Tag Archives: globalization

We Can’t Unscramble This Egg

The COVID vaccine–actually, now two of them–is on the way. Granted, the way is filled with potholes, thanks to the incompetence of an administration lacking any ability to govern effectively, but reliable sources estimate that vaccines will be broadly available by late spring. Thanks to a new administration that actually knows what it is doing, we can anticipate a return to something approximating normalcy by late in 2021.

Historians, sociologists, political scientists and assorted pundits will spend the next few decades trying to explain how we got here. By “we” I don’t just mean the United States, and by “here” I don’t just mean the pandemic and its mismanagement, or the incomprehensible fact that in November some 70+ million voters agreed to buy whatever excrement Trump and the GOP cult insist on selling.

Eventually, we will see the reasons for–and consequences of– disastrous governing decisions made by the U.S. and Great Britain, and the growth of right-wing terror and autocracy elsewhere. One of the few things that seems fairly clear now is that substantial numbers of people around the world are reacting against the realities of modernity and globalization and fearing the loss of familiar cultures and comfortable certainties.

A lot of those people are saying, essentially, “stop the world, I want to get off.” That, of course, is like trying to unscramble eggs.

There was a particularly perceptive essay by someone named William Falk in The Week, in which he suggested that we have a choice:  we can accept the reality of our interrelationships, and appreciate and embrace the insights and values of the Enlightenment, or we can retreat into superstition and suspicion.

The vaccines are a triumph of the Enlightenment values of science, reason, and evidence—all now under assault in a new Dark Ages in which demagogues and conspiracy theorists spread disinformation and distrust. Despite various attempts to claim credit, the vaccines would not exist without international cooperation. Moderna’s vaccine employs technology created by Hungarian-born scientist Katalin Kariko, and the company is run by a team of researchers and entrepreneurs from around the world. The Pfizer vaccine was created by second-generation Turkish immigrants to Germany, Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, and has been pushed past the finish line by company CEO Albert Bourla, an immigrant from Greece. The pandemic of 2020 will not be the last crisis endangering humanity. What we’ve relearned in this traumatic year is that all we hold dear is fragile, and that science, community, and empathy light the road forward.

It isn’t just the vaccines, of course. The global economy is inextricably interdependent. The threat of climate change doesn’t respect national borders–it requires a co-ordinated international response. Terrorism is a far different threat than conventional warfare, and requires international co-operation to root it out. There are multiple other examples, including most obviously COVID-19.

When the current pandemic is finally contained, the “normal” to which we return is unlikely to look like the “normal” we left. How it differs will depend upon the ability of humans to emerge from our tribal affiliations and work together. That, in turn, will depend mightily upon our ability to get a handle on the disinformation and hysteria promoted by our existing media landscape, especially the social media algorithms that incentivize its spread.

We really are at one of those tipping points that occur during human history.

We can accept the reality that we share an endangered planet inhabited by inevitably interrelated and interdependent populations, and that we need to create institutions that will allow us to save it and inhabit it peacefully, or we can give in to the forces trying to take humanity into a new Dark Ages and possible extinction. 

What we can’t do is evade the challenge and unscramble the global egg.

Google That!

We’ve returned from vacation, and with reliable internet, blogging will once again become regular. In the meantime, here is my upcoming IBJ column.

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My husband and I just returned from a month visiting various parts of Europe–the sort of vacation that becomes possible only when your children are grown and gone. This trip afforded us the luxury of time for observation and reflection that shorter ones rarely did; I even had time to read some of the books I’d optimistically loaded on my IPad.

So what did I learn on my summer vacation?

One thing that immediately struck me was how homogenized citizens from western industrialized countries have become—how much we all look and dress alike. Thirty years ago, on our first trip to Europe, cultural differences expressed in clothing and mannerisms made it fairly easy to spot Americans. Over the intervening years, that has changed. Today, we dress alike, drive the same cars, watch the same television programs and listen to the same (mostly American) music. IPhones, IPods and IPads (and their various clones) are ubiquitous, as are Facebook and Google. Evidence of the globalization of culture—at least pop culture—is everywhere.

But beneath the surface similarities, there is evidence of quite a contrary trend; as Eli Pariser documents in his recent book, “The Filter Bubble,” the internet technology that promises (and delivers) so much is moving us into what he calls a “mediated future”—a future in which each of us exists in a personalized universe of our own construction.

In an effort to give each of us what we want, sites like Google, Facebook, and Amazon are constantly refining their algorithms in order to deliver results that are “relevant” to each particular searcher, and they have more data about our individual likes and dislikes than we can imagine. As a result, two people googling “BP,” for example, will not necessarily get the same results, and certainly not in the same order. Someone whose search history suggests interest in investment information may get the company’s annual report, while someone with a history of environmental interests will get stories about the Gulf spill. Similarly, Facebook delivers the posts of friends and family that its algorithm suggests are most consistent with the member’s interests and beliefs, not everything those friends post.

Pariser calls this the “filter bubble,” and points out that—unlike choosing to listen to Fox rather than PBS, for example—the resulting bias is invisible to us.

Little by little, search by search, individuals are constructing different–and disparate–realities. At the same time, traditional news sources aimed at a general audience—the newspapers and broadcasts that required reporters to fact-check assertions, label opinion and aim for objectivity—are losing market share. How many will survive is anyone’s guess.

The implications of both these changes—globalization and individuation—will be especially profound for our political structures. We are already seeing the dysfunctions that result when we elect people with radically different views of reality.

At SPEA, where I work, our mission is to teach aspiring public managers how to govern. This used to mean classes in budgeting, in cost-benefit analysis, in urban policy and human resource management. Today, we face more daunting questions: How do public servants govern effectively when there is no commonly accepted role for government? How do public managers communicate with citizens who do not—in any meaningful way—occupy the same country (or in some cases, the same planet)? (We have just introduced a new major—Media and Public Affairs—in an effort to prepare our students for these unprecedented challenges.)

We’ve globalized commerce, and everyone wears tee-shirts and jeans. But personalization and social fragmentation is also global, and we can’t Google the future.

Global Indy

If there was ever a visual reminder that the world is changing–that even landlocked Indianapolis is part of a new, global economic order–this website is it.

We aren’t going to solve tomorrow’s problems if we spend all of our time and energy retreating into yesterday’s prejudices and fighting to maintain the status quo.