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GP 24 October 2007: Globalization: Culture Carriers

Global Knowledge.  How do we know what’s going on in a hamlet on the other side of the earth? And how do we usefully put the insight gained there to work in our bailiwick?  As it turns out, the globe is still very fragmented, and it’s a tricky business to close the synapses.

To be as universal as we need to be in order to contemplate the globe as a whole is probably an unattainable ideal.  America’s democratic poet, Walt Whitman, thought we come near it at death.  In his appreciation of “Song of Myself” in Leaves of Grass, Charles Junkerman essays on how Whitman portrayed death—a weaving of our molecules together with all the other molecules in the universe.  “What happens to the people who die?  The answer is a mystical vision of rebirth and participation in all living things.  There is no loss, ‘nothing collapses.’  ….  We all change shape and exchange our molecules” with one another.

Globaloney.  Truth is, we humanoids are a pretty parochial bunch—no matter where.  As Professor Pankay Ghemawat of Harvard has commented in “Globalization Myths vs. Reality” on his blog  “What in the World,” economic activity is still very much concentrated in local little pods, and cosmic communication still does not typify so-called global marketplaces:

Why?  Because most types of economic activity that could be carried out within or across national borders are actually still concentrated domestically.  Not convinced?  Ask yourself, of all the capital being invested around the world, how much is foreign direct investment by companies outside of their home countries?  Maybe you’ve heard the globaloney about “investment knowing no boundaries,” and so on.  The fact is, the ratio is generally less than 10% and, while it may be pushed higher by merger waves, has never reached 20%.

As the chart below demonstrates, the actual levels of globalization associated with telephone calls, long-term migration, university enrollment, stock investment, and trade as a fraction of gross domestic product (GDP)—look at the blue bars—resemble the data presented above: they fall much closer to 10% than the levels close to 100% that one would expect if one took the gurus of globaloney at their word.

In other words, Ghemawat shouts what we already know in our hearts.  We’re much less global than we would like to think, and the pseudo-cant that tells us the earth is flat or integrated or united is so much bull.  Even world financial markets which are thought to be relatively efficient do not transmit information back and forth as smoothly as the nabobs in London and New York would have us believe.  If they did, the world would never have been brought low by the Long-Term Capital Management meltdown when a turnabout in Russia nearly lopped the head off the world financial system.

Of course, Mr. Ghemawat’s baloney is not Jim Hightower’s brand.  Ghemawat simply thinks that we harbor grave illusions about the degree of integration in the world.  The populist Hightower—and many others like him—believes that globalization is a cover for free trade, and that free trade is a cover for using low wage laborers in Asia to put workers in developed countries out of work.  For him globalization is not an academic term: it is a pernicious form of baloney that wreaks havoc on the common man.   Maybe both are right.   Maybe we are not very global.  And maybe a lot of global things that have happened are akin to bird flu—something to be restrained, something against which we must be immunized.

Knowledge Transfer. If you traffic with consulting firms and big corporations, you have probably bumped into knowledge managers who sit atop databases and other piles of stuff that aggregate all the wisdom that the intellectual capital boys have cobbled together.  In fact, they are notoriously unsuccessful at spreading wisdom and getting global results, the accumulation being insufficiently creative and interactive to have a successful outcome.  The universities used to abet the diffusion of ideas around the planet, but they, too, have developed impenetrable hard shells that keep good things from getting in and getting out.  It’s not only that corporations and institutions have internal silos that prevent the free spread of knowledge, but that they are isolated from the larger world in which they live.  Despite the plethora of sophisticated learning mechanisms and smart consulting firms, we can smell the economic stagnation that affects most of the advanced societies on earth, ‘knowledge management’ having done very little to stanch the rot.  Our argument here is that knowledge travels the fastest down cultural pathways—and only fitfully around the cumbersome commercial, governmental, and so-called educational channels that trumpet the pastiche of information put together by the world’s mandarins. 

SoHo.  Nonetheless, wonderful things do happen in the face of decay—and knowledge gets spread—in defiance of all the experts and all the politicians.  The SoHo district of New York (once named the Cast Iron District in a more Industrial Age) demonstrates how it works.  First of, Manhattanities and devout urbanists such as Jane Jacobs had to fend off the monster builders such as Robert Moses, who wanted to put a stream of freeways through their backyards.  Highways, the ‘edifice complex’ men felt, would renew, expand, and revive both the city and the region.  Forever city planners have believed that the wrecking ball is the route to metropolitan success.

Once they were stopped dead in their tracks, something totally unplanned happened.  Artists moved into the cheap loft space and transformed it for a fraction of what city planners would have spent.  They did not tear down buildings to make way for ego palaces.  New York City’s bureaucracy tried to stop the artists for a while, but finally gave up the ghost.  Today SoHo is vibrant, testimony to the power of art and artful people to transform a community.  This lesson, incidentally, is being missed in city after city around the United States today where lots of building and road construction still is taking place—without the vital cultural organisms to back it up—and failed, eerie communities are taking shape.

Art Travels.  As we are discovering in our consulting practice, art travels and transforms.  It is the ether in which ideas get from one place to another, shaping new behaviors wherever they land.  By and large government and corporate bureaucrats do not know how to deal with art and artists, so the creatives can creep past borders and create ferment where they touch down.  It’s not uncommon to find a print maker or sculptor practicing his craft in San Francisco, and then turning up in the Shanghai art scene a year or two later.  Globalization is mightily affecting the art world, but, in turn, art is creating global minds.

