|Global Networks and Local Values|
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Introduction and Context
Global telecommunications--particularly the Internet--can in principle change the ability of national governments to preserve their nations' values. The ever-increasing bandwidth of communications technologies, and their diffusion internationally, makes it possible for large volumes of information to cross national borders much more easily than in the past. And because information--depending on its content and who receives it--can enhance or detract from a nation's ability to govern itself, we may reasonably expect that information technology will have a nontrivial impact on the conduct of national policy.
Clearly, no easy generalizations can be made in advance about the social and political effects of most technological developments. The influence of a new technology on a society is seldom determined solely by its technical characteristics alone. The innovations it spawns--the systemic changes it promotes or makes possible--depend on interactive, bi-directional, and iterative processes that constitute the society's social, political, economic, and cultural life. Indeed, much has been written on this subject1 describing the intricacies of those interactions.
Global information networks are no different in this respect, although their very breadth and transformative nature make the challenge all the greater. As the very term implies, they are not developed by nor are they contained within a single, homogeneous, or even coherent society. Much of their power and potential derives from the connectivity they provide across large distances, geographic barriers, time zones, and political boundaries.
The effectiveness of global information networks depends on some uniformity in technical standards, agreed-upon rules and operating procedures, and compatibility of hardware and software. In each of these respects, choices have to be made that are based primarily on technical considerations and the values held by the technology's first developers and users. But although uniformity or interoperability may be technically desirable, it is much less clear that it is socially desirable, at least to the extent that it limits the accommodation of local needs and values.
Moreover, as the global network diffuses more and more widely within each nation, the values, needs, and desires of a much broader spectrum of people have to be considered. The target is a moving one in several respects: the increasing level of penetration brings additional groups with different characteristics into contact with the new technology; the groups themselves evolve in their adaptation to the network; and the technology continues to develop, offering new potential uses as well as new challenges.
Taken together, these considerations suggest three kinds of questions that define the aims of this report: What can be said about the interactions between information networks and different social/political/cultural systems? How are these interactions affected by the global nature of the networks? What changes in these relationships can be expected over time?
The last question is particularly troublesome and, in a report focused on the future, particularly important. Because of the iterative and interactive nature of technology development, analyses of the present state of affairs may be either irrelevant to or misleading about the future. Who would be willing to predict with confidence that the so-called "digital divide"--the seriously skewed access at present to the benefits of information technology among different nations and different socioeconomic groups--will be a transient phenomenon or, alternatively, an embedded condition that will only intensify in the future? Are the perceived threats to civil society, local businesses, or government-taxation authority inherent in the technology or will they disappear as societies adjust to the dynamics of a new system? To what extent can one expect that, over time, there will be technological fixes for the tensions or conflicts created by the introduction of global networks?
The working hypothesis in this report is that each country is affected differently by global networks, depending on its own local values. Even when the nominal effect is substantially the same in different countries, they may perceive the impact differently; that is, their governments or their people may find it more or less disruptive. Finally, countries may react in different ways, in accordance with the structures and traditions of their governance systems.
Although it is difficult to provide answers to the questions posed above, this report attempts to explore them in some detail. The premise is that by raising the issues at this early point in the development of global networks, societies and policymakers will be encouraged to monitor developments. And they will have a framework for doing so, thus positioning themselves to take action as the dynamics of the interactions between these new global networks and local values become clearer. The discussion also highlights the importance of incorporating, both through institutional and technological design, as much flexibility into the system as possible, thereby allowing for salutary changes to cope with tensions or conflicts as they arise or are recognized. In this respect, technological "lock-in" is something to be studiously avoided.
This report focuses on and compares the United States and Germany. That choice grew out of an interest in both countries to pursue the study on which the report is based. As noted in the preface, the German-American Academic Council asked the U.S. National Research Council and the German Max-Planck-Project Group on Common Goods, Law, Politics, and Economics to undertake the task as a joint venture. Both institutions saw this as an opportunity not only to explore an issue of mutual interest but to do so in a way that could draw on scholarly strengths in both countries, provide greater clarity about the issue itself through the comparisons and contrasts that would be possible, and build a model for possible future collaborations. In this last respect, it was not lost on either institution that developing models for collaborations of this kind is one important social/political response to the very changes being brought about by the globalizing influence of information technology.
