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A Chill Wind from China

In the 13th and 14th centuries, China led the world in printing — the leading ‘information technology’ of the time — but with the renaissance, and later the industrial revolution, Europe drew ahead. In the 20th century, America strode the technology arena like a colossus. In the 21st century, China is still way behind in what is one of the leading information technologies of today, the World Wide Web.

That’s easily explained: they’re a developing country with education and income levels substantially lower than in the West and they are disadvantaged by a lack of familiarity with the English language, the lingua franca of today’s Web. So, of course they are well behind in adoption and use of the World Wide Web, or so conventional wisdom says.

Conventional wisdom can be wrong. While researching for a presentation recently, I visited Alexa Web Search, which tracks World Wide Web traffic. I pulled up a list of the top 25 websites by traffic, fully expecting to find the usual suspects (Yahoo, Google, Myspace, etc). Sure enough, there they were. To my surprise, there was Baidu at #5 and qq, apparently a Chinese portal, at #9. The top-25 list was rounded off by five more Chinese websites.

Think about it. This means fully a quarter of the 25 most popular sites on the web are written in Chinese, for Chinese users. China is big on Internet penetration, too. According to reports, they may already have more broadband users than the United States. China is not far behind in Internet activity of the more nefarious kind. The country is one of the top sources of spam and phishing sites.

China is an awesome force on the World Wide Web. Couple this with their already phenomenal domination in IT hardware (much of the world’s supply of computers, including IBM-Lenovo, and almost the entire gamut of electronics hardware, including iPods, are being made in that country), and you have a fairly staggering picture of just how influential this country has become.

If you agree, as I do, that the World Wide Web is powerfully shaping social mega trends, then all of us had better accept that China is going to play a far bigger role in deciding how technology and society will evolve in the coming decades.

Who says the Chinese need to learn English?

About V P Kochikar

  • http://nukapai.typepad.com Nukapai

    I want to know why you describe this trend as “the chill wind”.

  • Seires

    Chinese people eat different food from the rest of the world(well mostly).But that doesn’t change anything.Some Chinese eat food other than Chinese. Some ‘non’-Chinese eat Chinese food. And that’s it.You’re saying this as if Chinese refuses to eat McDonald and McDonald will go bankrupt. If China is indeed ‘an awesome force on the World Wide Web’, it would only lead to the conclusion that there will be two kinds of technology that people use.People choose what they want just like some buy iPod and some buy Walkman.

  • V P Kochikar, Dr.

    Seires and Nukapai,
    thanks for your comments.

    I am merely suggesting that we need to re-evaluate, or at least question, the popular notion that lack of knowledge of the English language is a huge barrier for China to become a force in the technology world. If it were, then they should surely have been “backward” in use of the world wide web. On the contrary, as the alexa data suggests, they seem to have quietly become quite a force on the web!

    It is of couse fully open to debate as to how much this presence on the web will translate into influencing societal change. And it certainly does not mean that they will be powerful enough to hold the business world to ransom!

    However on balance, my feeling is that, given the increasing role that the web itself will play in shaping society, presence on the web will certainly translate into an impact on technology, business and society. Car makers, consumer electronics manufacturers, the entertainment industry, and yes, even the food industry will increasingly take cognizance of Chinese tastes in creating their products.
    And the mention of chill wind is an allusion to the fact that, when a barrier falls, one shouldn’t expect to stay cozy – there may just be a wind blowing in from the other side!