nearly 40 percent in only four years.

This shift to wireless operation in Asia will undoubtedly contribute to lowering the price of such access worldwide and thereby promote the use of wireless Internet access elsewhere as well, including in the United States. And that in turn will likely promote still more frequent use of the Internet as the communications tool of choice.

Second, because Asian markets are so fragmented and the cost of gaining market access in any particular one so high, the rise of the Internet in that area almost certainly will make it an even more important conduit for trade and economic activity across that region than the web plays now in the West. As corporations adjust to that new reality in Asia, they are likely to try to promote the same ideas in other regions of the world.

If that proves to be the case, the current skepticism in the United States and Western Europe about the role of the Internet in commerce may give way to a new wave of optimism and renewed expansion. That too would likely change the economies not only of Asia which forms a third of the world's population but other regions as well.

And third, to the extent that Asian users come to dominate the web, they are likely to insist that their own languages occupy a more prominent place on the web than those languages do now. And that could prove to be the most important consequence of all from the rise of Asia on the Internet.

That is because the new Asian users will be entering a domain where their languages will be in direct competition with English. Many of the new users will learn English as a result, but both they and the users who choose not to do so are likely to find their own sense of nationhood simultaneously challenged and intensified.

Their sense of nationhood will be challenged because they will be forced to make comparisons between their own language-defined world and the broader world defined on the Internet so far in English.

And their national identities will be intensified because this comparison, like the earlier comparisons between vernacular languages and Latin and between native languages and European tongues, will almost certainly make them more aware of who they are and who they are not.

Indeed, the Internet's conquest of an enormous new region may contribute to the rise of new nationalisms, which will be expressed both in English and in the native languages, across a medium that has now swept across the world.

And that, more than the economic or linguistic impact, is likely to be the most important result of the trend the International Data Corporation has reported this week.