Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Billion Cultures?

These days everyone is talking about globalization. The economists warn us about staggering levels of inter-dependence (aka "mutually assured destruction"), while politicians promote the rise of democracy (whether you like it or not), linguists hail the inevitable doom of all languages except The One (need to negotiate with an Indian in Tanzania for a "Free Tibet" t-shirt sewn in China and printed in Mexico? English!), travelers discuss how small the world has become ("you can be anywhere in the world in 24 hours!"), inventers plan the next barrier-breaking paradigm shift in technology ("hand-held transporters, man. It's gonna be huge!"), sociologist examine the infusion of Levis, McDonalds, and Bruce Willis into the core of every culture ("It seems, ladies and gentlemen, that Rammstein was right. We all live in America"), and Google brings everyone and everything just one click away ("Google, making stalking a celebrity on the other side of the world a little bit easier"). It's easy to sit at home and be flooded with pictures of Chinese children in Mickey Mouse hats, East Africans huts covered with Bollywood posters, Americans in line for the next Pokemon, and people everywhere discarding their Kimonos, Saris, Burkas, and Shukas to grab "well worn style" jeans, spagetti string tops, and high heels. It’s easy to feel that something valuable is being lost forever.

And it is, I don’t deny it, but there’s another side to all this, one that few people notice or mention. For the most part, all of these unprecedented changes are taking place very much on the macro level, or superficially. On an individual and personal level - the level on which one human being interacts with another - we are all fast becoming more complicated, unique, and "exotic" than anything that has ever existed. The individualization of complexity launches the quantity of “uniqueness” and “exoticism” from hundreds of cultures into the realm of billions of individuals.

Until very recently, all the people in the world have mostly fit into one of a few hundred boxes. Each box carried a relatively uniform checklist: America = English = Christian = White-skinned = Independent = Jeans = Hamburger = Cowboy, etc. Japan = Japanese = Buddhist = Narrow-Eyed = Introverted = Kimono = Sushi = Samurai, etc. Indian = Hindi = Hindu = Dark-haired = Outgoing = Sari = Curry = Guru, etc. These were (and still are) the boxes, and of course there were always exceptions and broad misconceptions in these views, but often when people talk about the loss of diversity in the world they're talking about going to Japan and seeing lines out the door at McDonalds and Starbucks, or to Thailand and seeing everyone in jeans, or to America and finding noticeable social dependence. The various categories within each "box" were always strongly linked together, and you could make an assumption about all categories by knowing the answer to one, usually "Where are you from?" "India." "Oh, I love curry!" "Japan." "Oh, I love flower arranging!" "America." "Ah, Wild West!!"
Rapidly these beloved cultural icons have become diffused, marginalized, replaced, or relocated (How long will it take to hear "You're from America? I love Sushi!" "You're from Japan? Oh I love McDonalds!" "You're from India? I love IT!"?). A few dozen years ago all you needed to know was where someone was from, and you had them in a box, a box containing tens or hundreds of millions of people. But within the space of a generation things have become much more complicated. As I still ask people "Where are you from" as a first grasp at a handle, I notice a growing number of people who have to pause before answering to understand exactly what I'm asking, and which category (no longer a package deal) I'm trying to determine. It's clear that the walls of those cultural and national boxes are cracking and crumbling, and something unprecedented is emerging...
To Be Continued... Mañana


  1. Very insightful. What you say is very true. Great observations. (BTW - our pictures are in full res. someone couldclaim them as their own very easily. Either put them up in a lower resor better yet stamp them with your name).
    Much love, Dad

  2. Excellent piece of writing Caleb. A very fresh piece of journalism! Mom

  3. and also, in the states, a great many of our generation prides themselves about not being able to be put in a box, not being able to be defined by labels; they work hard at finding the most obscure music to be a fan of, or the most unfashionable clothes to wear, or inventing their own version of spiritual thinking, proud to not register with political parties because nothing "mainstream" fits their view. the ironic thing is that they are their own label: "hipster kid" or whatever - but irony aside, i've seen a bit of a movement against labels over here, and a search for "something different" in america's youth

  4. I'm guilty of that as well! This probably drives the individual aspects of globalization too, although you'd think that it would put young Americans (most "individual" obsessed) on the front lines, whereas they definitely seem to be a line or two behind Europeans and Australians when it comes to internationalization. But there are other factors at play there, not the least geographical. Thanks for the extra angels!!