Friday, December 13, 2013

Interlude VII - Final Essay

While it's tempting to simply say that yes, the process of globalization is by definition a process of homogenization, I think a more accurate term would be universalization--the process does not make our life experiences interchangeable, but it does make them more broadly translatable.

For example, if you look at the island of Great Britain, with a landlocked population that has been remained largely isolated for the bulk of its thousands of years of human occupation, you will still find an enormous degree of cultural variation from region to region; not just in separate nations like Ireland and Scotland, but even within England itself, there are worlds of difference between the metropolitan Londoners and the countryfolk, between the farmers and the fishermen. Culturally, of course, one only needs to look at the violent struggles surrounding the Catholic Church in Great Britain to see that people will find things to argue about no matter how similar they are.

Great Britain's longevity makes it a particularly useful example, but you can see the same pattern play out to varying degrees all over the world: less so on the island of Japan, which is both landlocked and has a long history of atypical cultural purity and imperialism--but which still exhibits striking divisions between modern and traditional values, and the United States, which is far younger than the nations of Eurasia, and across its three-thousand-mile expanse demonstrates enormous variations in culture, modernity, and lifestyle.

So, then, if even populations such as Great Britain's and Japan's don't really demonstrate all that much homogenization, it seems unlikely that the age of globalization will somehow be the thing that changes that--much less increasing their homogeneity with other nations entirely.

Universalization, on the other hand, can be understood as the mainstreaming of certain societal or cultural infrastructure--cinema being one example, or fast food, or on the more negative end of the spectrum, offshoring and deregulation. Processes and paradigms that were once unique to specific nations are indeed becoming commonplace all over the world, but they do so according to open-market logic--the most useful and popular methods tend to win out, even if they're not always the most fair--and often take on a local flavor specific to the needs and mores of each individual population.

Looking through our course material, more specific examples come to mind. Locomotives, now a ubiquitous system of transportation for both freight and passenger travel, were first developed in England for their convenience and efficiency. The technology proved uniquely useful in the United States, however, whose landmass dwarfs that of England--the intercontinental railroad was what made safe and reliable travel to and from the west coast of the US a reality. What was largely a convenience in Europe became an existential necessity for the US. Moving into the present, high-speed rail has found particular success in Japan, where the enormous metropolitan area of Tokyo renders automobile travel a unique challenge. The Japanese took the western model of locomotive travel and greatly developed its commuter aspect to suit their own needs. Globalization allowed each of these far-flung cultures access to the same revolutionary technology, but left them free to adapt it to greatly different ends.

Of course, those who are wary of globalization tend to be less concerned about technological advancement than the slow creep of a perceived "cultural imperialism". The example of Cosmopolitan magazine, however, suggests that the only way for a cultural product to truly take root around the world is to offer a universal message in the first place. Cosmo, as the course outlines, has been very successful in isolating core universal principles--female empowerment and coming of age--and translating them into numerous different cultures, without causing riots in the more repressive cultures of the Middle East, or boring the daylights out of ultra-progressive Sweden. This requires not just identifying those aspects of their product that have universal appeal, but also giving regional editors the freedom to envelop those aspects in the best parts of their own cultures, and bring to bear their own understanding of where the line is--and precisely how far the magazine may dare to cross it.

This is not to say that the process of globalization is always positive, of course. Filtering the world of globalization through a local lens doesn't always remove the bad elements, and in fact can give them new opportunities to flourish. Dubai's entrance onto the world stage, for all the grandeur and regality of its enormous skyscrapers and resorts, left plenty of room for the subjugation of the country's natives into an invisible, lower class of construction workers and service industry wage slaves and indentured servants. The danger inherent in globalization's advent is not inherent to the process, but in its potential to blind us to injustices by normalizing them--the more widespread acceptance they garner, the less problematic they may seem, or at least, the less fixable. But it's easy to overlook the wealth of different cultures this planet continues to be home to--homogeneous only in their having equal capacities for both good and evil.

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