Universal Access: Some Global Issues

By Karen Coyle

[This is the text of a talk before the World Affairs Council in San Francisco, September 13, 1994.] ©Karen Coyle 1994
In this country, when we speak of access, we are generally talking about the issue of extending access to electronic communications to all. "Fiber to the home."

If we take a good look at the capabilities for access in this country, we should realize that we have a fairly advantageous situation in relation to Universal access:

Compare this to a situation where telephone service is a middle-class luxury, where all computer equipment is imported and therefore paid for at US prices. And of course, universal access in a non-English speaking country will require software in the native tongue of that country, which does not currently exist in most cases.

There are also cultural aspects that make our country quite likely to be a leader in Universal access. We have basic concepts like "freedom of speech", and "democracy requires an informed public" that make information systems a logical part of our cultural construct, and something that our government must at least nominally support.

Let's look at some interesting statistics.


Here's the ratio between numbers of US computers on the Internet, and non-US. This shows how much the Net has spread beyond our country. However, it is important to realize that the first non-US connection was in 1973, under the Arpanet, the predecessor to the Internet that was founded in 1968.

But what I really find interesting is this list of the top 5 non-US countries for Internet use.

Non-US Hosts

Germany and Japan don't really surprise me, but it's hard to explain the presence of the UK, Canada and Australia. They aren't countries that we usually associate with a lot of high tech research or production. They aren't particularly wealthy countries. They have strong higher education systems, but probably not that much stronger than many other Western countries.

What I see here is a kind of a cultural "bloc" - a block that speaks the native language of the computer industry, English, and that shares at least to some extent the values of open education and freedom of speech which we derived from our English heritage. The Internet was definitely designed on a model of "open access" and freedom of information exchange; a cultural model of information access and exchange that is as American as apple pie.

When we talk about barriers to access in countries, we usually emphasize technical problems: a lack of telecommunications infrastructure that can support the full-time connections that the Internet requires; a lack of computing equipment. We also talk about economic issues that have an influence, such as the need for hard currency in order to make purchases from the computer and telecommunications producing countries. And the the fact that if your native language requires something other than the latin alphabet, computer use will be limited to those with higher educations who have mastered a Western European language.

But there are more subtle issues at work. In some cultures, access to information is reserved for a power elite. Even in some democracies, participation in the information infrastructure is not part of public life. These cultures will have no interest in spreading open electronic communications to the general population. The interesting case in point here is France, which developed the government-sponsored MiniTel system that brought electronic communications into every home, but that has decided not to allow access to the Internet or other networks through that same system.

I have mentioned that today's computers use the Latin alphabet - this means that computers can handle languages that use characters a-z, plus some of the accented versions of these letters. But a new international standard was passed last year that defines a new character set for computers that will accommodate all (and I do mean ALL) of the world's languages: from Cyrillic, Greek and Hebrew, to Urdu and Arabic, to Chinese, Japanese and Korean. The first company to include this capability in their software is Microsoft.

When I heard this, in my great wisdom I thought - Aha! Bill Gates is going after the Japanese market, and we will soon see Japanese language editions of our favorite Microsoft software. But two weeks later I got a humbling lesson in "thinking big." I read in the Business section of the paper that Bill was off on a trip to -- China! That's right, why settle for the population of a small Island when you can market to the largest population in the world.

But a week later there was another article in the Business section reporting on Bill's return. He came back shaking his head in disbelief - the Chinese showed no interest at all in his wares. He was offering them expanded access to computer technology, marvellous software that would open up new worlds for them, they didn't want it. They had no interest in promoting widespread computer use. Clearly, the Chinese won't be discussing universal access to the Internet any time soon.

This shows us the extent to which our assumptions are based on the American model, which is very much a cultural model.

So although the Internet has become the world's largest computer network, in my NSHO, the Internet is "global" in the same way that reruns of Gilligan's Island beamed by satellite all over the world are "global." The Internet carries with it cultural constructs that are very American in their nature. I don't believe that the Internet could have been developed anywhere else in the world, and I don't think that we know how it will play outside of the Western-dominated academic and business circles. The most interesting question to me is whether other countries will develop "native" electronic communications systems, as France has done, and if so, can they connect to a world-wide network without compromising their own cultural values relating to information .

Before I end, I just want to show you one more chart.

Male/Female Ratio

Though this talk focuses on world issues, another piece of evidence that Internet use has some strong cultural constraints is this figure that shows that only about 13% of Internet users are female. We don't have comparable figures for racial minorities among users, but I would expect the figures to be equally shocking. The average age of Internet users is about 30. I would suspect that income levels are higher than average. So, even within our country, the issue of access has more to it than just figuring out where to lay the wires.

©Karen Coyle, 1994
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