Open systems, Information technology and blossoming (or not) of Civilizations.

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On holiday, I met VC Bothra who started off this discussion in context of India and the Gutenberg press. Having an interest in history and archaeology – I have enhanced it with examples of other civilizations and the impact of the global spread of the Internet and Open systems

There are two points I am making here

a) Information technology gives cultures and civilizations a ‘once in a lifetime’ chance to leapfrog / totally transform themselves

However, it’s not enough merely to create a new ‘information innovation(a language, a printing press etc)’ – it’s necessary to remove barriers so that it can spread fast, create new nodes and enrich itself. Leading to the second point

and secondly.

b) ‘Closed’ civilizations and knowledge centres do not grow. In fact, they shrink and die

Information technology and the transformation of cultures

The best example of this is the Gutenberg press - which created a whole new competitive advantage for the Europe.

India, today, is another example where the IT revolution has led it to effectively ‘skip’ the industrial / infrastructure changes. In other words, as countries like Singapore, South Korea and Japan developed after world war two, there was first a corresponding increase in industrial output and infrastructure development. In contrast, India still has a long way to go in infrastructure – BUT has effectively levelled the gap using information technology

Another example is China. The invention of paper in ancient China - led to the development of a rich civilization. In contrast – note that the current Chinese development is based on industrial production and not information technology

I have long believed that Africa will be a key beneficiary of the mobile revolution (see The mobile internet will do more for Africa than Live 8 !) i.e. the lives of ordinary citizens in Africa will be transformed by the rise of the mobile internet

Now, let’s come to the second part

‘Closed’ civilizations and knowledge centres do not grow. In fact, they shrink and die

The Sumerians invented one of the first languages as we know it. As per the link above Sumerian, the oldest known written language in human history, was spoken in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and peripheral regions) throughout the third millennium BC and survived as an esoteric written language until the death of the cuneiform tradition around the time of Christ.

It was the first but it was ‘elite’ i.e. for aristocracy, esoteric (like Greek and Latin today) and different to almost all the then contemporary languages (like Hebrew).

The result is – inspite of being the first – it’s an extinct language today

So, what does that tell us today?

Information technology is enabling pockets of cultures to leapfrog decades of underdevelopment. This development is taking place primarily due to ‘links between nodes’ i.e. easier communication between people which enables creation and development of the whole body of people.

This phenomenon is being played out at local levels (like India) but also at the global level (the Internet)

In contrast, societies which will not interact or which will choose to erect barriers will shrink (like the Sumerian language)

Finally, I will end this article with another insight for us to ponder about.

Japan and South Korea excel in industrial production and they have been largely successful in dominating western companies in terms of physical goods

BUT .. I believe that the same will not happen with respect to Information technology. Essentially, there are too many barriers to entry for western countries to ‘sell’ to Japan and Korea(and also China). These are useful to keep competition out BUT are also succeeding in stifling the exports of Japanese and Korean information technology products (i.e. those not based on physical hardware). The only way out is to ‘export’ a hardware/a standard FIRST (think betamax, VHS etc). This, in my view, is a no win situation i.e. the nations being ‘exported to’ are not likely to adopt a proprietary standard and give up competitive advantage in the current climate

In the information technology game, the winner is not the one with the best (or earliest) breakthrough(like the Sumerians) – but rather the one with the greatest number of ‘links’ i.e. an open system

In conclusion ..

History is a wonderful teacher.

There is much we can learn from the Sumerians(in English!)

Image source: wikipedia