Alongside US, Them

By Jamie King, 13 January 2004

Access for all relates inversely to culturaldiversity online, or does it? Jamie King on the DNS statistics of Matthew Zook.


The brute question of access to the datastream, of information 'haves' and 'have-nots', has traditionally been one of the chief weapons of the critical analyst in the ongoing attempt to 'problematise' the prevailing neolibertarian ethos of cyberspace as land-of-opportunity. Casting the 'have-not' as the dark side of a Net which effaces difference has been a key feature of many of the formative moments of net criticism.

But as is the way with such things, this problematisation of cyberspace has itself become, well, problematised. Today Others – if not the starving masses proper – are coming online in a big way, and as they do so, many of those in the 'access for all' vanguard will be realising with a sinking feeling what they should really have known all along: that more palms on mouses could well mean, quite simply, more obedient consumers online. In this sense, the old clarion call for global access seems (admittedly in retrospect) less and less like a critique of the Net, and more and more like a collaboration in the distributed effort to extend the reach of cyberspace over the entire globe.

Enter Matthew Zook, whose research both demonstrates that the access-above-all approach was 'always-already' incapable of creating true heterogeneity on the Net, and shows the way forward to a new way of analysing behaviour online.

In short, Zook's method is to analyse the geographic distribution of global domain name registrations. Now, you could be forgiven for thinking that a fairly prosaic activity – but the potency of his analysis lies in the fact that those who take the trouble to register domains will tend not only to be relatively sophisticated net users, but also, more importantly, to be content producers. A strong ratio of domains to population can be taken as a good indicator of the power orientation of a particular nation's users to the Internet at large. In Japan, for instance, a country with a relatively high proportion of information 'haves', Zook shows that, fascinatingly, domain registration is the lowest out of all the OECD countries. Kogawa Tetsuo, a professor of communications studies at the Tokyo University of Economics, has explained this by pointing to Japan's strong tradition of centralised, bureaucratic power which makes the nation's adaptation to the Internet's amorphous structure difficult.

In other words, by plotting domain registrations on the world map, Zook is able to demonstrate statistically what we should have known all along. Japan – a bastion of 'Otherness' if ever there was one – finds itself in the position of consuming net content, rather than producing it for other cultures to engage with, because of its cultural difference. Conversely, Zook is able to show that the citizens of the US, with their perfect ideological fit with the Net (after all, they and their forebears largely created its technology, its mythology and its culture), hold an immense advantage. Ninety-four of the top hundred websites worldwide are still products of, and based in the US, and in particular, three regions – San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles – are emerging as leading centres for the global Internet industry.

Thus, far from ending the importance of place by providing universal access to a space in which the imortance of place itself is elided, Matthew Zook's research suggests that those national cultures with a good fit with the culture of cyberspace, particularly in large Western cities, may experience an augmentation of the gains they already have over Other cultures as they come online. What it says most clearly of all is that we must now stop asking the question of access in and of itself, and look instead at the terms on which access is had, how it is used, and how, most importantly, it might be to the detriment of those cultures who we so much wanted to be online alongside us.

“Old Hierarchies or New Networks of Centrality? The Global Geography of The Internet Content Market” and other papers by Matthew Zook, are available at []

Jamie King<>