One billion down, 5 and a half to go

Worldwide computer use is set to double in less than a decade, predicts a market research firm. Does that mean more competition, or more affluence?

Published June 11, 2007 6:36PM (EDT)

A report released Monday by the market research firm Forrester predicts that by 2008, 1 billion personal computers will be in use worldwide. By 2015, that number is supposed to double, mainly due to booming markets in Brazil, Russia, India and China -- the so-called BRIC countries. Considering that the personal computer is roughly 30 years old, that's a fairly substantial acceleration of the growth curve. (Thanks to Slashdot for the tip.)

Numbers as bold as these are rarely worth the electrons they're printed on, but let's suppose the basic trajectory is correct. Besides a concurrent mighty surge in Portuguese and Cyrillic-tinted spam, speculative blog posts, and online gaming, what does the globalization of computer adoption signify?

Well, for one thing, if the world is already "flat," in the Thomas Friedman sense in which the spread of digital networks and PCs has obliterated, or at least weakened, international borders and the limitations of geography, then it's set to get a whole lot flatter. Another billion PC users in the world could mean another billion Internet-connected white-collar workers, looking for their niche in the global economy. Competitive labor markets will only get more so.

But that might be an overly bleak interpretation. Another way to look at the rapid uptake of computers in the BRICs is an example of the astonishing possibilities for catch-up that technology offers the developing world. Russia is a special case, but Brazil, India and China have spent most of the last century or two in a state of development hopelessly far behind the industrialized masters of the universe. Today, they are racing forward, and it seems likely that the more citizens they have sitting in front of LCD monitors, the more quickly they will bridge what gaps remain.

But perhaps the most telling number is the one not included. There are roughly 6 and a half billion people in the world today. If 1 billion have computers, that means 5 billion or so don't.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works U.s. Economy