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« The Internet is essentially based on information linked to a specific area, language, culture »

Interview with Frederic Martel by Virginie De Kerautem
(BFM Business Channel / L’Atelier)

Frédéric MartelSeen from afar, the globalisation of information and communication technologies might appear to be leading to uniformity. However in reality countries, governments and populations are shaping the way the Internet is used to suit themselves.

Interview with Frédéric Martel, researcher, journalist and writer, during a broadcast by L’Atelier Digital L’Atelier numérique on the BFM Business Channel. His latest book, ‘Smart, enquête sur les Internets’ (Smart, a Study of Internets), published by Editions Stock, based on a survey carried out in around fifty countries, describes how different players are experiencing the transition to digital technology and highlights the specifics of different ecosystems.

L’Atelier: Today the word ‘smart’ is used to mean ‘intelligent’. In your book you use the term practically as a synonym for ‘Internet’. What exactly do you mean by that?

Frédéric MARTEL: Well, we talk about smartphones. We talk about the ‘smart city’. Television is also ‘smart’ and it communicates not just with the Internet but also with social networks. This is the outlook that I try to describe in my book: a world that is not only ‘smart’ but ‘smarter’ – i.e. more intelligent, more connected and more linked to the Internet. Smart isn’t just a synonym for ‘the Internet’ but I would say a synonym for the internets, plural. Globalisation isn’t leading to uniformity but actually to its opposite – fragmentation. That’s why we ought to be talking about internets in the plural.

To prove this, you went in search of various very specific ecosystems…

The Internet doesn’t do away with frontiers. On the contrary, it entrenches them. Cultural content and information doesn’t travel easily on the Internet. It’s true that a lot of global content circulates across borders on the web, from the ‘Gangnam Style’ video to some event or other featuring Beyoncé or Lady Gaga. This content enables millions of people to get together on the Internet at the same time to see and hear identical content. But this is only a tiny part of our Internet consumption. Today, in the vast majority of countries, the Internet is essentially based on information linked to a specific area, language, culture. The Internet is actually fragmented.

In other words, there as many internets as there are countries? Among the examples you quote, you also talk about countries where there’s a lot of violence, where the Internet is a tool for social politics. How does that work?

Well, I don’t think we can say that there are as many internets as there are countries. It’s rather more complex than that. Take for example the various communities – Otakus, Femens, gays, whistle-blowers. They send out global information but on very specific topics for specific audiences on a national or international level.

As regards Internet use in dangerous countries, some cities in the eastern part of Mexico or the towns bordering the United States use the social networks and the Internet in a way that is closely bound up with the local situation, such as where there is a lack of information, or the area is controlled by drug traffickers, etc. So some keywords and hashtags on Twitter make direct reference to the local situation. The same happens in the favelas in Brazil, in the townships of South Africa and the slums in India, where the Internet and the smartphone enable new, extremely imaginative approaches. These help drive the economic development of the region.

You describe in great detail the Silicon Valley ecosystem and what has made it a success. You also quote many other initiatives such as the ‘smart cities’. What special features do you see?

In most of the countries I’ve visited everyone wants to re-create a home-grown Silicon Valley. Take for example what they’re doing in Skolkovo, a town about thirty kilometres from Moscow. It’s a digital city, a ‘smart city’ built in the icy cold of Russia. Or Konza City, in the savanna an hour’s drive from Nairobi in Kenya. At the moment the only residents of this future digital city are giraffes and zebras. Brazil also has its ‘smart city’, Porto Digital, a digital city in the north of the country, built on the site of a former port.

I’m both interested and moved by this desire to create ‘smart cities’ everywhere in the world but at the same time I’m rather sceptical. I don’t know whether they’re going to come to the rescue of Russian digital technology by creating a city from scratch by government decree in the middle of that vast cold terrain. I think it would be better if Putin started by supporting bloggers and startups. But Russia isn’t going that route. Nor is Kenya. It’s all very well for the country to have a strong ecosystem to support startups, but building a fairy-tale city in the middle of the savanna is not necessarily a long term solution. There are doubtless other urgent measures that could be taken to drive the country’s transition to digital.

China has its very own internet vision. What is it aiming for?

Yes, China does have its own Internet. It’s not exactly an intranet but it’s not everyone else’s Internet either. Its special feature is how it has copied western models. For example there are the sites such as Renren, the equivalent of Facebook, and Baidu, the Chinese Google, and Alibaba – which is modelled on Amazon, Paypal and eBay. But Alibaba’s turnover is larger than that of Amazon, Paypal and eBay put together. This shows you the power of this Chinese Internet. And China has also reproduced YouTube with Youku and Twitter with Weibo. After interviewing a number of players in a dozen large Chinese cities, I’ve concluded that the Internet there isn’t totally closed off. It’s certainly censored but there’s a real expansionist view with the objective of taking the Americans on, providing an alternative. This is the reason why China is looking at countries like Iran, Venezuela and emerging countries such as Indonesia, India and Brazil. It’s interesting but it’s also quite worrying when you think that Chinese economic power basically depends on an authoritarian system which is dead-set against press freedom.

Do you mean that using censorship could be a protectionist strategy to encourage Chinese players to break through rather than ideological censorship?

Well, it’s both really. There’s clearly censorship run by an authoritarian regime which doesn’t want a free press and which refuses to accept any user-generated content which displeases the Chinese authorities. But at the same time they have to accept it given the power of their social networks Weibo and Renren. Seen from this angle, I think that when Apple is threatened, when Google is chased out of China and has to withdraw to Hong Kong, it’s not so much about censorship as economic patriotism. As always in China, the authoritarian regime and economic patriotism are closely linked.

At the end of your book you say that we’re just seeing the beginning of the transition to digital. What’s going to happen next, then?

Yes, I’m one of those who think that we’re only just at the beginning of the transition to digital technology. You can see how innovation is starting to speed up. The smartphone is still relatively recent, applications, a whole range of technical tools, sites, etc. – things are moving non-stop. So we have to prepare ourselves for change in the long term. In a way the notion of progress is back with us again, the grand idea of the19th century which carried the masses along with it and led them to industrialisation and through to today’s post-industrialised society. In the same way, the Internet is restoring our belief in progress. But once again, if this progress is to be positive, for people to take an optimistic view of it, if it’s to change people’s lives in a desirable, healthy way, we have to take hold of the tools and not be passive about it or let fear of failure hold us back. We must take an active role in the change process because basically the Internet is neither good nor bad in itself. Everything will depend on what we’re able to do with it.