The Digital Flood: Diffusion of Information Technology across the United States, Europe, and Asia

The Digital Flood: Diffusion of Information Technology across the United States, Europe, and Asia

The Digital Flood: Diffusion of Information Technology across the United States, Europe, and Asia

The Digital Flood: Diffusion of Information Technology across the United States, Europe, and Asia


No technology seems to have spread so fast around the world in such a short period of time as computers. It was a phenomenon that predated the arrival of the Internet and that began to change how businesses, governments, and whole societies functioned. The diffusion of information technologiesoccurred in dozens of countries all over the world with fascinating similarities and differences. In this book, historian James W. Cortada provides the first world-wide history of how computers appeared and were used in North America, all of Europe, and in most of Asia in barely a half century. He explores the causes of diffusion, arguing that more than the technology itself, other conditionswere required for the spread of computers, such as standards of living, education, the Cold War, and globalization of the economy. He argues that these technologies are the glue that hold together today's economies and are propelling increases in the quality of life of over a billion people movinginto the middle class. Based on archival and secondary research, extensive use of economic data, and detailed country case studies of over a dozen nations, Cortada tells the history of how computers were discovered, invented, built, and used, and the consequences for whole regions. This is the first attempt by anyexpert to write a global history of information technologies, and specifically, about how these spread. It is economic and business history, but also a guide to those who want to understand what is happening today in such nations as India, China, and other emerging economies as the Computer Revolution continues. He has insights for historians, economists, public officials, and business executives.


Before today’s wave recedes we must catch the wave of the future and let the winds of
change breathe new life into the business. Nor should we imagine that tomorrow’s busi
ness will be a simple linear extension of past trends. We must draw lessons from the past,
then elaborate on them to prepare for the future.

—Koji Kobayashi, 1989
Chairman, NEC Corporation

Well over a third of the world’s population use cell phones—a tiny digital computer—yet these devices did not exist a quarter of a century ago, while sales of personal computers and iPads are counted in the millions. How did such items spread so fast around the world, even to regions where the poorest people on earth live? Commercially available computers came into their own in the early 1950s, and within a quarter of a century, virtually every large corporation around the world relied on them, as did most governments and, by the late 1990s, small and medium-sized businesses in the “advanced” and “developing” economies of the world. Today large computers—called mainframes in pre-Internet times and now more often known as servers—power the movement of massive quantities of data through the Internet, a “human nervous system,” accessed by over a third of the world’s population and by as many as ten billion devices ranging from security cameras to water purification systems.

What was it about the technology that caused so many managers and public officials to embrace it? We are normally told that declining costs for the technology and increased capabilities and improved reliabilities made diffusion possible. But do these features tell the whole story? I think not. The great speed and extent of adoption are features of the diffusion of computing that is so undeniable and possibly unique in the annals of the history of technologies, that economic and technological answers cannot be enough to address what is an ongoing very complex process. Yet, to be sure, using the language and models of the economist and technologist are useful tools for engaging in . . .

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