Mastering Globalization in the De-Globalization Era
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For the last few months pundits across the political spectrum have written op-ed columns and long articles questioning whether geopolitical events such as war and polarized politics signal the end of globalization. All the while a skeptical friend asks, “How’s this globalization research thing working out for you? Is it kaput, fini, game over?” I typically narrow my response from Globalization writ large to discussing the more finite concerns of the best practices and technologies that allow the web and products to be global – and thus provide the foundation for global commerce, diplomacy, and other interactions among countries and people.
For the balance of this post, I mostly put aside the vexing geopolitical questions of post-war globalism and the social liberalism that accompanied it. Instead, I contend that no matter what happens, there will always be some level of international operations, that a variety of factors will always complicate them, that activities to address the growing complexity raises the bar for any organization operating in multiple countries – and that this reality will create new opportunities for anyone who can make those global interactions easier. Thus, the question of "Will we really need LSPs and corporate localization teams if machine translation obviates the need for translators?” will become moot for any organization trying to operate internationally in this new post-globalization era.
The Two-Year Journey from Pandemic to Pandemonium
COVID-19 disrupted industry, government, and personal lives. It clobbered supply chains and led to some fundamental rethinking of many established aspects of business and personal life. It contributed to growing VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – that management theorists for decades have said characterized our modern economy.
From the beginning of the pandemic, there have been nationalistic and political squabbles about the source of the virus and objections to government responses to the pandemic. The fragmented global response has been just another example of a disruption in the force, the de-globalization of many institutions. The internet is one such institution – with implications for the content and services that any web-resident organization might want to serve to its target audience:
- The unraveling of the “worldwide” web. The web has been fragmenting for years, such that anyone operating internationally must modify their offering for at least a few “splinternets”: 1) the classic www.whatever.com that billions flock to daily, with exclusions by language, technology, and some blockades; 2) the Chinese internet, with more than 700 million users, where all traffic is routed through just a few entry/exit points; and 3) the Russian internet that maintains a “single register” of accessible URLs. Besides these three you’ll find laws and limitations on the otherwise World Wide Web from other countries and regional blocs such as the European Union. The non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation tracks digital access and rights around the world, including a sometimes sharp focus on the United States.
- Growing techno-nationalism. India’s ban on TikTok wasn’t just protectionist support for its indigenous Josh app but part of a larger assertion of sovereignty and security. Echoing mercantilist policies of centuries past, the new techno-nationalism aligns geopolitical, economic, national security, and even ideological concerns in policy. Countries around the globe have blocked products from others with competing offerings, viewed international standards as putting them at a competitive disadvantage, and disallowed cross-border investment or acquisition. In this zero-sum game one country’s gain must be equivalent to another’s loss. Websites and products of all sorts are clearly fair game as techno-nationalism becomes more entrenched in international policy.
The Evolving Landscape of the Splinternet
Turning back to the first of these two, a host of extraordinary and quotidian factors have been whacking away at the unity of the web ever since Tim Berners-Lee’s first HTTP communication between a client and a server in 1989. They echo the geopolitical and nationalistic challenges that have disrupted the force of post-war globalism:
- Technology advances. The internet evolved from primitive browsers and servers to incredibly powerful and capable systems, embracing a universe of devices simply labeled the Internet of Things. They power the way for a Web 3.0 driven by data relevance and powered by AI, the semantic web, ubiquitous computing, and blockchains to tie it all together – except where blockchains might threaten national sovereignty and security. And let’s not forget the metaverse.”
- Local language support. People expect to access the web and use products in their own language. “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy” goes beyond a commercial and communications requirement to underpin the core of national identity. In 1996 Thomas Friedman wrote that, “Many countries think they will have arrived only if they have their own McDonald's and Windows 95 in their own language.”
- Locale realities. Applications, industries, and countries require an array of usage- and user-driven accommodations. They drive classic adaptations such as localization, as well as more recent ones like personalization, inclusion on grounds of gender and ethnicity, and anonymization for personally identifiable information. Beyond that there are too many locale-specific considerations to mention, ranging from common practice to statutory requirements.
The Cardinal Rule: Content + Complications + Volume Equals Complexity
Six years ago, I traded in my quartz wristwatch for a waterproof smartwatch. I read the online documentation to figure out how deep I could take it – 50 meters, or far deeper than my daily laps and 10 meters beyond my Deep Diver certification. From the manual I learned about the features that distinguish my simple timepiece from a grande complication (that is, a chronograph).
That’s a good metaphor for our post-globalization website challenge. Think about the combinatorial complexity of geopolitical and simply-required-to-work issues at play for global websites in this deglobalizing era, we are now in the territory of plus grandes complications. First there’s the question of the various splinternets – will your content and products pass political, economic, or techno-nationalist muster everywhere it’s seen? A common trap has been territorial disputes with country names and map colorings. Similarly, if you allow user-generated content, do you verify it? Do you verify anything? Our research for “The Calculus of Translation” indicates that you most likely trust but don’t verify.
Let’s consider something less controversial: selling online. Can your website accept payments? Great. Can it charge the appropriate tax? The United States has more than 11,000 sales tax jurisdictions where tax rates must be resolved based on shipping addresses – and it’s just one of the frequently supported locales. If you do the math, you’ll find that a multi-country retail website has an extraordinary number of permutations. Managing it becomes extraordinarily complex as you move from the category of relatively generic global to localized to the hyperlocal ideal of a very targeted omnichannel user experience. Don’t try this at home – it’s time to get some professional help to deal with this burgeoning cardinality of website development and management – and the virtual geo-blocking that comes with it.
Complexity Generates Greater Demand for Services and Tech
We advise most organizations to employ more technology and specialized service providers to manage the growing complexity and number of complications in the post-globalization era. They will require a combination of smart technologies and humans not only in the loop, but at the core as well.
- Content, language, and data technology. Organizations with sufficient budget and staff can leverage a veritable arsenal of software to process global content and train applications to deal with the enormous cardinality. Developers of language technology such as translation memories, terminology databases, translation management, and machine translation will have to amplify their efforts to deal with the vast array of permutations that users of their solutions face.
- Data science. End-users and LSPs can analyze the source content flowing through their systems – with data capture, analysis, and development of customized services such as localized sentiment analysis and intent recognition that could inform designers of content suitability for specific countries. They can categorize data on geopolitical axes and use that ontology with their content and translation management software to develop smart, systematic automation to tie assets to relevant and accepting markets. Watch for an upcoming report on this topic.
- Knowledge process outsourcers (KPOs). At the height of the pandemic in June 2020, our report on “The Future of Language Services” posited the evolution of smart LSPs with content globalization expertise. We wrote that they would seek a more strategic role managing exactly the scenario we see today – too much content with too many complications. For example, an LSP that has a strong history of supporting international legal compliance could build on its abilities around translation and process governance, implementing supporting software, and offering more services around analytics and functions to analyze and monitor conformity with law by locale.
It’s the End of Globalization as We Know It – Should We Feel Fine?
The worldwide web has always been ambitious in scope but the “ww” part of it quickly splintered as governments, companies, and other organizations discovered the complexity of a medium that could conceivably reach anyone on the planet with a computer – sometimes with information they didn’t want that someone to have. The splintering to date might seem trivial as we move to Web 3.0 and the many manifestations of a virtual reality or simulation that we’ll see with the metaverse. These complications pose a great opportunity for LSPs and localization departments inside corporations and governments that can manage this growing cardinality of website and product localization in the post-globalization world.
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