Going Global 2: Impact of the World Wide Web on Globalization

AS RECOUNTED IN PART ONE OF THIS ARTICLE, physicist-turned programmer Tim Berners-Lee developed the principal features of the World Wide Web between 1989 and 1990 while working at the European Center for Particle Physics, or CERN, near Geneva. That much is well known. Less widely recognized are the important contributions of staffers at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) — mainly physicists Paul Kunz, who set up the first web server outside of Europe at SLAC in December 1991, and Tony Johnson, who developed an early Web browser.

Johnson’s Midas software, which he programmed for Unix-based computers, played an important evolutionary role in the development of Web browsers, for the Mosaic browsers developed by Mark Andreessen and others at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications were at first patterned after Midas. And it was SLAC that introduced the Web to Stanford University as well as to Silicon Valley in general — leading to its rapid commercialization. Mark Andreessen headed to the valley in early 1994 and cofounded Netscape Communications with venture capitalist Jim Clark (formerly a Stanford professor and founder of Silicon Graphics, Inc.). The Netscape Navigator browser their company developed spearheaded the explosive mid-1990s commercialization of the Web.

“By 1994 the centre of gravity of the World Wide Web had crossed the Atlantic to a place where the entrepreneurial heart beats stronger,” observed writer James Gillies and Web pioneer Robert Cailliau in their book, How the Web Was Born. [2] The year before, CERN had made the rights to use its Web software widely available royalty-free, provided only that it be recognized as the source — a key step in ensuring its lasting worldwide appeal. But physicists at CERN and SLAC were not done quite yet, for they soon began showing how the Web could be employed very effectively in the coordination and management of global-scale collaborations and projects.


High-energy physicists made yet another important contribution that year — extending the Internet and Web into China. Before 1994, that awakening giant had international telephone connections with the outside world but no Internet-capable linkage. SLAC physicist Les Cottrell was trying to remedy the problem, working with computing staff at the Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) in Beijing. [1] They finally succeeded in setting up a satellite link from SLAC to Beijing Airport, with microwave links and copper landlines relaying signals between airport and institute. On 17 May 1994, the first Internet link to China began operating. Hundreds of Chinese scientists, including many doing research at CERN, could finally access the Web via links to IHEP, which also set up the first Chinese Web site that month.

On 16 December 1994, the CERN Council made a momentous decision, to proceed with construction of the Large Hadron Collider project, which would transform the institution from a regional European laboratory into a world center for high-energy physics. Its then-ongoing major project, the Large Electron-Positron (LEP) Collider, had cost roughly a billion euros (or Swiss francs) and largely involved European scientists and engineers. By comparison, the new LHC Project was to cost about ten times as much and involve contributors from all across the globe — China, Eastern Europe, Japan, India, Russia and the United States. This enormous project included installation of over 1,800 superconducting magnets in the existing 27 km LEP tunnel and construction of four gargantuan particle detectors surrounding LHC collision regions, where its high-energy proton beams were to clash. It was among the most technologically sophisticated projects ever attempted. [4]

It is difficult to imagine how this immense project could ever have succeeded without intensive use of the Internet and Web. And the recent extension of the information superhighway into Eastern Bloc countries and China allowed their scientists to become equal partners in this globe-spanning enterprise. In fact, the LHC Project pioneered many of the information-sharing techniques that have come to characterize the globalized world that emerged in the wake of the Cold War’s end. Typical of the emerging international organizations focused on CERN were the four large scientific collaborations that began to design and build the massive collider detectors: ATLAS, CMS, ALICE and LHCb.

It is difficult to imagine how the immense LHC Project could ever have succeeded without intensive use of the Internet and Web.

Here I mention just one of them — the Compact Muon Solenoid, or CMS, Collaboration — but there are many similarities with the others. Led from its early days by CERN physicist Michel Della Negra, it initially included large contingents from Finland, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia — and eventually China and (after the US Congress cancelled the SSC in October 1993 [4]) the United States. Of the 1243 scientists listed on its December 1994 technical proposal, 236 were from nations of the former Soviet Union and 36 from China (mostly from IHEP).     

