As of 2019, we have a state of digital connectivity that would have been unimaginable even 20 years ago. Headlines churn out claims that over 5 billion of us now have mobile phones, with 4.39 billion having access to the internet. In January 2019 alone, over 3.26 billion of us are reported to have used social media on a mobile device.
Part of the impact of all this connectivity is that the world now feels smaller than ever. Years ago, people would have pen pals from other countries that they talked to at most once or twice a month. Nowadays, you have a Latvian friend that you know from countless late nights on Call of Duty. But outside of all the digital jargon, just how connected is the world in 2019 and why does it matter?
Cultural Exchange: Sport and Music
In terms of cultural exchange outside of digital connectivity, we of course have a long and proud legacy of international competition found in events like the Olympics and the various World Cup championships. These grand events allow us to test our skills against other countries in friendly competitions, as well as build connections with people from all over the world.
The Olympics date back thousands of years. In ancient times, they were used to promote peace among ancient Greek city-states, however the history of the games show that they were only ever contested by athletes from Greece. The modern Olympics, on the other hand, are more in-line with what we’re talking about here. They began in 1896, but the concept of using the games to promote international peace (the Olympic Truce) was only revived in 1994. Originally only 14 nations competed, and most of those were from Europe. Now most of the world is represented in these peaceful games, and hosting the games is seen as a spotlight opportunity for a particular nation to showcase itself to the rest of the world.
Due to the international reach afforded by the Olympics, they have played centre stage for important political developments throughout the 20th century; whether that meant boycotting or forbidding certain nations for bad behaviour, or Jesse Owens sticking it to Hitler at the 1936 games in Berlin by being the most successful black athlete and most successful athlete overall.
Eurovision and contests like it are the musical equivalent of these cultural exchanges. Watching them, we get to witness the best, or at least the cheesiest, music from far-flung nations and debate over which nations are most likely to produce the winning act. Music has always been seen as a means to bridge the gap between cultures; simply put, you don’t have to understand the lyrics to enjoy the melody and rhythm of a song.
Caption: Cultural overlap was common only in countries that were geographically close together
In the past, you would only find a cultural overlap in countries that had a geographical overlap. That is, countries that were closer together would tend to have similarities because close proximity allowed culture and languages to bleed into one another. Europe is notable for this, languages across the continent have words that sound similar and share the same meaning. Words like ‘important’ in English, become ‘importante’ in Spanish. Apple is simply ‘apfel’ in German. These are called cognates and they happen because the languages in the region all share a common ancestry, developed through countless years of trade, conquest, and general intermingling, which was afforded because they were relatively close together.
Prior to the advent of communication technology, trade was the main driving force behind disparate cultures coming together. Until brave explorers discovered navigable sea routes to far-flung nations, there was a limit to how far afoot countries could trade their goods and wares, meaning there was a limit to how far aspects of any particular culture could reach.
Trading over-land from China to Britain would take years of travel, with many dangers and barriers along the road. To illustrate the point, Britons of the past were extremely unlikely to have ever heard the philosophical teachings of Confucius, just as 11th century Chinese citizens were extremely unlikely to have ever read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Today however, international trade and communication has developed to the extent that these barriers no longer exist. If you want to read Confucius in Britain, you merely have to turn on your laptop. Vice-versa for Chaucer in China.
Nowadays, with international trade in an advanced state, entire national economies are becoming departmentalised and interdependent. For example, most of the world’s manufacturing is done in China, with Western countries like Britain and the US providing the majority of the consumer base. By contrast, manufacturing and raw material extraction have become comparatively negligible in the West. Almost 40% of the US labour force is engaged in solely managerial, professional or technical occupations and a further 25% of the entire workforce works in some form of sales or office based occupation.
Globalisation: Good or bad?
Caption: Globalisation has picked up pace dramatically in recent years
With increased connectivity and the departmentalisation of national economies, we are witnessing a level of international cooperation that has never existed before. While that may sound good, it’s also being strongly argued that through globalisation we may be witnessing a loss of our individual cultural identities. Globalisation has been a slow but definite process over the past couple of hundred years, however the pace has picked up noticeably in the last decade. Globalisation affords a cultural overlap between far apart nations; nowadays you can practice Yoga in California, or drink a Starbucks coffee in Mumbai.
Along with the availability of international goods anywhere in the world, there are other positives to globalisation. These include a huge boost in vital information sharing between nations, faster international aid in the wake of natural or man-made disasters, increased opportunities for the millions of people, as well as better representation for smaller nations and individuals on the world-stage.
On the other hand, the naysayers to globalisation invoke the loss of cultural diversity, with consumer culture and big brand advertising all but wiping out the competition from smaller, local brands. Consequently, this leads to cultures becoming homogenised, losing their uniqueness or je ne sais quoi, amid the barrage of outside influences. Small independent shops are replaced with international chains. The quiet streets of idyllic towns and cities get turned into loud and brash tourist party destinations.
All these positives and negative, as well as the unstoppable forward march of globalisation, stem from the increased connectivity offered by better communication between nations and individuals. Business thrives with a global market to sell to, and it’s great to be able to play Call of Duty instantly with people from all over the world. But, on the other hand, the individual and unique aspects of many cultures seem to be suffering.
On the whole, no one seems exactly sure that globalisation is a good thing, but it’s definitely not all bad either. One thing we can say is that it’s definitely a force for change. How we deal with that change may be one of the biggest challenges of the next few decades.