My Ethnocentrism

October 22, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

What you’re reading on your screen right now probably got there via a broadband connection. Nobody uses phone modems anymore; everybody’s got DSL or cable broadband, right? And the US is way ahead of other countries on this score, right?

Wrong. A former chair of the FCC, William Kennard, noted in a Times op-ed piece yesterday, “Since 2000, the United States has slipped from second to 19th in the world in broadband penetration, with Slovenia threatening to push us into 20th.”

I must admit that I was surprised . . . not this time, since I'd heard this before. But I was surprised when I first read about this a few months ago, when the US had just fallen out of the top ten. I had just assumed that the US had more technology than any other country.

I guess the lesson here is that even social scientists can fall prey to ethnocentrism — the “we’re number one” mentality. (When Bush, in one of the 2004 Presidential debates, said, “America’s health care system is the envy of the world,” nobody challenged him on it.) Or was I falling victim to the sampling error of personal experience. After all, I have high-speed access —at home, at work, at Starbuck’s— and so does everybody I know.

Or maybe my assumption was that Capitalism, the Market, the Invisible Hand, would work best; companies smelling profits would all be intent on bringing the latest technology to as many people as possible.

So why has the US fallen so far down on the list from its earlier high rank? Kennard gives us a pretty good clue: “Studies by the federal government conclude that our rural and low-income areas trail urban and high-income areas in the rate of broadband use. Indeed, this year the Government Accountability Office found that 42 percent of households have either no computer or a computer with no Internet connection.”

Most of the countries that have higher percentages of their populations with broadband are more urbanized than is the US. Iceland, probably not the country that pops into your mind when you think of high-tech and the Internet, ranks third. But it’s over 90% urban. Sweden, Belgium, the UK, and others — all are more urbanized than the US. And broadband providers can reach more people when those people live closer together in cities and not on farms.

But income also matters. Canada’s percent urban is the same as that of the US, but it’s in the top ten on broadband. The same is true for Norway and Japan. But in these countries, the people at the lower ends of the income distribution are not as far away from middle and upper incomes as are the poor in the US. On income inequality, we're number one.

Maybe I was only half right about US capitalism (and capitalism generally). Yes, it’s a very good system for producing more and better stuff. But when it comes to distributing that stuff, the invisible hand deals the good cards to the players with the large chip stacks and is content to ignore others.

Narrowband is all right for text, but that's not where the Internet is going. For things like music and video roadhogs of the information highway you need broadband. So when you’re creating that video to upload to YouTube, you might think about adding a soundtrack in Slovenian.

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