“Economic progress is increasingly dependent on innovations in the use of technology.” – George Pohle, IBM

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Has the decline of the American Empire begun?

Is the world’s mightiest military power – by far – as well as the globe’s economic juggernaut losing its edge?

All empires fall, no matter how mighty. History teaches us that fact. Unfortunately, too many people never have paid much attention to history or mankind wouldn’t keep repeating all its mistakes.

A “mistake” being made as we share experiences today over the Internet is that Americans aren’t spending enough time on the Net. While there wasn’t an Internet in the past to make a “mistake” over, there have been empires that suffered as innovation passed them by, leaving them vulnerable to economic and military threat.

A couple of recent surveys – one of which claims to offer the first true global view of Internet usage – seem to indicate that the “e-domination” the United States built in creating the Net is slipping.

In what it called the “first true estimate of global online audience size and behavior based on activity from the world’s largest online behavioral research panel”, comScore Networks reported earlier this month that Americans don’t even rank in the top 15 among hours spent online when compared to other nations.

The survey could indicate that entertainment options outside of the U.S. are more limited and therefore people use the Net for TV, music, games and movies. U.S. sites do dominate in terms of Internet traffic.

But what if the hours-on-line total means that global users see the Net as the key to a better economic future and will use it to better educate themselves and their children?

What does it mean for the U.S. if more knowledge gained through the Net means more innovation outside U.S. borders?

Here’s comScore’s Top 15 list ranked by average hours spent online by individual users over the age of 15. The U.S. rate is about half that of Israel’s, comScore says. (The survey doesn’t include hours spent connected via wireless phones or Internet “cafes”.)

Country, Avg. Hours
World, 31.3
1. Israel, 57.5
2. Finland, 49.3
3. South Korea, 47.2
4. Netherlands, 43.5
5. Taiwan, 43.2
6. Sweden, 41.4
7. Brazil, 41.2
8. Hong Kong, 41.2
9. Portugal, 39.8
10. Canada, 38.4
11. Germany, 37.2
12. Denmark, 36.8
13. France, 36.8
14. Norway, 35.4
15. Venezuela, 35.3

It’s not a revelation that the world is catching up or has passed the United States in a variety of Internet metrics (such as broadband penetration in Asia, overall e-commerce capabilities in Europe, to name two). But in my humble opinion those kind of statistics mean trouble especially when placed in a global context.

Internet-related technology, including 2 billion global wireless users who use the Net more each day for everything from games to texting plus the constant improvement of broadband for the enabling of on-demand entertainment and global videoconferencing, is certainly a primary driving of innovation in the world today. We are becoming an “e-world”, and globalization of the entire economy is driven more by “e-this” and “e-that” than most people can comprehend.

Closing the Global Digital Divide

Just how close the race is to development “e-economies” is shown in the sixth annual “E-readiness Rankings” from The Economist’s Intelligence Unit and the IBM Institute for Business Value.

“Economic progress is increasingly dependent on innovations in the use of technology,” said George Pohle of IBM in talking about the study.

The Economist survey takes a broader view of technology use than the comScore survey, and the United States fares well, ranking second just behind Denmark. But the global digital divide is closing, researchers said.

Taking into account such factors as Internet usage as well as mobile phone subscribers, The Economist’s top 13 countries were:

1. Denmark, 9.0
2. United States, 8.8
3. Switzerland, 8.81
4. Sweden, 8.74
5. United Kingdom, 8.64
6. Netherlands, 8.60
7. Finland, 8.55
8. Australia, 8.50
9. Canada, 8.37
10. Hong Kong, 8.36
11. Norway, 8.35
12. Germany, 8.34
13. Singapore, 8.24

“This is the first time we see a level playing field between developed and developing nations in terms of connectivity,” Peter Korsten of IBM told Reuters about the survey.

The comScore survey wasn’t all gloom-and-doom about the United States. American media sites such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Time Warner and others still dominate the world in terms of traffic, for example.

Also, comScore estimates there are 694 million people age 15 and over around the world using the Internet. Of those, 152 million live in the U.S. But comScore noted that the U.S. share of the Net user universe is shrinking.

“Today, the online audience in the U.S. represents less than a quarter of Internet users across the globe, versus ten years ago when it accounted for two-thirds of the global audience,” said Peter Daboll, chief executive officer of comScore Media Metrix. “This is a sea change of enormous proportion …”

Indeed, it is. Will the waves created by this sea change build into a tsunami?

As much as Americans are concerned about the global threat of terrorism and economic issues such as skyrocketing energy costs and outsourcing of jobs, we would be wise to make sure the threats – and opportunities – of an “e-world” are understood and dealt with accordingly. Otherwise, the world will pass us by.