Globalization at different speeds

“We have just one world”, goes a song by Dire Straits, “but we live in different ones”. The language of one-worldism – loosely themed around interdependence and globalization, urging us onwards to greater cosmopolitan ethics – is pretty common, but the reality of how much of a ‘global village’ we are is pretty uneven. Rather, the different ways in which the haves are divided by the have-nots suggest how parts of our planet’s six-and-a-half billion inhabitants might as well be living on a different planet.

South Korea’s efforts to forge ahead with gigabit broadband speeds, with 1,000Mbp speeds to be common by 2012, just boggles the mind. In the UK, BT trumpts a 20Mbp speed – and that’s just the ‘up to’ advertising caveat, with the reality averaging far less. Digital exclusion is an issue within the UK itself, between urban and rural access – and increasingly, as with September’s Millennium Development Goals summit, so too for international development efforts. The recently established Broadband Commission‘s message to the MDG Summit breathlessly proclaimed broadband internet access as a “game-changer”:

“Beyond any physical or virtual infrastructure that has preceded it in the industrial revolution or information age, and as a catalyst and critical enabler for recovery in the wake of the recent economic slowdown, broadband will be the basis for digital invention and innovation and the foundation for digital and other investments that lie at the very heart of our shared knowledge economy and society…We believe that broadband inclusion for all will represent a momentous economic and social change commensurate with the very problems that the MDGs aim to solve, and that it will be a game-changer in addressing rising healthcare costs, delivering digital education for all, and mitigating the effects of climate change.”

Do check out Akamai Tech’s maps of differential rates of broadband penetration around the world – while broadband is defined at just 2Mbps, the patterns across regions suggest just how much more some places are connected than others.

Higher Education
The science Nobels are routinely awarded to scientists working at different institutions, feeding off each other’s advances that, while often independent of each other, similarly wouldn’t be able to happen without collaboration. Increasingly, joint appointments between institutions in different countries see researchers working in different places over the course of the year. Ivory towers seem to have bridges between them to allow the routine circulation of academics around them.

But a piece from last week’s Times Higher Education is a reminder that many universities can be, and indeed are, left behind in ‘internationalisation’ efforts: patterns of collaboration vary in a marked fashion between and across different regions, and international student mobility, at less than 1% of undergraduate totals, is also pretty restricted.

How deeply the Internet penetrates societies and how connected institutions of higher education are to global networks are just two signs of how the global pace of economic development is still unequally expressed. And while trends can change, inequality, left to its own devices, tends to exacerbate itself. Perhaps rather than a flattening world, we still very much have one of core and periphery.

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