Thinking Tech

Do not look at the Web through American eyes

Do not look at the Web through American eyes

Posting in Government

English gives people entry into the global middle class, and a chance to sample its sensibilities, including its attitude toward Internet censorship.But that does not make folks in other countries Americans.

I can't help being an American. But I can, if I choose, avoid looking at the Web only through my American eyes.

I have been fighting this urge since the 1980s, when I covered the old Electronic Networking Association, a group that saw early conferencing systems like PARTIcipate as part of a revolution that would allow elites worldwide to communicate freely and create a new type of global culture.

In some ways that has happened. Online resources have done a lot to make English the global language.

We learn it here from the cradle, but those who aspire to be middle class elsewhere learn it starting in kindergarten. The English I heard in Chengdu was better than a lot of what I hear in my own Atlanta neighborhood.

English gives people entry into the global middle class, and a chance to sample its sensibilities, including its attitude toward Internet censorship.

But that does not make folks in other countries Americans.

What brings this forward is the current chatter about Iran and China.

Iran has had an active blogosphere for years, and many of those bloggers speak English as well as their native Farsi. Many also speak fluent geek.

This knowledge of proxy servers, social networking, and uploads from cell phones have overcome the best efforts of the Khameini government to do to Iranians what China did to its protesters in 1989. The whole world is, indeed, watching, and will continue to watch.

But we can't be certain whether what we're seeing is the voice of a large majority or a Tehran-centered minority. It's wrong to turn everyone into Americans, as some have tried to do at Twitter feeds like #IranElection. I doubt anyone who might replace the current regime would agree with, say, Charles Krauthammer on Israel.

The same is true for China, where Google's "kowtowing" to the regime in Beijing covers only its Google.cn site. China fears young people seeing naked bodies. Americans feign being aghast, but don't many of us feel the same way? And isn't China's anti-porn policy also Australia's?

The issue here isn't really porn. It's about informal government support for a competing site, Baidu, which doesn't really need the help because it's better in Chinese than Google can ever be.

Americans should not assume that it's 2009 in China. The upheavals we know of as the 1960s have not yet happened there, especially in terms of economics. China remains an industrial economy.

China's middle class is mad for English, specifically American English. They treat their kids like I was treated in the early 1960s -- I was spoiled rotten.

Few there have yet considered the implications of this. What happens when the nation becomes dependent on the entrepreneurship and innovation of a generation raised like America's baby boomers?

That day is coming, but it's not here yet. Both the fear and embrace of that day remain elite activities. Confusing that with the national will, or restraint of the national will, is an easy mistake to make.

Especially if, like me, you see the Web through American eyes.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure