Flipping through Shine, I ran across an interesting mention (in the introduction to Lavie Tidhar’s contribution) of Jan Romein’s notion of Wet van de remmende voorsprong, or, in English, the “Law of the Handicap of a Head Start.”
It struck me that the Korean internet (a subject about which I recently posted) is a wonderful demonstration of both sides of this notion: the benefit of a late start, and the handicaps that a head start can introduce into a system.
The link above details several of the handicaps: the dependency on Windows, ActiveX, and even Internet Explorer 6.0, as well as the general institutional resistance to retooling Korean net commerce and web design to modern, global standards, multi-platform functionality, and so on. All of this results from the early adoption of a locally-developed system for security that the Korean government developed, dependent on ActiveX controls, so that ecommerce could begin earlier, instead of waiting for American encryption technology to be exported. That is to say, Korea innovated its own software, got into the game early, and for that initiative — and, one must add, the resistance ever since to adopting the later-agreed-upon global standard for the task — it is now paying a technological price.
That is, if you consider being stuck with only one OS/software combo, and being stuck with dated standards a bad thing. But not keeping your software up-to-date, and having an unnaturally homogenous digital ecosystem, are both likely to leave the country vulnerable. You’d think that was learned on January 25th, 2003, but I suppose not. Though the prediction is that that Koreans will have insanely fast broadband (1Gbps) by 2012, one cannot help but wonder whether they’ll still be using Internet Explorer 6.0 as their main window onto the world… as well as how exportable those “new companies” will be, given their necessary focus on obsolete software and platforms.
(And though this may sound absurd, one finds it slightly more difficult to imagine that Korean IT community will suddenly wake up and recognize the problem: Internet Explorer 6.0 — a browser first released in 2001, close to a decade ago — actually got more users last month, bringing the total very close to 50% of Korean internet users. Apparently they used to blame Microsoft for the problems in ActiveX, going so far as to talk about suing the company in 2003 — even though Microsoft had indeed issued a patch for the vulnerability: one wonders who would get blamed if something like the Slammer virus hit Korea today. Maybe they’d do as the cops did in 2003, and blame China? Sorry, guys, but the Chinese didn’t force Korean ISPs not to patch their systems.)
But the ironic thing is, Korea was probably propelled into this situation by the advantage of a late start. It was easier for Korea to set up a wired broadband Internet infrastructure not just because of South Korea is small and densely-packed with people; there are a whole host of reasons, from the conscious promotion of the internet to housewives, the explosion of PC-Bangs (a “gateway drug” to the experience of using the Net, making it more desirable to do so at home), deregulation allowing competition to emerge, a nationwide impetus to change things up after the 1997 economic crisis, and even the desire to keep up with the Joneses. (More details on these and more causes are available in this report.)
Another reason, certainly, is that Korea didn’t have to go through the massive experimental period when everyone was faffing around, trying to figure out what was the best way to provide or receive internet service. There was competition, but the job of building a high-speed internet infrastructure on any real scale came years after the dust settled on the messy question of which types of hardware and wiring would work best (at least, for now… new cabling always becomes necessary eventually, but laying cable early on means replacing it if you make a wrong choice — which is easier since early choices are also more often relatively uninformed choices — always the curse of early adopters). By then, it was easy enough to choose a basic infrastructure model as the standard, and to even award construction companies for building structures (homes and offices alike) specifically to fit with the national standards for internet connectivity.
All this raises a couple of interesting questions, very pertinent to the next work of long fiction I plan to write:
- To the degree that a late start can provide an advantage in a given “complex technology,” (a technology with multiple tiers, where one tier can be cutting-edge while another is outdated) it can also create disadvantages further on down the line which proceed as a result of the late-start advantage. How is this applicable to technologies other than the Internet?
- Is it possible organizations — say, governments — to artificially retard the adoption of a technology or the development of an infrastructure until they can benefit from a late-start advantage? In “complex technologies” is it possible (or desirable) for a society to strategically retard elements of its development — certain tiers of a technology — to maximize late-starter advantages? (For example, had Korea waited the few months necessary to get 128-bit SSL encryption, would Korea’s internet be in less of an anachronistic bubble vis a vis the global internet?)
- How far does a lag need to go — or how long can it be ignored — before it is widely recognized that retooling is necessary? For example, Korean internet users are (a) primarily using Korean services and sites online, and (b) not particularly interested in the rest of the global internet. I can think of two scenarios which would prompt demands of a massive retooling: either peripheral services become impossible to access (say, a game that is released for a newer version of Windows only, and not for XP), or a catastrophic event (like a repeat of the 2003 Slammer virus incident) based on a vulnerability that strikes Korea especially hard (or, if we wait long enough, Korea alone, perhaps purposefully so) because of the country’s dependence on an obsolete OS. Which, of course, raises another question:
- Are there hidden benefits in using an obsolete technology similar to those of using an unpopular technology? (For example, the number of computer viruses for Mac, Linux, and other OSes are a miniscule joke compared to the viruses tailored for Windows systems. Will virus writers move with the world, working on new code to infest newer Windows OSes? Will any new viruses be coded for the obsolete OS?)
Interesting questions to play with. Feel free to comment, or not. I’m already thinking a lot of this through in terms of the novel I’m writing with the working titlle A Killing in Burma.