Globalization in the Information Age:
Western, Chinese and Arabic Writing Systems
by Dr. Andrew Bosworth, Department of Government,
University of Texas at Brownsville
This paper maintains that writing systems have provided an
infrastructure for economic, political and cultural expansion since
ancient times. The paper examines how and why Chinese and Arabic writing
systems are making advances in media technology, allowing for the emergence
of large regional blocs that rival a western-oriented world system.
Two writing systems rival the Western Roman alphabet in the Information
Age: Chinese and Arabic. In the foreseeable future, neither will replace
the Roman alphabet on a world or “supra-cultural” level, but
Chinese and Arabic writing systems are carving out large regional blocs,
virtual and real. These non-western civilizations are employing the
technology of communication to resume historical trajectories independent
of the West. This is true in East Asia, where populations and markets have
reached (once again relative to the world) a critical mass. It is also true
in the Middle East, where digital media is increasingly based on Arabic
script - even in the cradle of writing itself, Iraq, the current battleground
between Arabic and Roman writing systems.
Indeed, this paper proposes that the global distribution of power is
about to tip away from the West and towards a multi-polar system. For some
observers this is troubling, for others it is comforting. This paper simply
asserts that when it comes to writing systems standardization has always
been followed by variety-generation and diversification, or, to put it
another way, that hegemony is followed by equilibrium. From this long-term
perspective, it is clear that world-historical or evolutionary forces, being
phased in the manner described above, favor the propagation of Chinese and
Arabic writing systems in cyberspace.
Writing is defined here as a systematic form of non-verbal communication,
and writing systems include alphabetic, syllabic, logographic, ideographic
or pictographic systems (Bosworth, 2003). Writing is the DNA of complex
culture, that is, of civilization. Just as DNA transmits biological
information, so does writing transmit cultural information. From this
perspective, writing can be seen as containing those units of cultural
information termed “memes” by Richard Dawkins (1976). Writing
packages the information required for the survival and reproduction
of urban populations, thus serving as a memory bank even after the collapse
of a civilization's nations and empires. George Modelski (2000) makes an
important observation from an evolutionary perspective:
Cities are the hardware, the invention of writing supplies the
software of the infrastructure of world system learning. Writing records
and stores information, and it organizes social life both to the past and
to the future; it lends continuity to social organization and makes
systematic structural changes possible (34).
Writing is also saturated with inherited psychological, mythic, and
religious symbolism. Most letters in the Roman alphabet are Egyptian or
Phoenician symbols that have mutated across millennia, and their parallels
with biological “genetic drift” are intriguing. The letter
“A,” for example, is an upside-down ox-head after having been
rotated 180 degrees from a proto-Sinaitic symbol (Ouaknin, 1999). Writing
systems establish a defined geo-cultural space, a civilization, if you will.
While an Italian may not understand English and while a Brazilian may not
understand Danish, they are likely to experience a familiarity with European
writing that does not extend to Arabic or Chinese - which western readers
typically find alien and whose symbols western readers cannot usually
pronounce, much less understand. This observation dovetails with Arnold
Toynbee's conception of civilizations as institutions that “comprehend
without being comprehended by others” (Toynbee 1934: 455).
Crucially, from this perspective, it is possible to employ writing
systems to delineate 26 world civilizations. The largest and most relevant
for this discussion include Western (from Roman), Chinese, and Arabic, but
a complete list is provided here (Bosworth, 2003).