The Global Culture Market.  Unnoticed almost, the culture trade has soared over the last few years.  The UN—in particular UNESCO—has tried to get its arms around the world culture market, and, as such, it should in time be able to better abet the spread of ideas.  “Three countries—the United Kingdom, United States and China—produced 40 per cent of the world’s cultural trade products in 2002” (UN News Release, 16 December 1005).  “Between 1994 and 2002, international trade in cultural goods increased from $38 billion to $60 billion, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report said.”  “The United Kingdom was the biggest single exporter of cultural goods in 2002 with $8.5 billion followed by the United States ($7.6 billion) and China ($5.2 billion).  The US was the biggest importer of cultural goods at $15.3 billion, followed by the UK ($7.8 billion) and Germany ($4.1 billion), according to data based mainly on customs declarations.”  The UN’s Report, “International Flows of Selected Cultural Goods and Services, 1994-2003,” estimated that cultural and creative products account for over 7% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product.  Of course, this was concentrated in a handful of countries.  What we will have to better understand is how this trade affects the world economy and the world’s store of intellectual capital.

Novel Novels.  What we do understand is that the things people think about are being radically changed by art.  Just 3 years ago a reading group in a small Southern community focused on low-rent, romantic Southern novels that made it seem like life had “gone with the wind.”  Today the same and similar groups are reading The Kite Runner (Afghanistan), Waiting for Snow in Havana (Cuba), Brick Lane (Bangladesh immigrants in London), etc.  Art has become a global ambassador, even in the recesses of the South.

Tales of TokyoTrends in Japan, a spritely publication of the Japanese government, has come to understand that culture is a marketing tool for that nation’s export-driven economy.  Just recently it has added Tokyo Tales to its offerings:

“Welcome to ‘Tokyo Tales,’ a new section of Trends in Japan featuring works of fiction by leading young Japanese novelists.  The first tale, ‘Three-Piece Story,’ will be serialized weekly from October to December 2007.”  The author is award-winning Takeuchi Makoto, and his storyline is itself about globalization or cross-pollination.

“This is a story about mystery solving and cultural cross-pollination, as played out on a chessboard—or a shogi board or a xiangqi board.  Three people, one from China, one from the United States, and one from Japan, come together in the borderless realm of the Internet and discover a common affinity as each, despite occasional clashes, takes an interest in the others’ worlds. Eventually they agree to meet face to face in a fourth country, where what was hidden is revealed, and the power of imagination blows away the feeling of being trapped in reality.”

Import ReplacementJane Jacobs, who helped saved Manhattan from Expressways and who just died last year, thought the basis of economic development lay in the great cities, which, for a while, import items from other countries, then take to making the items themselves.  In her view, they import somebody else’s ideas and make them their own.  We don’t know whether she has the right view of things economic, but her take on development is useful, and it beautifully illustrates the Japanese case.

The Japanese Tradition.  Japan, at its best, always imports ideas—from all over the world—but then makes them its own and improves upon them.  For nations, this is the question: how does one import and export ideas with alacrity?  Above all, that is the question for any developed economy that is threatened by low cost competition.  In the Japanese case, this process has been immensely abetted by the fact that it has a centuries old philosophical tradition of importing its most profound religious ideas and making them over into something entirely different, as revealed in Routledge’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

A more careful analysis, however, shows that Japanese thinkers have seldom adopted any foreign philosophy without simultaneously adapting it.  For example, the Japanese philosophical tradition never fully accepted the emphasis on propriety or the mandate of heaven so characteristic of Chinese Confucianism.  It rejected the Buddhist idea that impermanence is a reality to which one must be resigned, and instead made the appreciation of impermanence into an aesthetic. It criticized the neo-Confucian and Western philosophical tendencies toward rationalism and positivism, even while accepting many ideas from those traditions.  In short, there has always been a complex selection process at work beneath the apparent absorption of foreign idea.

Ideas from abroad, we submit, best come into a country on the wings of culture.  Once there, however, the task for the recipients is to totally embrace the ideas in order to convert them to something else, engaging, if you like, in import substitution.

P.S.  “In an era when commercial radio seems to be floundering, National Public Radio is hitting its stride.  Some 25.5 million people tune into its programming each week, up from 13 million a decade ago.  It has more than 800 members stations, up from 635 a decade ago” (Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2007, pp. B1-2).  Much of the federal funding goes to local stations, rather than to network operations, permitting distribution in rural and minority areas.  On balance, this is a ‘cultural’ or knowledge form of media as opposed to the pop fare offered by commercial stations.  The idea of ‘universal service,’ which characterized national phone operations when AT&T was a monopoly but has since been dropped, has crept into public radio operations.  Universal low-price broadband would have a huge beneficial effect on America.

P.P.S.  If you have a deft hand, you can elevate your business’s dialogue with the community at large through art.  For instance, Absolut annointed its vodka and became the third best selling spirit, largely through an advertising campaign that linked the company to contemporary art.  On the Global Province, one of the topics we explore in Poetry and Business is the power of poetry to overcome the trivialization of language induced by advertising in order to infuse business discourse with more meaning.

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