Cutaway view of the Compact Muon Solenoid Detector, which weighs over 14,000 metric tons. (Courtesy of CERN)

Organizing and managing this sprawling international collaboration would have been nearly impossible without the Web (or similar Internet software) to keep members intimately informed of the status of the detector design, R&D, and construction. It also permitted physicists and engineers to post reports, designs and data on the CMS Web site (cms.cern.ch) and get rapid feedback from others. Managers could seek out and try to resolve incompatibilities and other problems before they became onerous. As these efforts occurred across three continents and 18 time zones, the Web allowed intimate coordination of scientists’ actions and beliefs (to borrow an apt phrase from Peter Galison’s Image and Logic) at an unprecedented global scale.

The Web also proved as important, if not even more so, in the collider design, R&D and construction process. This really hit home for me in June 2000 when I visited CERN and interviewed LHC Project Director Lyn Evans as part of my research on the SSC history [4]. In his CERN office, he had a large table-top computer display of the collider project that he demonstrated briefly for me. Using it, he was able to monitor and coordinate many elements of this sophisticated project at a mouse click — for example, the superconducting magnet cores then being manufactured by companies in France, Germany and Italy.

Large Hadron Collider Project Director Lyn Evans inside the LHC tunnel. (Courtesy of CERN)

Data on testing and performance did not have to await the delivery of paper reports or email attachments; they were immediately available. Evans could tell quickly whether “critical-path” components were encountering problems and devote resources to remedying them if required. Keeping these key components on schedule like this is crucial in good project management, because delays in a single one of them can affect many others and lead to major cost overruns. The Web thus enabled high-energy physics to successfully surmount the multibillion-dollar (or -euro) scale of accelerator projects — at which level the SSC Project had foundered in the early 1990s [4].


In the early 2000s, the Web started to impact industry, too, as management gurus and business schools began preaching the merits of “electronic supply-chain management” (or “e-SCM”). Involving intensive use of the Internet and Web to coordinate manufacturing, marketing and sales activities across ever-widening realms, e-SCM was doubtlessly inspired to some extent by physicists’ usage of the Web to coordinate the LHC Project and its detectors. But SCM was hardly a new management idea. It stemmed in part from the 1980s philosophy of “just-in-time” or “lean” manufacturing pioneered by Japanese firms such as Toyota, which strove to increase profitability by keeping inventories low. Such early supply chains predominantly involved other nearby firms, making coordination relatively easy and achievable using local computer networks, email or the telephone. 

With the advent of the Internet and Web, supply chains could be extended globally — but as we have recently been experiencing, somewhat precariously — to take advantage of the cheap labor supplies available in developing nations such as China, Mexico and Vietnam. By allowing detailed design and other information to be shared among selected manufacturers and by enabling rapid data and financial exchanges, the Web permitted these supplier networks to expand across continents. Apple iPhones, for example, are assembled in China by the Taiwanese firm Foxconn from microchips and other miniature components designed and manufactured in Asia, Europe and North America. The Internet and Web thus made it much easier for firms to outsource labor-intensive activities while maintaining quality control and concentrating on core competencies, thereby reducing costs. It is difficult to imagine such a global commercial transformation ever happening without the ultra-dense, fine-grained information transfers that occur at light speed every split second over this digital superhighway.

With the advent of the Internet and Web, supply chains could be extended globally to take advantage of cheap labor supplies in developing nations.

But while these global exchanges have benefitted financial and technological elites — and the multinational corporations that employ them — they have helped export tedious (but meaningful to workers) low-skilled labor, taking it away from blue-collar workers in developed European and North American countries, thus exacerbating existing economic inequalities. In the semiconductor industry, for example, there is a series of low-skilled, labor-intensive functions in producing microelectronic components and circuits called “assembly, test and package.” These functions were originally performed (usually by women, who had the required fine-motor skills) in US cities like Allentown, PA, and Mountain View, CA. But most semiconductor firms have by now offshored this kind of work to China (as the above Foxconn example illustrates), while keeping high-value-added, highly paid functions such as component and product design at home in Silicon Valley or Austin, Texas.

