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)

  1. Hebrew
  2. Arabic
  3. Ethiopic
  4. Mongolian

Western Eurasian (Greek Descent)

  1. Western (Roman)
  2. Cyrillic
  3. Greek
  4. Georgian
  5. Armenian

Central Indic

  1. Indic Main (Devanagari)
  2. Punjabi
  3. Bengali
  4. Gujarati
  5. Tibetan

South Indic

  1. Malayalam
  2. Telugu/Kannada
  3. Tamil
  4. Sinhalese

South-East Asian

  1. Thai
  2. Burmese
  3. Lao
  4. Khmer
  5. Vietnamese

East Asian

  1. Chinese
  2. Japanese
  3. Korean

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 (Bosworth, 2003).

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 potential.

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 industrial revolutions.

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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