Contemporary Civilizations Based on Writing Systems
Central Old World (Aramaic Descent)
Western Eurasian (Greek Descent)
- Western (Roman)
- Indic Main (Devanagari)
Some scholars, it is important to note, have downplayed the link between
writing and civilization because of several alleged anomalies like the Inca,
who allegedly had no writing. But the Inca used a knot-rope system called
quipu that were intended as permanent records - or memories
- of numerical information regarding tribute, and there's no obvious reason
why a tactile system, like Braille, cannot be considered writing. Other scholars
cite the Mississippians of Cahokia as an anomaly because they left no evidence
of record keeping. But these North American societies did not attain the
population density or social hierarchy of true American civilizations like
the Maya, who employed a highly-advanced logographic system, nor did they
leave behind large cities and megalithic stone constructions. Instead, the
Mississippians completed serpentine earthworks and are better described as
a late Neolithic culture, not as a non-literate civilization. Indeed, it
should give skeptics pause that out of more than 100 civilizations over the
last 5,000 years there are no other “anomalies” that merit discussion.
This author takes the hard-line position that writing systems are the
only determinant of cultural complexity, of civilization, as opposed to
the oral tradition that characterizes Paleolithic and Neolithic societies
The Globalization of Writing: The Imprint of Civilizations on the World System
Before turning our attention to how Western, Chinese and Arabic writing
systems are shaping the digital world, it is important to identify the structures
and processes in play. Civilizations, which contain more ephemeral nations
and empires, are coherent and long-lived units of human organization; the
accretion of their encounters and exchanges, over millennia, shape the
“world system” - defined here as those structures and processes
of planetary, or potentially planetary, scale (Modelski, 2000).
Globalization, quite simply, is shorthand for economic, political, social
and cultural “world system processes.” These processes -
trade, conquest, migrations, religious diffusion - are evident in pre-modern
“known worlds” and provided a background for western colonialism
(Bosworth, 2000; Chase-Dunn and Hall, 1995; Stephen K. Sanderson, 1995).
Fernand Braudel (1987) wrote eloquently about the “underlying structures”
of history; and George Modelski and William R. Thompson (1996) effectively
documented how Sung China, from the 10th to 12th centuries, provided a
massive, innovative economy and a web of interconnections important to the
emergence of a truly global market.
Of course, it was not until the 16th century that globalization became
truly planetary - when Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, British and
American powers spearheaded the diffusion of commercial and industrial
capitalism, the nation-state system, European languages, religions, ideologies
and, crucially, the Roman alphabet, which provided the syntax for world
interchange: economic and political treaties, military alliances, literature,
encyclopedias, sacred books - and computer operating systems.
The Information Revolution was obviously based on the Roman alphabet,
a writing system as well suited for the computer as it had been for the
printing press (Crystal, 2001). The Roman alphabet has been locked in as
the standard writing system on a global scale; it furnishes an inter-civilizational
or supra-cultural mode of communication. Chinese and Arabic writing systems
represent enclosed spheres within a western-oriented (for now) world system.
That being said, both Arabic and Chinese writing systems are laying the
basis for the formation of powerful, increasingly-autonomous blocs that
rival the West.
Today's modern technological changes enable the Middle East and China
to revitalize ancient traditions and identities. This runs counter to a
common assumption: that western technology reproduces western culture and
society - that modernization equals westernization. Despite modern
technology stimulating worldwide consumerism, more basic social institutions
and practices, such as marriage, family and religion, and more basic social
identities, such as tribalism and nationalism, remain relatively unchanged.
Thomas Friedman (1999) has noted how globalization is simultaneously integrative
and disintegrative in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, and As James
Leigh (2004) argues, the world is getting smaller, but it is not coming
together. Leigh considers what the near future may look like:
A newly formed pan-Islamic, largely Arab, supranational
superpower, under Iranian hegemony, would add destabilizing ballast
to any new global balance. Further, the potential Asian masses, forming
a supranational superpower from China, Russia, Japan and India (making
up a massive half the world's population), would also rival the Western
cultural and economic brand of influence and globalization, and therefore
complicate the global state of affairs even more (1).
If writing systems are a measure of balance or imbalance of world
power, as this paper argues, then Leigh's “tripartite”
composition is compelling. The world, in Leigh's formula, has reached
the limit of westernization and is returning to a pre-1500 “balance
of civilizations” of which Janet Abu-Lughod (1991) wrote so eloquently.
