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Communication Blurs Borders

April 2003
By Sharon Berry

International telecommunications networks expand, foster cultural convergence.

The rapid evolution of the Internet and other telecommunications networks has begun to eliminate national boundaries and geographic separation among countries. Scientific methods used to study international information flows and resulting globalization indicate a correlation between the flows and major political and economic changes over time.

Today, as communications networks grow steadily, the information superhighway must be viewed in a global context. The worldwide network that stems from this growth has created a global information marketplace, encouraging social discourse and the diffusion of values, ideas and technologies among all countries.

A communications expert at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo recently conducted a study of how relations among nations changed between 1978 and 1999 based on the frequency of international telecommunications. The research demonstrates that the frequency of interaction among nations is increasing steadily and may be perpetuating a unified world culture, starting with regionalization.

Globalization may be understood from the perspective of world system theory, says Dr. George A. Barnett, professor and chairman, Department of Communication, School of Informatics, SUNY Buffalo. The theory challenges the assumption that nations are independent and that their development can be understood without considering the ways that societies are linked in a larger network of information, material and capital exchanges.

“Events such as the breakup of the Soviet Union and the reintegration of Hong Kong into the People’s Republic of China are the types of forces that may facilitate or retard globalization,” Barnett says.

Three types of nations represent the global social structure: the core, the periphery and the semiperiphery, with economic relationships among these components. “You can think about the core as a hub on a bicycle wheel, and other cultures are at the spokes and the rim,” Barnett explains. “The communications flows will go through the hub.”

The United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom are at the center of the figure today. Around the periphery are a group of Latin American countries, a group of Eastern European nations, the Islamic countries, the nations of Africa, East and South Asia, and former members of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Less economically developed countries are farther from the center than the semiperipheral nations in these regions. Additionally, there is a positive correlation between how central a nation is in the telecommunications network and its gross domestic product.

Barnett notes that factors other than the economic interdependencies among nations also help determine the structure of this network. A country’s geographical location and the language its citizens speak are determinants of the network’s structure. “Communications clusters are a result of which countries communicate with which other countries,” Barnett says. “For example, the countries in the Islamic world communicate with one another. The members of the former Soviet Union still communicate with each other to a far greater degree than they communicate with other countries of the world. What I see happening is that these clusters are going to experience regionalization before globalization.”

In the study, Barnett traces the evolution of communications traffic among countries. In 1978, the world’s communications network consisted of six groups with extensive communications connections among them. These included the Southwestern Pacific Islands and Australia; the Caribbean region; the Western Hemisphere and the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, English-speaking Africa, the Middle East and India; Scandinavia; Europe, French-speaking Africa and the Pacific Islands; and East Asia.

A year later, the network coalesced into only two groups, Barnett notes. The first group encompassed 120 countries spanning most of the world, and the second group comprised 14 East and South Asian countries. By 1980, the network consisted of a single group. These results indicate that globalization is ongoing and that the network has been growing denser at a rate of 1.6 percent per year, more centralized at 1.9 percent per year and more highly integrated over time.

“You’re going to see countries using common cultural products,” Barnett says. “For example, you’re going to see the Chinese culture spread throughout East and Southeast Asia as well as a solidification of a regional Islamic culture. The world’s economic and political systems continue to integrate … much more so than anyone would have thought.”

Barnett shares that events such as the end of the Cold War continued to affect telecommunications flows in the 1990s. The Eastern European countries moved rapidly toward the center of the network as they became integrated into the world economy. The Latin American countries were peripheral in the network, with their positions in the world’s communication system supplanted by the new democracies of Eastern Europe that were forming direct links to the core countries in the network. From 1993 to 1999, Eastern Europe continued the process of integration into the core.

“During the 1990s, the new industrial countries of Asia became relatively less central in the world system, while the wealthier Latin American countries began to regain their position closer to the core,” Barnett explains. The reversal in the East Asian countries’ position began in 1989 and has moved slowly toward the periphery because of the reversion of Hong Kong to China and economic crises, which have influenced these nations heavily.

The increase in the centralization of the network during this period demonstrates that more information is flowing through the core countries rather than being exchanged directly among the more peripheral nations. “What I was surprised by is how clear the findings were,” Barnett says. “What a number of social theorists have been saying that globalization should look like was clearly supported in the study’s findings.”

However, globalization is taking place unevenly as well as in spurts, Barnett adds. Recently, network studies have shown reversals in the trend of centralization, indicating a post-imperialist period with intercommunication among regional neighbors. In addition, the study found little change in the overall relations among the nations, while the network itself is changing at an accelerated rate. “Rather than being stable and predictable, the network may become chaotic and its structure unpredictable,” he says. “The source of this unpredictability may lie in global economics or changes in political relations among nations. Both factors act as impetus for the changes in the positions of individual nations.”

For example, between 1993 and 1994, Chile’s position changed more than five times the average in the network because of its strengthened economic relations with the United States. Between 1996 and 1998, China and Hong Kong changed their positions more than three times the average and the United Kingdom more than twice because of the consolidation of Hong Kong within China.

The global communications network in 1999 consisted of a specific group of 122 countries with the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Russia and Japan at the center and the smaller, less-developed countries and former Soviet Republics at the periphery. The semiperipheral regions included Turkey, China, India, Hong Kong and Brazil.

“The results suggest that the benefits of the information revolution have not enriched all nations equally,” Barnett says. The core nations are maintaining and even enhancing their positions of economic power as the modes of production change from industrial to informational. International information flows currently go through the core, primarily North America and Western Europe.

“Recent discussions in the foreign policy literature suggest that the United States’ role as a world superpower is on the decline,” Barnett says. “But much of this discussion is based upon trade in industrial goods. The research in this study suggests that the United States is still a dominant nation based upon international communication. It is the most central country in the international flow of information controlling the world’s channels of communication. This may be a result of its level of economic and technological development as well as its geographical location. Also, it may be because its people speak English, the international language of science and business.

“If you look at the United States’ society, we have members from all cultures,” he adds. “The United States represents the future of the world in terms of cultural heterogeneity. If you look at the structure of the Internet, all of the flows go through the United States. Very few flows go between Europe and Asia without going through the United States because of the Internet’s infrastructure. Also, many of the European servers are based here because of our position.”

Change in the network has resulted from economic development and two events—the end of the Cold War and the reintegration of Hong Kong into China. These trends suggest what the structure of international communication may be in the future and the implications of these patterns for the development of a universal culture, Barnett says.