July 18, 1998


The Mouse That Roars: A Global Tale

  • Join a Discussion on Thomas Friedman
    So I was talking on the phone to my mother out in Minnesota the other day, and she sounded upset. What's wrong, mom? I asked. "Well," she said, "I've been playing bridge on the Internet with three Frenchmen and they keep speaking French to each other and I can't understand them." When I chuckled at the thought of my card-shark mom playing bridge with three Frenchmen on the net, she took a little umbrage. "Don't laugh," she said. "I was playing bridge with someone in Siberia the other day."

    There are those who argue that the Internet and globalization are overrated, and there are those who argue that they are underrated. I think Bill Gates has this one right: In the short run they're probably overrated, but in the long run, their impact on our lives and nations is vastly underrated. Herewith a few random conversations from a recent trip to Italy, Albania, India, Jordan and Israel.

    At a conference in Italy, I run into John Wall, president of Nasdaq International, the stock exchange. He tells me 20 percent of all Nasdaq's business now comes from individuals sitting at home and trading stocks and bonds via the Internet through small brokerage web sites. "And Merrill Lynch and the other big boys aren't even in this business yet," says Mr. Wall. "Once they get into it, we anticipate that 70 percent of our trades will be over the Internet." To better empower Internet investors, Nasdaq has created a Web site where you can get the latest S.E.C. filing of any Nasdaq-listed company, its latest quarterly earnings report, or the consensus opinion about its stock from the top Wall Street analysts. This will empower individual investors, as never before, to sit at home and move their money around, rewarding solidly performing companies and countries and punishing the weak -- with the click of a mouse.

    John Burns, the New York Times New Delhi bureau chief, tells me a delightful story about his 70-year-old Indian cook. Although John has four different satellite dishes on his rooftop ("I'm practically running an uplink station," he says), he still couldn't get the World Cup matches off Indian TV. When he was complaining about this over breakfast, his cook invited John to come over to his house next door. When they entered, John found the cook's illiterate wife watching the BBC. "I said, What's she doing? She doesn't even speak English." The cook answered: "She's learning." The cook explained that a friend of his had started a "private" cable system and strung cable into his house along the local telephone poles -- for $3.75 a month. "Then he hands me the television remote," says John, "and with increasing astonishment I start at channel 1 and click all the way to channel 27. He had television stations from China, Pakistan, Australia, Italy, France. With all my satellite dishes, I had only 14 channels."

    I'm having a chat in Amman with Jordan's top newspaper columnist, Rami Khouri. I ask him what's the talk of Amman, and he says, "Amman was just added to CNN's worldwide weather highlights." This means Amman has arrived in some way, he explains. It means someone at CNN thinks Amman is now important enough for tourists and business execs to need to know its weather.

    In Milan I meet Jules Kroll, who heads a leading global corporate investigative firm. He tells me his team has just cracked the case of a 14-year-old from Sweden who was using the Internet to threaten to blow up a U.S. consumer products company in San Francisco, whose products the youth objected to. The company thought it was an idle threat until the youth said he would bring down part of the company's computer system -- and did.

    I am interviewing I.K. Gujral, India's 78-year-old former Prime Minister, about how globalization is affecting his country's culture. "My granddaughter is 4," he says. "She is always talking about bubble gum, not Indian food, or she says, 'I don't like Pepsi, I like Coke.' She even speaks English more often than Hindi. I asked her one day why she doesn't speak to me in Hindi, and then she went to her mother and asked: 'Doesn't grandfather speak English?' The other day my granddaughter said she wanted pizza. So her grandmother said that she would make her a pizza. My granddaughter said, "No, no, I want Pizza Hut."

    Thomas Wolfe said, "You can't go home again." He was wrong. In the era of the Internet and globalization, in the era of cultural homogenization and universal connectivity, you won't be able to leave home again.

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