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Random musings from a libertarian, tech geek...
Monday, December 23, 2002 - 08:55 PM Permanent link for Creative Destruction
Creative Destruction

After reading / blogging an article about Tyler Cowen, I did an Amazon search to find one of his books -- Creative Destruction.  I read it on my Christmas plane flight back home to Houston and found it an interesting economic exploration of the topic of Globalization & its impact on the portfolio of the world's cultures.

Overall, the book had a few interesting arguments / ideas although I found too much of the material encyclopedic in nature rather than pushing new frontiers.   For example, after it's been demonstrated that Navajo textile art is the beneficiary of European dyeing technology, it wasn't necessary to provide equally in-depth examples for Inuit carvings, Persian rugs, and African music.

Nevertheless, Cowen's core arguments are interesting and timely.

The first area of discussion is the nature of the homogenization that Globalization is creating across the world's cultures.   Cowen readily acknowledges that Globalization is, at some level, reducing the diversity between a shopping mall in Seattle vs. Shanghai.   However, the critical question, Cowen contends, is not cultural diversity across societies but rather diversity within a society.  Globization has brought Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Thai food to both France, Germany, and the US and, in the process converged the dining choices across these 3 countries.  

The result of this incursion -- while providing individuals within both countries with more cultural choices -- is that the two societies as a whole do become more alike.  A Chinese restaurant in Germany will look quite similar to one in the US.

Closely related to inter-social vs. intra-social diversity is Cowen's topic of operative diversity vs. objective diversity.   The differences between the two is akin to the old question about the tree falling in the forest with noone there to hear it.   Operative diversity is diversity which can be experienced by individuals outside of a given group while objective diversity is the isolated, "unknown" diversity within a particular region.  

What is the relative scale of the diversity created in the world between the vast Chinese diaspora vs. an unknown tribe in the Amazon?   Is diversity pursued for the sake of a "greater good" of all of humanity or is the diversity localized in a way that renders it inaccessible to others?

Intra-social cultural diversity coupled with a market driven focus for Operative diversity necessitates a sort of homogenization of the process technology.  This is the machinery of consumer choice used to deliver cultural elements.   Regardless of geographic region, the "best practices" that give rise to a Virgin Megastore are just as applicable to delivering Latin music to an American audience as vice-versa. 

The strip mall, for example, is both a homogenizing force as it springs up in suburbias around the world with the distinctive shared parking lot and multiple storefronts sharing adjacent walls.   But it is also a diversifying force because it brings down the cost of starting & experimenting with a variety restaurant concepts and cuisines.

The self appointed intelligentsia, however, takes a far shallower view and [p 130]:

... assumes that diversity takes the form of cultural differentiation across geographic space, and that this differentiation should be visible to the naked eye, such as when we cross the border between the United States and Mexico

This is often masking an underlying agenda, Cowen argues [p 17]:

...most critics of contemporary culture dislike particular trends, often those associated with modernity or commecialism more generally.   They use diversity as a code word for a more particularist agenda, often of an anti-commercial or anti-American nature

The "process technology" of the strip mall is part of a general example of Wealth & Technology becoming "mobilizers" of Culture.   These are tools which helps us get & appreciate music from other cultures.

One fascinating area of discussion that Cowen dives deeply into is the relationship between Ethos and artistic/cultural productivity.   An Ethos is like a Zeitgeist and is responsible for providing the proximate cause for a cultural expression.   For example, the Conversion Car culture in suburban LA is an product of Ethos of the Asian + Mexican + Black cultural mix combined with relatively high disposable incomes and the acres of paved surfaces available in Los Angeles.   Recreating this particular form of cultural expression faithfully requires recreating the underlying Ethos.  Without this Ethos, a movie like The Fast and the Furious would have lost much of its texture. 

The car culture is also a great example of the emergent nature of Ethos -- societies no matter how disparate give rise to an ethos because of underlying desires embedded within human nature.   Even within supposedly acultural Petri dishes (as the LA 'burbs are often portrayed), the human has within him the genesis of new cultural norms.  A few examples of emergent Ethos cited by Cowen[p67]

...the programmer culture of Silicon Valley, football fandom, or teenage "rave culture" of the late 1980s and 1990s are a few examples of ethos...  The resulting small, partial cultural communities are typically independent of geography, as their ethoses are transmitted through means other than spatial proximity.

Blogging, of course, is a supremely relevant example of an emergent ethos  ;-)

However, advocates of "cultural purity" are often bemoaning a loss of purity of Ethos.   One area where Cowen acknowledges an irreversible loss of ethos and therefore culture in the face of Globalization are situations where the lack of pluralism are an intrinsic part of the artistic experience [p53-54]:

Some degree of isolation can inject self-confidence and a sense of magic into an art.   Many third world and indigenous artisans view their crafs as imbued with great religions and mythic significance, and as having central importance for the unfolding of history

...If the voodoo religion of Haitie were definitively revealed to be untrue to all Haitians,  Haitian art would be much poorer for it...  in other words, false conciousness is a wellspring of human creativity.

We can idly puzzle ourselves over the question of "would Michelangelo have done as amazing of a job if he didn't *really* believe his work was securing a place in heaven?" 

Thus, like certain political memes, an ethos which requires a pseudo-totalitarian embrace of the artist's life will die out.   Cowen argues that there is a single new "totalitarian"/universal & inviolable ethos [p70]:

If there is any contemporary ethos that is becoming predominant on a global scale, it is an ideology of individualistic self-fulfillment, bred through democracy, relatively free markets, and modern commercial society.  

Cowen points out that due to the interplay of technology and markets, the breadth and depth consumption of culture is increasing.   We do a lot more channel surfing but we are also able to create market conditions which sustain depth Ethos media like the "Cooking Channel"

Cowen finally turns to an analysis of the ideologies of the anti-globalization counter-revolutionaries.   First and foremost it is an attempt to foist an incredibly static definition of "culture" upon other peoples [p 135]

Invoking an absolute "right" to one's original culture involves too strong a moral claim, given that cultures are both synthetic and ever changing.   The real problem is usually that the younger generation wants a different culture than do the elders.

Secondarily, these folks are attempting to maintain their moral happiness by denying freedom of choice to supposedly more "pure" 3rd world cultures [p 146]

.. I will define this value judgement as the view that poorer societies should not be required to serve as diversity slaves....   Insofar as anyone feels the loss of diversity, it is the richer countries.   Bring a shopping mall to Papua New Guineas gives the Papuans more choice but it may give the American collector of Papuan scuplture less choice, if it weakens the inspiration behind those sculptures by changing the underlying social ethos.

Globalization is fundamentally about bringing greater choices to the consumers of the world.    The Anti-Globo cultural chauvinists are simply afraid that people will make the wrong choices.

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