This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Globalization of culture unlikely

UB study of transborder communication finds U.S. dominates, but nations regrouping

Published: February 6, 2003

Contributing Editor

As the world moves into the information age, the international telecommunications network has become denser, more centralized and more highly integrated—signs that point to globalization and an increase in Western cultural and economic influence.

A study by an internationally recognized communication expert at UB, however, suggests that the decades-long tendency toward Internet dominance by the United States, Canada and Western Europe may be changing as the regions of the world begin to cluster into mutual-interest groups.

George A. Barnett, professor of communication in the School of Informatics, reports a trend toward de-centralized international Internet communications that he says has important implications for the understanding of globalization and the development of the "universal culture" that has been predicted and feared by less-dominant cultures.

His analysis, which examined telecommunication relations among more than 100 nations from 1978-99, suggests that a post-imperialist period is emerging, one marked by increased intercommunication among regional neighbors who have similar cultures and economic/political interests.

"Regional interests are becoming more important within geographic regions themselves," Barnett says. "It is becoming more and more common, for instance, for East Asians to communicate and coalesce to look after East Asian interests, Middle Easterners to discuss and address issues in their region.

"The consequences of this change are difficult to predict," he adds, "but it seems likely to lessen Western influence in some regards, since communication within regional clusters will reflect the values and traditions of the nations in those clusters. It also offers the opportunity for regional groups to resolve regional problems in ways more acceptable to their members than if they were imposed from outside, by North American or European powers."

On the down side, Barnett says that some regional groups likely will find themselves opposing the interests of other regional groups.

His study points to the emergence of six international "civilization clusters" whose members have shared cultures, values and interests. In working to promote their own interests, he says, these groups may come into conflict with one another. Unlike the controversial predictions of a "clash of civilizations" made by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, however, Barnett does not think hostilities are inevitable.

He argues that globalization evolves from increasing communication between any two points on the globe, particularly interaction regarding political, economic and scientific activities.

"The kinds of global systems or networks that arise from these international telecommunications tells us a good deal about the position of individual nations both within the international community and vis a vis one another," he says.

To understand his study, Barnett says it helps to think of the world's Internet communications system in terms of a radial structure with the U.S. and Western Europe near the center of the network. The arms emanating from the center are composed of groups of countries that are regional neighbors, with the most "connected" members of each group clustering toward the center of the wheel, and more marginalized, or "incommunicado," countries from each cluster at the wheel's periphery. Although there is communication along the arms, there is none along its rim.

Until recently, those communicating from one peripheral nation to another had to be transmitted through the core, where they were exposed to, picked up and disseminated Western cultural, economic and political values in many forms. It is that pattern of international communication that Barnett says is changing.

The study found that:

  • There is a significant positive correlation between how central a nation is in the telecommunications network and its gross domestic product.

  • Since the early 1970s, when telecommunication emerged as a public international communication device, the highly industrialized nations of the West were essential—literally central—to any effort to transfer information among the world's nations via the Internet. Virtually any communication from anywhere in the world had to go through Web sites in the high-tech Western nations.

  • Since the 1970s, the network has become denser (at a rate of 1.6 percent per year), more centralized (1.9 percent per year) and more highly integrated.

  • Since the mid-1990s, there has been a reversal in the trend toward centralized global communication, precipitated mainly by the economic development of what had been peripheral nations, the end of the Cold War and the reintegration of Hong Kong into the People's Republic of China

  • This change has produced regional network subsystems that permit extensive communication among six culturally similar groups of nations: the West (United States, France, Canada, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom), Eastern Europe, Latin America, East and South Asia, Africa, Islamic countries and the former Soviet republics. The study found that these subsystems—made up of the nations arrayed along the spokes of the wheel—may be solidifying to represent the interests and points of view of the civilization groups involved.

  • The globalization of international communication is taking place at an accelerating rate, but unevenly—"in spurts"—suggesting that network change, instead of being stable and predictable, may become chaotic and structurally unpredictable.

  • The source of this unpredictability may lie in global economics or changes in political relations between countries—both of which serve as an impetus for changes in the positions of individual counties within this network.

  • Although recent discussions in the foreign-policy literature suggest that the United States' role as the world's superpower may be on the decline, Barnett's results suggest that as the rest of the world moves into the information age, the U.S. will solidify its position as world leader.

"This may be a result of economic and technological development in the U.S.," Barnett says, "or due, in part, to the country's geographical location close to Latin America and the fact that its Pacific and Atlantic coasts allow the U.S. to serve as a liaison between Asian and European interests.

"In addition to that," he says, "the predominant language in the states is English, which is now the international language of science and business, and the country has a heterogeneous population comprising members of all the world's nations."

Barnett says—with the caveat that the accelerating change in the world's telecommunication system renders predictions suspect—his study suggests what the structure or pattern for international communication may be in the future and the implications these patterns have for the development of a universal culture.

Barnett reported results of his study at a conference at the Beijing Broadcast Institute, China's national center for radio and television studies.

Barnett is the author of more than 100 books, articles and conference papers on such topics as organizational, mass, international and intercultural, political and technical and scientific communication, as well as marketing communication, public relations and the diffusion of innovations. He edited the "Handbook of Organizational Communication" with Gerald Goldhaber, UB associate professor of communication, and is a former editor of the journal Organization Communication: Emerging Perspectives and Progress in Communication Science.