China, for example, is developing computer platforms and
operating systems based entirely on the logic of ideograms, without
programs that interface or mediate with English. Actually, China is
developing an “Asian” operating system that combines features
of Chinese, Japanese and Korean writing systems. Chinese, of course,
represents the trunk writing system of East Asia and is based on
approximately 6,000 ideograms - originally pictograms that,
over millennia, morphed to convey higher levels of abstraction,
sometimes incorporating phonetic qualities. Ideograms remain less
dependent on spoken language to convey meaning than are alphabets
or syllabaries; therefore, ideograms are well suited for virtual
reality with their more immediate relationship between image and
meaning. Chinese ideograms, furthermore, tend to stimulate the visual
and creative right-hemisphere of the brain, crucial for a more interactive
and synergistic relationship between humans and computers. Alphabets
and syllabaries, by contrast, fire the neurons of the analytical
left-hemisphere, as has been suggested by Robert Logan (1986) in
The Alphabet Effect. It is too early to predict the implications
of this observation, though a simplified Chinese writing system would
appear to have global appeal in the virtual world. Harnessed to the
world's fastest economy, Chinese-based computer technology has revolutionary
In the Middle East, the Arabic alphabet is replacing the use of Roman
letters in computer and Internet media, and Arabic is expanding in Central
Asia, Africa and even Europe, with its growing immigrant Muslim population.
Most computer literate people in the Middle East are in fact
“bi-alphabetic” and able to process information in both Arabic
and Roman writing systems. The increasing use of digitized Arabic might
represent an effort to “Islamicize modernity” rather than
“modernize Islam,” to borrow phrases coined by Samuel P.
Huntington (Huntington, 1996). After all, despite periods of scientific
inquiry (primarily in Baghdad in the 12th century), Arabic writing has
been virtually synonymous with the Koran, that is, with the sacred. This
contrasts with the “profane” Roman alphabet, which despite
being used for the Bible was also the writing system of scientific and
Yet the Arabic writing system that gives shape to an Arabic civilization
is not entirely synonymous with Islam. Turkey and Bosnia are Muslim countries
with a western orientations and Roman alphabets. Actually, the Arabic writing
system precedes Islam by several centuries and it - rather than the
religion - gives exact shape to a Middle Eastern civilization (of which
Turkey and Bosnia are no longer a part). Now, the use of Arabic for computer
technologies underscores a Middle Eastern (usually Muslim) cultural identity,
with right-to-left text feeds contrasting with left-to-right Roman text and
representing, perhaps subconsciously, an opposing counter-current to westernization
- certainly in the West. In western media, Arabic writing is politically
contextualized as an image within an image, typically from Middle Eastern
coverage of Iraq or Palestine. Because of this, western viewers associate
Arabic writing with opposition and resistance; in fact, an ornate Arabic
script provides the logo for Al-Jazeera, a much-demonized (by American media)
television network based in Qatar.
The propagation of Chinese and Arabic writing systems in the digital
world makes sense from a long-term, evolutionary point of view. If the
world system is in fact a complex adaptive system (as suggested by the
network behavior of the world-city system), then there would be self-regulatory
mechanisms in place to inhibit monolithic or hegemonic forces, to prevent
excessive homogeneity. Evolution, after all, insists upon periodic rounds
of “variety-generation” and “innovation.” From this
perspective, evolutionary forces favor the expansion of Chinese and Arabic
writing systems in cyberspace.
Kenneth Keniston makes an interesting observation: “I argue that
the language in which computing takes place is a critical variable in determining
who benefits, who loses, who gains, who is excluded - in short, how the
Information Age impacts the peoples and cultures of the world” (1999: 1).
To be more precise, however, writing systems are the crucial variable,
containing as they do numerous spoken languages and permitting the imperial
expansion of economic, political and cultural power. It has been this way
ever since the invention of Mesopotamian cuneiform.
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