In a new global study of Internet usage, there is an observable shift that mirrors much of the world’s current demographic and economic growth, says the report’s author Soumitra Dutta, Dean of the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. Whereas in the past, the Internet was dominated by Western sources and users, it is now becoming an Eastern-centric space, Dutta tells Arabic Knowledge at Wharton.
Dutta additionally notes that there are shared attitudes towards Internet usage around the world, and a demand for some governance to ensure security and the reliability of information accessible online.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Can you speak about the shifting patterns of adoption and behavior in what you call the new Internet world?
Soumitra Dutta: The center of gravity of the Internet is shifting and also what used to be a primarily western-centric Internet world is now becoming an east-centric Internet space. In Southeast Asia and South Asia, emerging markets have already dominated the space in a big way.
That is an interesting question for us in terms of trying to understand how is this changing perhaps online behaviors, why all these perhaps changing online attitudes, and what does it mean for companies and corporations if there’s some change.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Can you elaborate a little bit on the definition of the old and the new Internet world?
Dutta: When we walked into the research in the first place, we didn’t really think of the world in terms of ‘old and the new.’ We were thinking in terms [that] there’s a shift in the gravity, which is very clear in the numbers. So the key method from a very much of her numerical point of view and that there is shift in the center of gravity and the Internet world is moving from the west to the east and so what does it mean in terms of behaviors [of users on the Internet].
We were quite open to the idea that maybe there’s not much of a change in ideas and behaviors of people as a shift is occurring. But what we found was that there is this definite shift happening in the perceptions and attitudes of people especially in the east and emerging markets and that comes of repeatedly a lot of data points in the report. That led us to perhaps conceptualize and say the center of gravity in terms of the population online is shifting, maybe the nature of the Internets in terms of behaviors also are shifting and that is what we termed as the new Internet world.
The new Internet world really reflects part of the reality of the changing demographics and the changing sort of masses of the population online, today and in the future. It reflects all the behavioral changes we are finding in the populations in this new market. For example, what we’re finding is some of the people in the new markets in the east and in the south are much more open to innovative behavior and they are much more open to experimentation online.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Research has shown that the lack of trust can undermine e-commerce online. So what would this mean with the fledgling e-commerce sector in developing nations and regions, including the Middle East?
Dutta: What we’re finding is that people everywhere want some security and want all the basic elements, stability and infrastructure. What we’re finding is the element of trust is slightly higher in this new Internet world as opposed to a classical or traditional old Internet world. So that high level of trust is leading to perhaps an openness towards more innovative behavior, more experimental behavior online in these emerging markets.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Will these perceptions of trust and security be different in the Middle East especially because of the way things worked traditionally and with the changes that are happening right now?
Dutta: The perceptions are going to different [and] this perception of trust is going to be influenced by the local contextual factors, including cultural, historical and political factors, the regulatory environment and all the kinds of sociopolitical, socio-demographic aspects in the traditional context. I think these kinds of differences will emerge across different regions in the world. So the statement I made about having more openness and more innovative behavior is a generic one but having said that, they are going to be seeking differences across specific markets.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Given your experience in the Middle East, including the ICT project in Qatar, how do you see these issues especially around trust and security developing and evolving in that region?
Dutta: I think trust as a whole is going to be driven by multiple factors. Online is only one of the elements affecting people’s perception of trust. I’m talking about trust in the system, trust in the government, and trust in business as a whole. If you’re talking about trust about information online, I think what we’re also finding is that people are asking for a certain level of assurance and there’s a role for the government to provide the level of assurance. Assurance in terms of having economic security, assurance in terms of the content that is online is trustworthy. I think that you start seeing a sense what people want, and that they don’t want a ‘free-for-all’ kind of environment [online]. They do want some kind of the governance put in and the governance can highly be replaced by the government or the private sector or civil society or some combination of these three kinds of players.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: One of the findings of the study was that there are more cross-national similarities than differences. What does this mean for the future of adoption and the growth of the Internet, especially in terms of technology innovation?
Dutta: We did find that there were some similarities across people everywhere. Everyone believed the Internet was good for them, it should be a fundamental right for human beings, everyone believed that the Internet should provide a secure environment and people wanted to have faith in information that they’ve read online, so they wanted to have a kind of security and trust. There was a need for that and the people express that.
What this means essentially is that Internet governance across the world has to be strengthened. I think it has implications that — depending on what kind of players, whether these are government players or private sector players or multinational and national organizations, or civil society — there needs to be a collaboration across the multiple players, the multiple stake holders to be able to come up with a system that provides a certain level of assurance of security and trust to people worldwide. I think that is something that is necessary today and we have to find ways to make it more real for citizens online worldwide.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: The study suggests that English-only service is not an ideal situation but it’s still the top language on the Internet. Given that Asia now has more people online than the Western countries combined, as the study suggests, what impact will the trends highlighted it in your study have on the way business is done via the internet around the world?
