Sunday, November 13, 2016

The World Gets Smaller. And Flatter. And Angrier.

This is a technology blog, one that occasionally talks about writing, and even more occasionally about what's going on in my personal life—to the extent that anyone is interested in the latter. It's definitely not a political blog, and I generally stay out of the political fray; I have friends who are liberal and friends who are conservative, Republican friends and Democratic friends, and friends whose political leanings I've never learned because, frankly, I've never asked them. 

Yes, you should buy this book. (And my book too,
naturally. But this one especially.)

I do have my own opinions, of course, but at least on this blog, I try to stay away from the (often choleric) political discussions currently making the rounds. Not because I think it's unimportant; it's just not what this blog is about.

But technology has played a role in the election and in the debates that preceded (and in those which must inevitably follow) that election.

One of the things I'm seeing as a result of the recent election includes a definite technology component, and that’s the resurgence of this "America first" idea. I understand pride in our country, but I think that many of those who shout this are a bit tone deaf. They fail to hear in that slogan the strident echoes of the angry and often anti-Semitic voices of the 1930s—Charles Lindbergh’s among them—who fought FDR's every effort to prepare the country for what he saw as an inevitable conflict with Germany and to provide aid to Britain and France as they fought alone against the mightiest army the world had ever seen.

I admit that the idea of concentrating on solving our own issues has a certain appeal. We have problems here, after all; there is something to be said for wanting to take care of "our" problems first, before we provide aid for countries (even allied countries) around the world. For instance, consider that there are more than 8,000 homeless people just in Washington, DC. Almost half are parents and children. This is the seat of power of the most powerful and wealthiest nation on earth, and yet its sidewalks and shelters are teeming with desperate people who . . . let's put this as plainly as possible . . . have nowhere to go. They have no place to live. The adults do not know how they're going to feed their children, and the children do not know where (or if) they’re going to sleep tonight.

Should we not address this before venturing out to help others around the world? And should we not similarly address our other issues here before spending money to help those in faraway countries?

But there are some problems with this argument, one of which is the simple fact that we are currently not addressing this issue (among many other issues we seem content to ignore). In fact, many of our policies are contributing to them. When we close mental institutions that could aid a large percentage of the homeless, we add to the problem. When we cut funding to clinics that provide birth control and other services for women, we contribute to the problem. When we close shelters for battered women . . .  Well, you get the idea. It would be one thing if we were in fact stepping up to confront these issues, but often we are not doing so.

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And then there’s that technology component. Our tools have flattened the world, as Thomas Friedman has noted. Like it or not, it truly is one world, and mainly that's because of technology. An insular and insulated existence became slightly less viable when that first caravan ventured across the deserts and when the very first ship sailed across an ocean, looking to trade spices for fabrics or iron for wood or steel plows for animal skins. When the telegraph arrived, the world became just a little flatter. And then radio flattened it some more. And the same when other technologies came along and were brought to bear on our trade, our communications, and our infrastructure: telephone, television, film, the automobile, the airplane, computers, the Internet, and on and on. 

By now, like it or not, the entire world is interconnected and interdependent. My "American" truck is made largely of parts from Germany and France. Some of it was assembled in Mexico, and the leather used in its seats came from Brazil. The user's manual in the glove compartment was printed in Canada. The sales infrastructure is the only truly American thing about it. (And even there, my so-called American car company has branches and dealerships around the world.)

The computer on which I'm typing this was made by a Taiwanese company. But that company has manufacturing facilities in mainland China, Mexico, and the Czech Republic. It has a worldwide sales force, and its computers include processors made by "American" companies. (But those processors, too, are made all over the world and were perhaps sent to China by way of a Dutch shipping line, traveling packed in corrugated cardboard made mostly in the American Southeast.) 

The thing is, for a variety of reasons—many of them technological and/or economic—it’s no longer possible to differentiate oneself from the "rest of the world." We ARE the rest of the world. What we do here affects markets in Spain and farmers in New Zealand. What happens in France affects investments in Northern California. A work slowdown in South Africa means that an American grocery chain's profits drop. A tumultuous election in the U.S. affects markets around the world. Simply put, everything we do is connected to everything that everyone else does, and this has been the case for some time. (It’s part of the natural order of things. As John Muir said about nature: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”)

Would you like to change that? Would you like to withdraw from the world? Disengage? Unravel the fabric that connects us? I think some people would, maybe because it's easy to equate less interconnectedness with a simpler, "purer" way of life, a time back before things got so complicated, a time when America could concentrate on its own growth and its own strength. And believe me, I long for a simpler time—if ever there really was one.

But it can't be done. Among (many) other things, attempting to do so would trash the world's economies, including our own. There is no way to extricate ourselves from the vast and interconnected marketplace that the world has become. That would be the same thing as attempting to de-technologize, and that's exactly what it would require. We would have to actively work to sever those connections: political, technological, and economic. We would find ourselves living in a new Middle Ages: dirty, cold, and alone, hungry and desperate, trying to scrape by in what William Manchester described as “a world lit only by fire.”

We can complain about "unprotected borders" all we want, but the fact is that borders have become more and more porous and less and less meaningful as technology and economic interdependence have worked to flatten the world. They're artificial constructs, after all; they served a purpose, certainly, but they may simply no longer be as important, as effective, as real. From space, one can see no borders, just a world. Our one world. The one on which we must learn to live in something approaching harmony.

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