The Internet: Digital Silk Road

By • Sep 12th, 2008
Category: Diaspora, Ideas, Internet and Telecom, Interviews, Podcast, Technology, Venture Capital

Earlier today I spent a couple of hours talking to Yogen Dalal, Managing Director, Mayfield Fund. Yes, I was there to interview him,  and he was such a gracious host and spent an extra hour talking on a whole range of topics not directly related to the interview. Yogen is a fascinating conversationalist and I always come away learning so much from him.

He studied at Stanford in the early 1970s and was one of the first graduate students of Vint Cerf,  the “Father of Internet.”  Vint was his PhD thesis advisor. While at Stanford Yogen co-wrote the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) that is so central to the Internet.

Yogen was talking about how the Internet has shrunk the world and how in the digital world there is a great amount of  interconnectedness that provides us an ability to trade, to do mashups, to experience new songs and movies and to collaborate. It was this  description of the Internet that suddenly reminded me of a different period from a few hundred years ago, when the Silk Road  played a central role and shrank the world. That is when I stumbled upon the term Digital Silk Road and suddenly I was able to access a whole different historical canvas and make sense of what is happening today.

Here are some rough thoughts on why I think there are some similarities between the Silk Road or routes and the current Digital Silk Road. It is important to remember that the old Silk Road was not confined to doing trade with China alone, but included doing trade with different parts of the world and China happened to be an important country on this historical route.

The Silk Road or Silk Routes has been described  as “extensive interconnected network of trade routes across the Asian continent connecting East, South and  Western Asia with the Mediterranean world, including North Africa and Europe.” (Wikipedia) Just like the Silk Road or Silk Routes as described by Wikipedia were” important paths for cultural and technological  transmission,” similarly the new digital Silk Road have emerged as important paths for cultural, commercial and technological transmissions.

The old Silk Road or routes grew to become an integral part of what was dubbed the old world. Caravans laden with silk, ivory, gold and other goods traveled up and down various routes much like today’s digital Silk Road that transmit millions of digital packets carrying  audio, video and text messages  at blinding speed. Just as there were mashups and fusion of different cultures and customs, similarly there are mashups and fusions taking place in the digital online world.

When you think about it today’s digital nomads, traders and entrepreneurs are in no way different from those that existed during the Silk Road phase. They were wars over turfs, exchange of goods and services, and introduction to new food, culture and music. A similar thing is happening in today’s digital Silk Road. There are wars over standards, protocols and services whether it is the computer chip, the mobile phone or downloading music. There is exchange of goods and services and introduction to new food, culture and music.

Food is often said to be the first introduction to a new culture. Have you ever wondered how the Indian samosa and the Middle Eastern sambusa are almost similar with different fillings? Or, the Persian zoolabiya/zulabiya, and the Indian jalebi? Or, the Afghani aushuk and Italian ravioli? Ever wondered about the similarity between a Chinese Wok and Indian kadai? Fast forward today and you see a similar thing happening.

Today’s digital Silk Road or routes encompass the entire world and is  not limited to US and Europe. Sitting in Samarkhand you have the ability to travel up and down this virtual Silk Road and check out a song from Morocco or a movie from Japan or chat with a friend in Canada. It is all about rich media interaction and experience. Everyday millions of users visit different digital caravans and special communities on Orkut, Facebook, MySpace,FriendFeed and others.

I think one of the defining characteristics of the old Silk Road commerce was that each country or region focused on it core competency. For instance, China was known for it silk and Egypt for its cotton and so on. Similarly, in today’s Digital Silk Road companies and countries are focused on creating products and services that fit and align with their core competency. Perhaps it this global  trend that CK Prahalad and Krishanan were attempting to describe in their book on innovation. They talk about a new age of globalization and the need for companies to leverage their global presence to promote new innovation.

Or, as Nayan Chanda so eloquently describes in his book “Bound Together,” this is certainly not the  first time that the world has been bound together. He writes:

“Essentially, the basic motivations that propelled humans to connect with others — the urge to  profit by trading, the drive to spread religious belief, the desire to exploit new lands and  the ambition to dominate others by armed might — all had been assembled by 6000 B.C.E.  to start the process we now call globalization.”

History shows us as Chanda points out in his book that there have been various periods that witnessed this globalization phenomenon. But, what is different today is our ability to instantly  communicate either over the Internet or mobile phone. It is that speed and instant communication that is different about the new digital Silk Road.

The digital Silk Road is expanding with the explosion of smart mobile phones around the world. There are over 2 billion cell phones and many of them are accessing the Internet through their mobile phones.

Will there be more mashups? Fusion? Synthesis of culture? You bet, there will be. Stay tuned because the journey has just begun and what we have witnessed so far is just the preview. The real movie is still under production and we don’t know what the final product will look like since nobody is directing this film.

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5 Responses »

  1. [...] Read the entire post here. [...]

  2. Brilliant imagination to connect the original silk road with the new, digital one. And it’s all very true – they both have served the same purpose. To globalize the world like never before.

  3. Hi,

    I’m a secondary-school student in England. I was searching through the internet for ideas on an essay titled ‘how similar is the silk road of the ancient times to the internet of the modern day?’ So when I saw this I was quite suprised at the thought that someone else had actually thought of comparing the silk road to the internet. So it was pleasing to see this!

  4. [...] people from all around the world to come and work here and make their dreams come true? What is the digital silk road? I turned to Yogen Dalal, engineer turned entrepreneur turned venture capitalist, who came to [...]

  5. Thanks! This really helped me with some research. You touched on this, but goods were not the only things traded in the Silk Road. Information, ideas, and beliefs were traded too. This similar to the Internet, where we can find lots of information (don’t we look things up on Wikipedia all the time?), ideas (for things from Halloween costumes to things needed to be changed in the government), and beliefs too.

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