Dutta: I think clearly the diversity of language on the Internet is going to change and expand. That’s happening already and there are even more non-English language-based sites and content available. I also think technology will improve so there will be more automatic transfer and translation across languages. My hope is that language will become a little bit less of a barrier going forward in communication online. Some is happening already but these technologies will keep improving in time and I think automated translation will in fact drive more communication across the world.
Having said this, if you assume that language will not be a barrier or that it will be less of a barrier, this means that there’ll be more global commerce because it’ll be easier to find and trade with different players around the world. I do believe that it will be easier for companies to source innovative ideas around the world and a lot of innovation in the future will happen from the East. Why? That’s where the center of gravity is, that’s where most people are and that’s where many people are the most experimental and most innovative.
So, if the most innovative ideas online are emerging from the East as opposed to the traditional Western sources, you have to be able to access these ideas. Once again, all of the ideas may have to be either expressed or implemented in local languages. My own hope is that better automated translation of languages will enable companies not just to do more commerce but also source more innovative ideas from around the world.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: There clearly there is a culture of innovation that still exists in many countries in the developed world. What impact might this growth of the Internet and the large numbers of people online have on the culture of innovation, or perhaps a lack of it in developing countries?
Dutta: I think the rate of innovation is increasing in emerging markets. That’s quite clear. There is also an enormous amount of legacy power and history that favors the developed markets. I produce the Global Innovation Index and the top countries are almost always developed countries. But at the same time, there are now countries in the top 30 who were not necessarily rich developed economies in the recent past, including countries such as Korea and Israel.
So countries have also shown that they can change, that they can improve and they can go after innovation sort of path and slightly rapid timeframe of 10, 20, 30 years. So what I do think is going to happen is in the Internet and online sort of explosion in this emerging world, is going to just open up more of a useful innovation. There’s going to be more and more possibilities for innovation. There’s going to be more and more different ways by which people can create new companies, create new ideas, and my own hope is that it will lead to a whole new generation of inspired entrepreneurs in emerging markets who will be inspired to create new ideas using some of the low barriers of the internet to enable businesses.
The developed markets will continue to the innovation as a holistic area. And there’s enormous amount of legacy power in these markets to drive innovation, whether it’s educational quality, whether it’s the strength of the institutions, whether it’s the strength of infrastructure. To emulate the infrastructure, the institutions, and other kinds of broad human capital development strategies of the West could take quite some time.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Your report says that users within the new nations in the online world have also manifested more innovative patterns. Can you elaborate on what these innovative patterns are?
Dutta: In the report, we have listed some behaviors that we classified as socially playful behaviors online. Aspects like how willing are you to make friends with people that you don’t know, how willing are you to engage in some activities that you haven’t done before online, how willing are you to trust people that you haven’t met online?
So typically, if you look at these kinds of the precise questions, a combination of those behaviors are what we termed as more open and more experimental behavior. So clearly, this is a survey done of individual citizens online, so we don’t ask them questions like ‘have you started an online company,’ but what we are finding is that these online citizens are much more open in terms of doing different things, doing things at a different rate, doing things with new people they haven’t met and doing new things themselves. So what we feel is that these aspects will help create innovative ideas and innovative businesses in these markets in the future.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: With all these new people in different languages and different value systems coming online, what impact will this have on the content, especially the types of content, on the Internet?
Dutta: I think you’re going to have a wide variety of content and in some degree you’re already seeing it happen. I think that’s where the challenge comes in, in terms of trying to provide a kind of assurance that people are looking for. People have looked for assurance in terms of security, in terms of trust. So everyone supports freedom of expression online. Also there’s no one that actually says we should restrict freedom of expression. I think people like freedom of expression, so that will innovatively drive a variety of content. But people at the same time do want security; they don’t want the content to be misused. They want that they read online to be trustworthy.
So it’s kind of a little bit of a paradoxical situation where they don’t want their own abilities restricted while at the same time wanting assurance that in the work they produce will not be misused and fundamentally, they can trust what they’re reading from others.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How does, say, increasing the amount of Arabic content on the Internet from 3% to 7% have an impact on other people who cannot speak Arabic?
Dutta: That’s where translation comes in. I’m assuming that their language will not be a barrier. If I am able to access what people are writing in Arabic and I actually understand that, then I should be able to use all of that hopefully to innovate better. Access to varied content and assuming language barrier decreases are assumptions I’m making. What I’m hoping is that the language translation will improve and become almost automatic, so as it would be seamless to the reader. You should not care what the language is. You’ll be presented the information in a language that you can understand. So the more ideas you’ve accessed, the better it is in terms of innovation and moving forward.