A study limited to the United States and Germany has obvious shortcomings. To be truly comprehensive in addressing the interactions between global networks and local values, one would have to examine the entire spectrum of countries. It would range from the Scandinavian nations--which are extensively penetrated by the Internet and have the greatest homogeneity and the least rigid political and social systems--to those, like North Korea, Myanmar, or certain countries in the Middle East, that tightly control or even attempt to seal themselves off from global networks.
On the other hand, comparing two industrialized, relatively wealthy, and extensively networked countries with similar but not identical political systems and similar but not identical value systems can yield insights for policymakers in both countries. The United States and Germany obviously meet these criteria. In addition, they are countries whose languages are primarily English (in one case) and primarily German (in the other), and they are sufficiently large that each has already made practical choices in deciding how to react to the influence of global networks. Their similarities serve to control the number of variables; their differences make clearer how global networks can affect and be affected by relatively well-identified local values. Furthermore, it is hoped that the comparison will offer some guidance as to how differences in judgment or reaction in the two countries might be resolved or accommodated, given the constraint that the networks must operate globally and harmoniously.
This reasoning suggests, in fact, that although a study of a broader range of countries might provide greater insight into the interactions between global networks and local values, it could actually be of more limited use to policymakers. Countries with vastly different cultures or political systems will certainly be challenged by global networks in very different ways, but there may be less to be learned that is applicable to policy choices through an explicitly comparative study of the kind undertaken here; that is, there is likely to be little in the way of policy approaches that is adaptable to one country from the other when the two are widely different and there are few options available that would harmonize policies across the much broader cultural and political gaps.
The U.S.-German committee that was assembled to plan and carry out this study (see the appendix) covered a range of disciplines, including economics, law, political science, sociology, engineering, and science and technology policy. In addition to its several planning and writing meetings, the committee organized two symposia--one in Dresden in February 1999, and another in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in June 1999, to which individuals with an even broader range of professional, academic, industrial, and public-policy backgrounds were invited.
The Dresden symposium focused on the numerous ways in which global networks are affecting local institutions and values, or are likely to do so in the future. Commissioned papers addressed conceptual questions--such as the meaning of values and the several ways in which values are embedded in political, social, and economic institutions--as well as analytical questions concerning actual or potential impacts. The values that inhere in the global networks themselves were also considered.
The Woods Hole symposium focused on potential responses--by governments, other institutions, and less structured groups--to the new context, potential conflicts, and other changes that the penetration of global networks into local societies may likely bring about.
The papers commissioned for the two symposia have been published in their entirety.2 These papers and related discussions also provided the committee with much of the background material on which this report is based, although its organization and content were separately determined.
The similarities between Germany and the United States are fairly apparent. The question is, How do they differ? Obviously, any attempt to describe two complex cultures with a few brief comments based on a limited number of characteristics is bound to lead to oversimplification. However, if one views the exercise as merely an attempt to identify political, social, and cultural differences that might give rise to different kinds of interactions with global networks, it can provide a useful starting point for this study. The following descriptions should be viewed in that light:
Americans, on the other hand, are increasingly impatient with representative democracy, as evidenced by the growing use of ballot referenda in many states and the number of issues that have moved from the agendas of specialized agencies to the forum of public debate. The advent of the Internet has caused many to envision a return to a style of governance much like that of early New England town meetings. Americans are now much more likely than most Europeans to turn to the Internet as a source of information rather than to designated experts.
Much has been written in recent years about the demise of citizen involvement in the United States--fewer people voting in elections, reduced participation in civic groups, and a loss of public support for a "social safety net."3 Some have argued that the concern may be overstated (or they have questioned some of the explanations offered for the phenomenon), but polling data show increasing numbers of Americans responding in the negative to a question asking, "Do you trust your neighbors?"
