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The Digital Flood: The Diffusion of Information Technology across the U.S., Europe, and Asia

Author(s):Cortada, James W.
Reviewer(s):Garcia-Swartz, Daniel D.

Published by EH.Net (December 2012)

James W. Cortada, The Digital Flood: The Diffusion of Information Technology across the U.S., Europe, and Asia.? New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.? xix + 789 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-992155-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Daniel D. Garcia-Swartz, Compass Lexecon.

In The Digital Flood, James Cortada, the author of two dozen books on the history and management of information technologies, undertakes an incredibly ambitious project: to analyze the international diffusion and deployment of IT from the 1940s through the late 1990s. The project is mind-boggling not only because of its geographical scope ? the book has chapters on the U.S., Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Japan, the Asian Tigers, China, and India ? but also because it covers both the activities of governments and IT vendors (?diffusion?) and those of users (?deployment?). Although readers may quibble about specific dimensions of the world history of IT that should have been included (or left out), in my view Cortada delivers a solid synthesis.

The book focuses on what the author calls Wave One of the history of IT, which extends ?from the late 1930s or early 1940s to the end of the 1990s or beyond? (p. 37). In Cortada?s view neither the distinction between mainframes and personal computers nor the differences between various generations of mainframe computers are substantive enough to serve as periodization criteria ? mainframes, minis, and PCs all belong to Wave One. The key elements marking the transition between Wave One and Wave Two are ?the Internet and cell phones, clearly dominant features of post Wave One IT? (p. 38).
The Digital Flood makes a number of contributions. First, the book examines not only what national governments and commercial vendors did to foster IT diffusion but also the ways in which users fostered the adoption of IT technologies. This is a healthy recalibration ? we know that in the early decades of what Cortada calls Wave One U.S. computer customers, for example, played a fundamental role in, among other things, the creation of computer software.

Second, by compressing the history of IT diffusion in the U.S. to one chapter, the author forces both experts in American IT history and readers more generally to reassess ?their perspectives about the global experience with computing,? and to ?recognize that it proved far greater and more diverse than any of us acknowledged in earlier research? (p. 44).

Third, within the framework of this geographical reassessment of the history of IT, Cortada introduces the notion, largely correct in my view, that IT diffusion started not just in the U.S. but rather in what he calls a Pan-Atlantic community that also included some of the wealthiest Western European countries (pp. 235-237). Computers, and traditional office machines before them, ?were invented and were most thoroughly deployed first in both North America and in Europe? (p. 236). Literature published on one side of the Atlantic travelled to the other side, just as ?early pioneers in computing shuttled back and forth across the Atlantic? (p. 236). Technologies developed on one side of the Atlantic were used on the other side and, most importantly, ?not all the traffic flowed west to east; European software made its way west too, such as Germany?s SAP products in the 1990s, and the Internet?s World Wide Web (WWW) from Switzerland? (p. 236).

Some readers may counter-argue that, in the 1950s and 1960s, IT diffusion happened at a much faster pace in the U.S. than in any of the Western European countries, not only in absolute terms but also in relation to the size of each individual economy. They may also point out that American computer vendors ? and IBM fundamentally ? developed a substantive presence in many Western European markets in the 1950s and 1960s, while Western European vendors failed to penetrate the American market. These facts, however, do not invalidate Cortada?s Pan-Atlantic community thesis ? after all, the first practical stored-program computer, the EDSAC, was designed and built in Cambridge, England, by a group directed by Maurice Wilkes. The question is not whether Cortada?s Pan-Atlantic community existed or not? it did. The interesting question, at least from an economic and business history perspective, is: Why was it that the American computer companies turned out to be so much more successful than their European competitors given that the Pan-Atlantic (scientific and technological) community existed?

Finally, Cortada intersperses summary chapters on diffusion (in Western Europe and Asia) that are particularly useful because they synthesize and highlight some of the key components of his story. Chapter 11, for example, breaks down Asian nations into three groups based on the timing of IT diffusion. The first group ? the early adopters ? includes Japan, the Asian Tigers, Australia and New Zealand. The second group ? the recent adopters ? includes China, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The third group ? the laggard adopters ? comprises all other Asian countries. These chapters are helpful not only because they summarize a massive amount of information contained elsewhere in the book but also because they allow the reader to pause and digest the main tenets of Cortada?s analysis.

Hard-core cliometricians could argue that Cortada proposes a number of hypotheses about the sequence of IT diffusion but does not bother to test any of them. In various sections of his book Cortada appears to suggest that the depth and scope of national domestic markets played a key role in facilitating diffusion. The Asian early adopters, for example, ?enjoyed high per capita incomes sufficient to pay for their adoptions of IT? (p. 548), whereas the recent adopters ?experienced far lower per capita incomes which often were inadequate to pay for extensive adoption of IT across multiple industries and economic groups? (p. 550). In statements such as these econometrically-oriented historians would immediately discover an opportunity to do some hypothesis testing with, perhaps, dynamic panel-data models. But estimating econometric models is not what Cortada?s book is about. And although The Digital Flood does not rely on mathematical equations or econometric procedures, quantitatively oriented readers interested in the history of IT will likely find in the book a number of insights that they may later want to explore in a more formal framework.
The book is about 600 pages long, without counting two appendices, over 100 pages of footnotes with citations to books and articles in various languages, and a 35-page bibliographic essay. As such, it is not the kind of tome that one would digest in an afternoon or even a long weekend. In any case, as a comprehensive synthesis of the international history of IT diffusion through the late 1990s, Cortada?s book is unique and will clearly serve as the standard reference on the subject for years to come.

(Cortada is a member of the IBM Institute for Business Value, and has held various positions at IBM for over 35 years. He has written numerous books and articles on the history of IT.)

Daniel D. Garcia-Swartz is an economist with Compass Lexecon in Chicago. His publications focus on the economics of high-technology industries, including computer hardware and software. He is currently working with Martin Campbell-Kelly on a book on the economic and business history of the international computer industry.
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Subject(s):Business History
History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII