The World is Flat: Technology, Globalization and Cultural Paradoxes

The Places in Between by Rory StewartThe world is indeed a strangely fascinating place. Technological forces have recently flattened the world, making the global village predicted by Marshall McLuhan way back in the early 1960’s a reality. Nicholas Negroponte’s highly publicized One Laptop Per Child project aside, the mobile phone is uniquely the one technology that has both gained traction and been as transformational in the developing world as in the west.

With that in mind, RoryStewart’s The Places in Between brilliantly captures the cultural melange that is modern Afghanistan. Having recently completed this book left me with a much richer understanding Afghanistan’s position as the “missing link” among European, Chinese and South Asian cultures, religions and history. Stewart, as a historian, and fearless trekker, captures the absurdities inherent in the American/NATO invasion, especially as they compound attempted occupations by Russia, colonial Britain and before them a long line going back even before Alexander the Great. I’d strongly encourage people to read this book.

In this context of historical and cultural dissonance, it was sadly amusing to read the following line about a small tribal village that retains its own language and culture and is (supposedly) isolated from the modern world:

“As we went to sleep someone turned on a radio tuned to the BBC Dari service. A Bill Gates speech on American policy toward technology monopologies was being translated into Dari. The men listened intently. I wondered what these illiterate men without electricity thought of bundling Internet Explorer with Windows.”

Film: Three SeasonsLikewise, the 1999 Vietnamese/American film Three Seasons (Trois Saisons) beautifully shows the traditional Asian culture clashing with western technology and ideals. Of course, the viewer is ever mindful of the backstory first the French, then American, attempts to conquer Vietnam colour the whole story. History is never far from the surface.

We who work to bring the latest and greatest technology innovations to the market, while working in an increasingly flat and seemingly homogeneous world, should never forget how intensely the forces of history shape today’s reality. But, we must never forget that increased globalization rarely means homogenization. Since culture and history continue to be full of surprises, whether dispensing international aid or designing “world” products, people must never forget the human element.