I should start by saying that this blog post represents the initial stages of a thought process that is far from complete and I’m not quite happy with my ability to clearly explain myself yet. My hope therefore is that the reader will consider the ideas contained herein as a proposal for a discussion as opposed to a definitive claim to truth. The topic I wish to address is the idea of globalization and its evolution as a phenomenon to explain our global social evolution. I argue that globalization, as it was understood in the 1990s early 2000s, has lost its predominance as a concept to explain capitalism’s encroaching grasp on the throat of the world’s poor. Instead globalization has been re-defined as a concept and now carries a positive connotation in popular discourse as it explains the spread of communications technologies and ubiquitous connectivity. One notable differentiating factor between the two definitions is that the 1990s version explained globalization as an imposition of western values on the rest of the world, thus generating the negative connotation. I argue that globalization continues to do this, only we are far more accepting and comfortable with this consequence because the values are different and their spread is due to viral adoption by people as opposed to impositions by governments.
As a child of the 90s the term globalization defined much of my education and political awakening. Propelling this debate were free trade agreements such as NAFTA, the rise of American culture as an exportable commodity and alleged force of neo-imperialism, the publication of seminal texts such as Naomi Klein’s No Logo and Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalislation and its Discontents, the demonization of the IMF and World Bank, the riots in Seattle, etc., all suggested that the world was somehow spiraling downward by an unabated hegemonic force that somehow threatened the core of cultural and economic differentiation. The international elite were finally executing their plan for global dominance and every young person with a conscience and a Rage Against the Machine T-Shirt had an obligation to take to the streets and express solidarity with the Guatemalan garment worker forced to make Nike shoes for a penny. An inherent tension existed between the individualistic nature of the free-trade movement and the collective self-determination defended by those who saw globalization as a harmful westernizing force.
Then something happened: or perhaps better yet, nothing happened. The apocalyptic narrative petered out and university professors stopped publishing Revelations-inspired books with the title The Globalization of ….. NAFTA didn’t kill Mexico or Canada and despite their facilitated access to American music and movies, Indonesians still haven’t adopted English as their official language. Even more strange, many of the same people who opposed globalization, present company included, decided to join a technological revolution whose goal was to bring connectivity to the darkest corners of the earth and involve each and every human being in a simultaneous conversation. Much of this conversation, by the way, is taking place in the Queen’s English, as English has re-invented itself from the language of new-age imperialism to the neutral arbitrator that enables conversations between Romanians and Peruvians. Oppose globalization? Embrace globalization! From Geneva I can send a micro-credit to a Kenyan farmer directly to his cell-phone. Who could oppose that?
What changed, in my opinion, is that we realized that with the tools of the internet the enlightened first-world evangelists could reach the grain farmers before the free-traders. In fact, through our new tools, some as simple as SMS, the world’s poor could skip a step in the development ladder through their incorporation into the world of information abundance. These new tools provided the opportunity to reach new markets, democratize faster, cut out middlemen, lower barriers to entry, level the playing field, etc. etc. The disempowering narrative of being subject to the overwhelming force of international trade gave way to the empowering potential of technology. This is where we stand today.
So problem solved, right? Maybe. While many were quick to point to the 90s definition of globalization as an imperialistic imposition of western values (free trade, capitalism in general, etc), few feel comfortable talking about the values that are also inherent in the tools many now seek to spread in the name of empowerment.
While it is fair to say that the tools of the internet are neutral in that they are can be used for either good or bad, they aren’t, however, value-neutral. The new mediums are rooted in the very Western ideas of freedom of speech, freedom of information, and freedom of the individual.
Though they facilitate collective action, they are inherently individualistic. This is because the tools’ form, structure and origin are all based in, sorry to say, American notions of the rights of the individual as set forth in the U.S. constitution. These tools enable the expression and practice of these rights because they reflect the core values of their designers.
Ask any computer engineer in Silicon Valley about his politics and you’ll likely find over-representation of libertarians. In addition, those at the forefront of the defense of the internet fight laws such as SOPA and PIPA demonstrating a US-Republican like-zeal against regulation and government interference. Live and Let Live is the motto of the internet because true innovation can only occur when we remove barriers that prevent the full expression of creativity. When George W. Bush justified the war in Iraq by saying that each and every individual has the desire for freedom deep within his heart, we laughed at his simplicity and naivety. Ask us if it’s a good thing for a society that everyone be able to express himself freely on twitter, we answer affirmatively without hesitation.
The consequence is that those who value and celebrate the inclusion of at-risk groups reaching millions with their message through the internet and finding new sources of solidarity also have to make room for the pornographers, hate-groups and terrorists (my apologies to pornographers for including you with such company. I know you’re just trying to make people happy. Even purists such as Big Laden have a soft-spot for you in their heart). With the exception of places such as China and Saudi Arabia where those governments have had some limited success in allowing the internet to operate on their own terms, most governments struggle to harness the force that comes from connected citizens exercising their right to create and access information. Once the practice of these rights is in full-force it will be difficult for political, religious and cultural leaders to silence them in the name of protecting and defending the integrity of the collective: just ask the Mullahs in Iran, the country that, despite its restrictions, has amongst the highest per-capita number of bloggers in the world.
Let me give another example that is more concrete: shortly after the Egyptian revolution, some of which was coordinated through tools like Facebook, Twitter and Google (people forget there were revolutions before broadband), one activist posted pictures of herself nude on Facebook to challenge the overtly conservative tendencies of newly liberated groups such as the Egyptian Brotherhood. The cultural relativism championed by the 1990s opponents of globalization refuses to invoke itself and defend the conservative Egyptian majority in this case. . No-one invokes the imposition of western values on a vulnerable minority culture. Few would side with the Imams using the arguments we used in the 1990s in saying that US culture is permeating and disrupting indigenous cultures negatively.
Though we reference it less globalization is still in full force and its inherent criticism, the imposition of western values, continues to ring true. I’m not arguing that Twitter, Facebook and Google are the new Bush-inspired freedom evangelists. They simply produce tools that facilitate the practice of the aforementioned rights, thus tapping into pre-existing desires and enabling minority voices to create new levels of societal consciousness of the desire for these rights through online debate. As long as U.S. innovation continues to drive the development of the underlying infrastructure of the internet, it is likely that the rights I’ve discussed will only imbed themselves more in the internet’s DNA and become accepted, celebrated and spread by developers and citizens all over the world. Though there will no doubt be more tension and more attempts to throttle its potential, the internet’s greatest asset is its ability to rally the masses and turn passive consumers of information into active creators.
I don’t know about you, but if I project into the future and think about the world order the spreading of these rights will lead to, I like it. Less concerned am I about the source of the spread and more excited am I about the democratizing potential. Maybe that makes me a Western imperialist arguing in favour of universal truth and places me in the same category as the Free Traders, George Bush and the nice Mormons I met on the tram in Geneva. I guess I can only take comfort in the words of my hero, Marshall McLuhan that the medium is the message, and if cultures are disrupted by new technologies it is because the individuals that compose that culture want it to be so.