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Tim Berners-Lee on the web and the developing world (Video)

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Dan Biddle Dan Biddle | 11:28 UK time, Thursday, 20 August 2009

Recent blog posts by Aleks Krotoski and guest blogger Andrew Keen around the subjects of the web and nations have sparked a great deal of discussion and comments around the matter of the wider world in the World Wide Web - how its reach may be received and adapted by developing countries and non-western cultures.

We have even mused on the possibility of the web as a form of soft imperialism - a spreading of Western message via a pervasive western platform. And this idea has in turn has been challenged by users on the blog.

Indeed, the web's inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee disagrees with this idea. His is a different vision of the as yet unconnected 80 per cent of the world receiving the web. Over to Sir Tim (from his speech at the Web at 20 event)

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It's the connection, the sharing, the two-way communication that seem to fuel Sir Tim's views there. Sir Tim sees Africa not just as influenced by the web but also as influencer. But is he right?

Where can we actually see non-western cultures' influence in evidence on the web of the West? We know from your comments and input that the web is different for other cultures, but aren't these isolated differences, peculiar to that cultures' adoption/adaptation of the web?

Can you point us to an example of western web culture having been directly affected by the influence of Chinese, Indian, Korean, or African web cultures?


Transcript of the video:

'In developing countries of course people have phones where they don't have computers. And to a certain extent there are certain level of people who have phones with their browsers but don't have computers.

...where the web at the moment is only used by 20 per cent of the planet, it's possible that we'll get very much more of the planet actually with access as they get phones, and those phones have simple web browsers.

So one of the things we have to make sure is that it works for them, that we don't just target everything in HD, in three dimensions, whatever the next new thing is - at, you know the early adopter, we also have to make sure that we target things in low resolution, low bandwidth, to people out there.

But also we have to realise that one of the things which, when you talk to anybody, for example, about going to Africa, about how people use technology, is they all say it is incredible how whatever the technology is they are really really creative with it. Well guess what? They're human beings and human beings are creative. So one of the things we've got to realise as well is as people, more people get connected, it is their creativity...

...the important thing is we must enable them to create a web that they need and that they want, and they will. If they're enabled, if they're given an open internet platform, a neutral internet platform, they will do that. So we must not think that we will be feeding them our culture, we must realise that their culture is going to be coming back very strongly and that is going to be very exciting for the world.'


  • Comment number 1.

    One branch of a global corporation has helped me to explore the online planet: Google Translate. Its ability to translate websites in seconds is helping me to read and understand music blogs from all over the world. (Music might be universal, but it helps when I know that Jacques/Paolo/Dembe/Kim is saying, "These beats are fresh, dude.") However, it's disturbing that Google can promote global conversation, regardless of language, and then cave in to corporate and political censorship re. China.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think that 'the web' - or all the applications running on the net - may be influenced by many cultures so that 'on average' it's not a western thing, however that fact will be lost on most people.

    As others have noted, we operate in tribes. It's been documented that most of us limit our activities to relatively few sites. So while it's perfectly possible that most websites in the world will reflect, say, African values one day, most Brits will continue to spend their times on the ones that they feel more comfortable with. So they won't notice that 'most of the web' deals with things they aren't interested in in languages they don't understand. (I think this is a good thing, incidentally.)

    All sorts of people, and Hans Rosling gives some great examples on TED.com, argue that 'Africa' is not a single place but a collection of disparate peoples and cultures. 'The web' might reflect values we identify as African, but people in Ghana and people in Namibia will probably be using it in different ways.

    I think the problem is you're asking questions about the whole thing, focusing on averages, instead of the different cultures and 'ecosystems' existing within the whole. What's wrong with accepting the net as an essentially infinite new playground in which there is room for everyone to do their own thing and find/found communities that meet their own needs.

    I don't think there's enough communication between tribes to really say that any one has widespread impacts on the majority, but you might find a few.

    One suggestion is that certain values considered to be European/socialist have become part of an equation that was initially dominated by American culture. I'm talking about Tim BL originally designing the web to be free and open, as he continually campaigns for less control in the face of attempts by US interests to ensure that they dictate the future. And Linus Torvalds coming up with Linux, the alternative to the closed proprietory standards of Microsoft.

    Would Apache have come into being without these people establishing the principle? Maybe, as there is a sub-set in the USA that doesn't subscribe to the majority view. But the issues people have raised with Wikipedia indicates that 'ownership' is often protected in the USA more aggressively than in Europe. Didn't Bill Thompson write articles a while ago about the battle between US and EU approaches to copyright and patents? Especially software patents. Tim and Hans have both made impassioned cases for the release of raw data collected by taxpayer-funded organisations and it's interesting that the American president dubbed (by the BBC) potentially 'too European' for some American tastes has a commitment to information-sharing.

    A probably irrelevant note: Twitter didn't take off in Taiwan, but Plurk is gaining popularity fast. Plurk crowd-sourced translations of their website and as of today there are 33 options to choose from, Twitter currently offers a choice between English and Japanese. Despite the hyperbole about giving power to the people, very few organisations seems to grasp that the people are scattered around the world and don't want to be told what languages a service needs to be provided in. In terms of who can use it, Twitter is making decisions at the top of the organisation while Plurk has left the decision to the users. It'll be interesting to see how that pans out.



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