Global disruption: The information lowlands are rising fast
This time, let’s go up 100,000 feet for a look across the globe. As the media industry in the developed world struggles, billions of humans elsewhere are moving from information scarcity to full access to the world’s knowledge.
Some time ago, thinking about this strange dichotomy, I tried to come up with a visual metaphor to reflect what’s happening.
I was picturing the globe and its many nations and peoples, and thinking about their drastically unequal access to information. And I was thinking about the rapid and unprecedented rate of change in information access in various regions of the world — even in some of the least advanced regions.
Hmm, I thought … what if we could see a map of the world’s information topography?
That is, instead of a map or globe showing the elevations of the various land masses, how about a map in which the heights of the land would depict the amounts of information available to the local populace?
The mountains are information
On this kind of map, the mountains, mountain ranges or high plateaus would not depict elevation, but rather the regions where people had the greatest access to information. The lowest plains would be in those parts of the world with the worst access to information.
This kind of globe would have changed drastically over the centuries.
On a standard topographical map or globe, the elevations don’t change over time. The Himalayas stay high forever, and the Amazon jungle stays low forever. But the earth’s information topography has changed drastically over time, and it’s changing faster now than ever before.
In the Dark Ages, before the printing press and the advance of literacy, the world’s land masses would have been almost entirely at or near sea level. Only a few small pinnacles would be seen, mainly reflecting the wealthy, the scholars and the clergy and their small libraries of books or scrolls.
With the invention of the printing press and moveable type, the information topography would begin to change. This would reflect more books printed, more people able to afford them, more people learning to read, larger libraries.
And these were concentrated mainly in Europe, China and a few other centers of trade, commerce or academia around the world, where printing first emerged and grew.
Wealth followed information
Where the printed word spread, education tended to become more organized and more available to the population. More people learned more things, invention accelerated, manufacturing and commerce grew, middle classes developed, political structures changed from monarchies and dictatorships to more democratic models.
If we could view this period of several hundred years on the information globe, compressed into a few minutes, we would see high pinnacles rising rapidly in what became the leading industrialized nations of the world, while most of the world remained at very low elevations.
At the granular level, I see these mountains and plateaus as the result of individual access to information. Where people gain access to knowledge, many eagerly consume it. They have much more of a chance to learn and grow, to gain skills, to achieve things that would not have been possible for previous generations. This drives economies and political systems.
Viewing the information globe, we can see that what have been called developed, developing and under-developed nations have been determined largely by how much access to learning their peoples have had. The chance for individual growth, across a population, creates the likelihood of national advancement.
What’s happening now?
With the dawn of the electronic age almost 100 years ago, and the digital information age 20 years ago, the developed countries — which already had the highest information topographies — rose even faster. They adopted radio, television, cable TV, the Internet, broadband and mobile phones faster than the rest of the world.
But in the lowlands, where information access has historically been low, there is great determination to catch up and share in the benefits of the Information Age. The human appetite for knowledge and growth is insatiable.
In his brilliant 2005 book, The World is Flat, Tom Friedman exhaustively documented how laying fiber optic cable to India enabled millions of people there to become direct competitors with workers in the industrialized nations. His metaphor is that a flat world means equal access to information and therefore a level playing field.
My metaphor of the information globe may seem to be the opposite, but its import is exactly the same. Rising access to information among billions of additional people around the globe is the big story that will play out through the 21st century.
And now, for people in underdeveloped countries, mobile phones are bridging the infrastructure gap that otherwise would have taken decades to close.
As more and more populations gain access to knowledge and learn new skills, they will fight their way upward to greater self-fulfillment. They will be unstoppable — just as the citizens of the industrialized world were unstoppable 100 years ago, when they gained access to new skills and knowledge.
In the industrialized nations, this continues to incite waves of protectionism. Populist politicians pledge to keep jobs from going to these countries, as U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump did just this week.
This may get political traction, and it may even alter public policies in the developed world. But it can’t stop the percolation of the world’s information into the far reaches of the globe — and that’s what enables and drives economic growth in these far-flung countries.
The lowlands are rising, and they will continue to rise.