World Internet Conference in Wuzhen: Can internet benefit all people?
David Lee
The Sixth World Internet Conference opens in Wuzhen, China, October 20, 2019. /VCG Photo

The Sixth World Internet Conference opens in Wuzhen, China, October 20, 2019. /VCG Photo

Editor's note: David Lee is a consultant and author based in Beijing who focuses on energy, health, international politics and international development. The article reflects the author's opinion, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

The annual World Internet Conference came back to East China's picturesque Wuzhen over the weekend. As China's Venice-style ancient township again greets industry heavy-weights and thought leaders, it would be interesting to go back to the reason why Wuzhen has been chosen to be the permanent seat of the World Internet Conference.  

After all, the super cool, sometimes geeky, internet technologies seem to be so idiosyncratic with the traditional delicate brick and wooden houses, narrow cobble stone alleyways, and winding canals and waterways throughout Wuzhen. 

Well, the internet certainly doesn't boast the thousand years of the long history of Wuzhen, whose economy has been built on the intricate canals and waterways within and without. However, the modern technological invention of the internet works in a way, not unlike the canals and waterways, and modern society has quite a lot to learn about how best to use the internet, just as the ancient township of Wuzhen has benefited from canals and waterways. 

The canals and waterways are available to all citizens in Wuzhen. In the case of an average township citizen, he or she gets to travel to other places for work, business, or leisure. Such connectivity provides an outsize advantage to local business tycoons though, as they use the easy transportation to trade in silk, porcelain, tea, grains, and many other profitable goods. Moreover, building on such connectivity, clever businesspeople develop innovative, sophisticated infrastructure, and mechanisms such as guilds and banks to drive towards even bigger business scale and profitability.    

Therefore, the choice of Wuzhen as the permanent seat of the World Internet Conference reflects the very nature of the internet as a key connectivity tool available to all, average citizens and business elites alike.  

However, age-old practice in China tells the world that the ready availability of the connectivity tool doesn't necessarily ensure universal well-being or happiness. While the average citizen in Wuzhen does enjoy easy transportation thanks to the canals and waterways, they are in a significantly disadvantaged position compared with local business tycoons when it comes to trading large volumes of commodities.  

A view of the waterways in Wuzhen town, China. /VCG Photo

A view of the waterways in Wuzhen town, China. /VCG Photo

When clever businesspeople maximize their advantage by such sophisticated arrangements as guilds and banks, individual players have even less opportunity to compete. In the end, the sorry situation in a township known for its affluent business is the sharp contrast between rich and poor.  

Today, the internet is pretty much doing the same thing to society. On one hand, it provides everyone easy access to the market. Geek economy conducted by individual live-streaming hosts, Uber drivers, and e-store operators have emerged thanks to the very fact that internet technologies are lowering the barrier of entrepreneurship for any individual.  

On the other hand, though, the internet is offering outsize advantages to those who have come up with innovative solutions backed by big money investment. In today's world, economics of scale driven by the internet is impacting society where winner-takes-all is becoming the norm and the big majority is threatened to be left behind.  

As the internet is still quickly evolving, now driven by even bigger technologies such as AI and 5G, there are all the more urgent need to raise and answer key questions related to the development of the internet, and of humanity: 

Is the internet going to widen or shrink the economic gap? How to use technology to empower the average person to nurture self-driven entrepreneurship, which is the key to poverty reduction and local-level innovation?  

In essence, the above questions are more about social management than about technology. As the World Internet Conference is gathering global industry colleagues in China, a large portion of the Chinese population is making many exciting online business experiments thanks to the availability of internet technologies and favorable government policies. China has a lot to share and the Chinese experience can indeed enrich ongoing debates.  

As the water township of Wuzhen continues to provide philosophical inspiration to global industry colleagues, I give the very best wishes to a successful conference.    

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