'Globalization is in danger of becoming, if it has not already
become, the cliché of our times: the big idea which encompasses
everything from global financial markets to the Internet but which
delivers little substantive insight into the contemporary human
condition.' Cited from Held, McGrew, Goldblatt and Perraton's Global
Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture (Stanford 1999),
these words speak to the dangers and challenges of finding a unifying
explanation for the complex changes which seem to be taking place
around us. Our lives have all been touched by the global reach of
communication and transportation technologies, by the speed of information
exchange, and by the mutual dependencies which seem almost to be
taken for granted.
As we know from historical precedents - the Silk Road trade route
between the Middle East and China in the first millennium for example
- travel and trade brought with them cultural exchange: new musical
forms, new religions, and new forms of political organization. These
served both as sources of cultural renewal and progress, but also
as very real threats to established traditions and ways of life.
The modern histories of communication and transportation have radically
intensified these processes. They underscore the economic and political
discrepancies between different parts of the world, but they can
also be used to bring needed support to areas in crisis. They broaden
the spectrum of culture to which populations have access, but they
also threaten to trample any organic cultural developments that
are in their path. Some of the most profound implications of the
new technologies may be found in the economic sector, as global
producers and markets are pushed into an integrated system by the
World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization.
Since these activities are usually dominated by industrial nations
with their own sets of interests, the terms of exchange can be disastrous
for more fragile economies and less economically diversified and
developed parts of the world. The imbalance between the possibilities
that the new technologies bring, and the actual uses to which they
are put, has generated widespread concern and protest which can
be seen in the demonstrations at various international economic
summits such as those hosted in Seattle and Genoa.
As nations, economies, and even ecosystems increasingly depend
upon one another, as populations increasingly flow outside national
borders, the idea of the nation state is changing. Networks - whether
composed of professionals, economic interests, political or religious
beliefs - provide de-territorialized linkages among peoples and
interests. Freed from physical proximity, enabled by communications
technologies, these networks operate outside the bounds of the nation-state
and thus often establish their own rules of engagement. However,
global exchange and networks play themselves out in local circumstances.
As a result, highly specific constraints, meanings and associations
are sometimes created for them, depending on where they happen to
be found. Globalization may not be the best term for the job, but
it directs our attention to the complex interplay of global flows
and local interpretations and implications.
Questions to Consider
- Imagine what it's like to grow up in Asia or Africa with surrounded
by the sounds and images of American and European culture - Disney's
retellings of Western folktales or Barbi, for example. How might
these be understood?
- Consider your understanding of Japanese culture through Pokémon
or Anime - how might it differ from its meanings in Japan? What
does this tell us about international cultural objects and local
- Are notions of justice, of freedom, of right and wrong the same
everywhere, regardless of cultural tradition? Consider the challenges
faced by the UN or the world court in The Hague in establishing
international ethical codes.
- Consider religion as a globalising influence. Protestantism,
Catholicism, Islam and Judaism are all international networks
of belief, yet each has extremist elements. How might this extremism
pose both local threats as well as dangers to the larger meanings
and potentials of religion as a whole?
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