On the other hand, one explanation offered for the willingness in German society to delegate authority is the relatively high level of trust among citizens with respect to government. The trust appears to be related to the expectation that individuals in and out of government will fulfill their responsibilities. Moreover, the reaction to abuse of that trust may be all the greater in Germany, as evidenced by the strong backlash to recent revelations of fundraising improprieties in the Christian Democratic Party.
Germany has a higher population density, shorter commuting distances, and relatively stable attachment to place. City life is a central feature of social structure, personal marketing, and living generally. Thus there are fewer needs for and attractions to a Web existence, and more to be sacrificed in choosing that alternative.
Americans, on the other hand, generally have little sense of history or geography. Moreover, separated by oceans from both Europe and Asia, they have an impatience with internationalism that manifests itself today as either neo-isolationism or unilateralism. Their lack of knowledge of other languages is well known. Unconstrained by an historical perspective, and ethnically heterogeneous, they are unusually open to change. It is a society with great social mobility, a widespread entrepreneurial spirit, and receptiveness to technological innovation. One observer has noted that Americans tend to look first at the opportunities presented by change, while Germans look first at the risks.
At the same time, Americans create unity by promoting a shared pride in the idea of their country as a nation of immigrants and the values it represents. That very heterogeneity saves Americans from the worst aspects of nationalism, but they do not have a sense of proportion about their role in the world. Combined with their population size and economic power, this omission often leads them to be inadvertent agents of hegemony.
The more decentralized governance and market orientation structures in the United States have facilitated deep penetration of a Web culture in several ways. Competition in telecommunications has led to substantial reductions in the cost of Web connection, to flat-rate access schemes being the norm, and to the availability of many competing high-bandwidth systems via telephone lines, cable systems, and satellites. Decentralization, market orientation, and a somewhat lower level of concern for uniformity of access have led to a faster, if inhomogeneous, spread of Internet connections and use.
In examining the influences of global networks on the two countries, this report attempts to be specific but not exhaustive. It looks at pornography and hate speech, at privacy and freedom of information, at cultural diversity and hegemony, at the local values associated with democracy, and at electronic commerce. In separate chapters, it puts these specific issues into a general framework that addresses global networks, local values, and their reciprocal influence. In so doing, it singles out issues for examination in order to illustrate how diverse the relationship between global networks and local values can be.
The body of the report is divided into three sections. The first deals with contextual issues: how the technology evolved to its present form, how that form may affect its future growth and regulation, and how we can come to an understanding of values that would be useful in this assessment. The second section uses these concepts to examine the effects of global networks on a number of specific issues, including privacy, freedom of information, free speech, and the political and commercial structures in which global networks are embedded. It also suggests alternative approaches to network governance. The third section--the penultimate chapter--raises a number of cultural issues not discussed elsewhere; it provides an opportunity to raise questions that cannot easily be approached in the U.S.-German context, and so it is more open-ended. The final chapter summarizes the high points of the report and offers conclusions.
Clearly, some very important issues are not considered here in any detail. The most obvious among them are intellectual property, electronic cash, consumer protection, and the impact of global networks on financial markets. Two factors led to the decision not to include them. First, much has already been written about these issues elsewhere.4 Second, they appear to be sufficiently far-enough removed from the other issues considered in this report that there would be no great gain in treating them here. Given the practical limitations on the report's length and comprehensiveness, it seemed better to exclude them than to address them superficially.
1 See, for example, Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx, eds., 1998, Does Technology Drive History? Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
2 Christoph Engel and Kenneth H. Keller, eds., 2000, Understanding the Impact of Global Networks on Local Social, Political and Cultural Values, Law and Economics of International Telecommunications, Vol. 42, Baden-Baden: Nomos; Christoph Engel and Kenneth H. Keller, eds., 2000, Governance of Global Networks in the Light of Differing Local Values, Law and Economics of International Telecommunications, Vol. 43, Baden-Baden: Nomos.
3 See, for example, Robert Putnam, 2001, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Touchstone Books.
4 See, for example, Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, National Research Council, 2000, The Digital Dilemma, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.