Internet in the Nordic countries

The internet facilitates social relations and participation in society in the Nordics which is a thinly populated region excepting Denmark. State involvement in all the Nordic countries has been patchy and left major investment to private actors to date, making the growth of the informational communications infrastructure very different from that of the state-sponsored physical infrastructure (roads, railways etc.) in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some have argued that the dominance of private investment in the field will lead to a ‘digital divide’ along class and regional lines.

2019.03.26 | Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Photo: Unsplash (Public Domain).

Historically the Internet dates back to the 1960s, when it existed as a closed military/academic communications circuit in the US. It gradually became more widely available, and has grown phenomenally, worldwide, since the early 1990s. With the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1993, the Internet became more versatile and user-friendly, and subsequent developments have seen the rise of the social media and the increasing dominance worldwide of the smartphone as the medium through which the Internet is accessed.

People living in the Nordics have been avid users of the Internet for many years, and with a vast majority of the population connected to the net, the region has the highest Internet coverage in the world as well as the most reliable broadband connections. This can partly be explained through the region’s prosperity, enabling almost anybody to buy a computer if they wish, but the spread of the Internet also has a cultural dimension. Technological innovations tend to be adopted quickly (and, some would argue, uncritically) by the Nordic countries, whose mixed-economy welfare states embarked on ambitious modernisation programmes throughout the twentieth century. Since these countries are thinly populated (excepting Denmark), a communication medium such as the Internet facilitates social relations and participation in society, and telemedicine – remote examination and treatment of patients – is becoming an option to people living in remote areas.

Already at the turn of the millennium, very significant amounts of information were available online in the Nordic languages. For example, virtually all newspapers had Internet editions by then. Two decades later, online editions of news sources, magazines and journals are on the brink of rendering their paper-based versions obsolete. Organisational and private websites devoted to a great variety of topics also flourished. Online access to public radio and television was also gradually being developed. Research suggests that people who live in the Nordics prefer to access information in their own language, in spite of the global alternatives and in spite of the fact that most are able to read English.

Apart from educational issues, the Internet has rarely entered the political sphere in the Nordic region. It is assumed that private companies will implement the needed infrastructure, thus making customers pay for it. Especially in Sweden, there have been occasional demands for a greater public (state) involvement, e.g. in the building of a nationwide broadband network, but state involvement in all the Nordic countries has been patchy and left major investment to private actors to date. This makes the growth of the informational communications infrastructure very different in kind from that of the physical communicational infrastructure (roads, railways etc.) in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the state footed the bill. Some have argued that the dominance of private investment in the field will lead to a ‘digital divide’ along class and regional lines.

Especially after merging with mobile phones – another crucial technology which took off in the 1990s – the Internet has contributed to a major transformation of everyday life in the Nordics. Communication that formerly passed through the postal service is now being disseminated via email or another messaging service – be it business correspondence or intimate notes between lovers – and with the advent and rapid spread of smartphones, many complain that they are never offline any more. Terms like 'information glut' and 'information overload' have become household words, and some have called for political action to curtail some of the undesired consequences of the information revolution.

On the other hand, there is widespread optimism around the Internet in the political classes, and e-learning platforms, the use of tablets and laptops in school as well as electronic tests and exams have become common in all Nordic countries, possibly more so than anywhere else.

Further reading:

  • Ulla Carlsson ed., Radio, TV and Internet in the Nordic Countries: Meeting the Challenges of New Media Technology (Stockholm: Nordic Media Trends, 2006).

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