Growth of Chinese carbon-dioxide emissions, 1960 to 2020. Note the steep rise in coal emissions after China was admitted to the World Trade Organization in 2001. (Credit: Global Carbon Project)

After China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, such transfers of low-skilled jobs to this nation exploded. A good barometer of China’s resulting economic activity, and indirectly the amount of labor being offshored to it, is its annual energy consumption, which more than doubled in the decade after its WTO entry. So did its annual coal consumption and its emissions of carbon dioxide. As Swedish political ecologist Andreas Malm observed, China became the “the chimney of the world” literally overnight. [3] 

Reliable estimates put the resulting loss of US jobs in the millions. An unanticipated result has been the hollowing out of Middle America, particularly in the industrial Midwestern states such as Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, home to Allentown — where the principal microelectronics manufacturing arm of the Bell System’s Western Electric Corporation was once located, providing thousands of well-paid jobs — is now a major Northeastern-states distribution center for dozens of companies from Amazon to Walmart (both e-SCM pioneers), whose warehouses dot the valley. Few of the goods now being distributed there are “made in America.” Europe experienced similar blue-collar job losses, too.


There can be no serious doubt that the world has been experiencing a vast economic and cultural transformation in the three decades since the Cold War’s 1991 end. Nor can there be much doubt that the Internet and Web played crucial roles in this most recent globalization wave. In the prior wave, occurring during the 19th and early 20th centuries, fossil-fueled transportation, electricity generation, and telephone communication played similarly crucial roles — enabling extensive worldwide trade and cultural exchanges among far-flung nations. That wave ended during World War I and the ensuing bifurcation of the world order into exclusive capitalist and communist spheres of influence, as historian Eric Hobsbawm observed (see Part One introduction).

Other disruptive technologies have surely enabled the present globalization wave, among them fiber-optic and satellite communications, as well as containerized shipping and trucking. But the Internet and Web have played pivotal roles, for without them, one cannot imagine the extent of the scientific, cultural and commercial exchanges that have become commonplace.

The obvious benefits that have accrued from the Web since its early-1990s emergence in the high-energy physics community have not, however, come without major economic and social dislocations. Those disruptions have afflicted important sectors of the US and other national economies, leading to angry “populist” reactions in Europe and America. Brexit and the 2016 electoral victory of Donald Trump were conspicuous outcomes of this surge of anti-globalization fervor on opposite sides of the Atlantic — as was the 6 January 2021 storming of the US Capitol building.             

The world has indeed been transformed by the Internet and Web, but not entirely for the better. Like fossil fuels, such disruptive technologies are double-edged swords that can cut two ways.


Top photo: Aerial view of the CERN laboratory and surroundings, showing the track (yellow circle) of the Large Hadron Collider and locations of its four major detectors: ATLAS, ALICE, CMS and LHCb. The city of Geneva lies in the distance near the toe of Lac Léman, and Mount Blanc can be seen at top center. (Courtesy of CERN)

A Condensed Version of this article, titled “Going Global: What the Web Has Wrought,” has been published in the January 2022 issue of Physics World.

References

1. Les Cottrell, “Bringing the Internet to China,” Symmetry (November 2005).

2. James Gillies and Robert Cailliau, How the Web Was Born: The Story of the World Wide Web. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000).

3. Andreas Malm, “China as the Chimney of the World: The Fossil Capital Hypothesis,” Organization and Environment 25:2 (June 2012).

4. Michael Riordan, Lillian Hoddeson and Adrienne W. Kolb, Tunnel Visions: The Rise and Fall of the Superconducting Super Collider. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), especially Chapters 6, 7 and Epilogue.

Author Profile

Orcas Island physicist and writer Michael Riordan is author of the award-winning 1987 book The Hunting of the Quark and coauthor of The Solar Home Book (1977), The Shadows of Creation (1991), Crystal Fire (1997) and Tunnel Visions (2015). His articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, Scientific American, and many other publications. He serves as Editor of Orcas Currents.

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