Site icon

The Law of the Handicap of a Head Start

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:

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.
Exit mobile version