A World Without Walls International Congress, Berlin, November 8th, 2009

After 20 Years: a Soft Wall between the Global Information

and Knowledge? 

 

The fall of the Berlin Wall put an end to half a century of estrangement between Eastern and Western Europe, and opened suddenly a gate to an unprecedented exchange of people and of ideas. Cultural cooperation and cultural diplomacy were caught in an explosive new set of challenges. Even more so as the opening of the Iron Curtain caught Eastern Europe in an irresistible spin towards new means of communication, in a new, unexplored space-and-time vision that these new means offered us. As in a classic Agatha Christy mystery, a set of seemingly unrelated facts are suddenly woven into multiple possible scenarios. In this way, the implosion of the Soviet Empire inaugurated not only a new European unity, manifest in the enlarged EU and NATO, but also a new global unity, a new pace and dynamics of the general process of globalization. A new world, without walls, challenges us as never before.

 

Globalization: while each discipline has generated its own idiosyncratic use of the term, certain characteristics seem to converge. Most scholars who study globalization today would agree that it is best characterized as a set of processes that tend to de-territorialize important economic, social, and cultural practices from their traditional boundaries in nation-states. It is the very essence of a post-modern world, and involves even a kind of "post-geography".  The processes of change are structured by four interrelated formations: (1) post- national forms of production and distribution of goods and services—fueled by growing levels of international trade, foreign direct investment, and capital flows; (2) information, communication, and media technologies that facilitate exchanges and instantaneously connect people across vast transnational areas; (3) growing levels of worldwide migration; and (4) the resultant cultural transformations and exchanges that challenge traditional values and norms.

 

Is globalization simply "modernization"? Is it "Westernization" in fast-forward? Is it "imperialism" now driven by the extraordinarily American hyper power? Is it unfettered American capitalism sans frontières? Alternatively, is it a phenomenon or a set of phenomena of a completely different order? While globalization, especially when narrowly defined as free markets and free capital flows, has generated doubts and fears, its relevance for social science and education is huge, and must be recognized as such. For some economists, lack of globalization, not globalization itself, is the cause of poverty and misery in the developing world.

 

Is globalization a totally new phenomenon? Without a historical perspective, it is difficult to distinguish what might be new and a break from previous cycles of globalization from what mimics and repeats previous processes. What, if anything, is new about globalization? A number of prominent scholars have claimed that globalization is best conceptualized as part of a long process of change—arguably centuries in the making. They remind us that certain features of globalization today are not necessarily new. Neither large-scale immigration nor international capital flows are unprecedented. Harvard historian John Coatsworth, for instance, identifies four distinct cycles of globalization in the Western hemisphere: (1) the opening of transoceanic conquest, communication, and trade from 1492 to 1565; (2) the kidnapping and forced migration of Africans and the subsequent establishment of slave plantations in the new world from 1650 to 1790; (3) the export-led growth in the Belle Epoque between 1880 and 1930; (4) and a new globalization cycle beginning in the mid-1980s.

Coatsworth argues that the current cycle of globalization, in regard to demographic and economic processes, is in fact quite weak as compared to previous cycles. For example, current migration flows are proportionally smaller than in previous periods: the foreign-born population of the Americas (including such varied countries as the United States, Argentina, and Brazil) a century ago was proportionally larger than at the turn of the millennium. Over the last decade, growth has been elusive and inequality a constant and growing concern. Coatsworth’s analysis suggests that globalization tends to exact short-term costs (paid in decreasing health and well-being, and in increasing inequality) while generating long-term growth especially in economic productivity. Coatsworth observes, on the other hand, that education has a much more prominent role to play than in previous cycles of global change. Educators must develop an agenda to facilitate the incorporation of growing numbers of immigrant children worldwide and develop curricular and pedagogical programs to impart the cross-cultural skills children will need to thrive in their historical moment and emerge as agents of change to combat growing worldwide inequalities.

In spite of these judicious arguments, we must observe a fact that was not taken into account: the fact that this contemporary process of globalization is unique in its communication and media dimension, which makes it a unique phenomenon. It may be not the first time that huge masses of people move from China to Europe or from Africa to America. It is, however, the first time in history that these migratory waves are broadcast all over the world, exchange e-mails, search with Google – briefly, are aware of their own condition and visible to us all. The current cycle of globalization is in part the product of new global media, information, and communication technologies that instantaneously connect people, organizations, and systems across vast distances. While in 1980 there were only two million computers worldwide, in 1995 the number totaled more than 150 million, 90 percent being personal computers. In 2000 eighty million new users logged on to the Internet for the first time. The cost of telephone calls has plummeted, owing to satellite communication technology. For example, the price of a three-minute phone call from New York to London dropped from about $250 in 1930 to about $30 in 1970, and to less than 20 cents by the year 2000. In addition to creating and circulating images, information, and data, these technologies have the promise of freeing people from the constraints of space and time. These new technologies of globalization are rapidly and irrevocably changing the nature of learning, work, thought, entertainment, and the interpersonal patterning of social relations.

That’s why contemporary globalization is generating changes of a magnitude comparable to the emergence of agriculture ten thousand years ago or the industrial revolution two hundred years ago. It will demand fundamental rethinking of the aims and processes of education. Four domains are at the heart of the new global impulses affecting youth and education worldwide: the globalization of economy and capital; the globalization of media, information, and communication technologies; large-scale immigration; and the globalization of cultural production and consumption. Together these currents are reshaping the experiences of youth in and out of schools the world over.

Harvard economist David Bloom argues that because of globalization, education is more important than ever before in history. He claims that growing worldwide inequality, indexed by increasing gaps in income and well-being, generally mimics a continuing and growing global gap in education. While primary education enrollments have improved worldwide, consistency and quality of educational experiences remain "patchy." Bloom argues that increasing efforts to improve basic education (both in quantity and quality) in developing countries, such as in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, will surely help narrow income gaps with developed countries. However, the proportion of adolescents in secondary schools in developing countries rose from 23% in 1970 to 52% in 1997 (UNESCO, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, 1999), but the proportion in developed countries is now above 90%. Globalization means that the lives of children growing up today will be shaped in a growing measure by global processes in economy, society and culture.

First, the case remains that the major predicaments of the future will not be contained within the boundaries and paradigms of the twentieth century. Educational systems tied to the formation of nation-state citizens and consumers bonded to local systems to the neglect of larger global forces are likely to become obsolete, while those that proactively engage with globalization’s new challenges are more likely to thrive. Historically education has changed because of shifts in values. Now, education will need to encompass new skills, abilities, and understandings: (1) understanding the global system; (2) the ability to think analytically and creatively within disciplines; (3) the ability to tackle problems and issues that do not respect disciplinary boundaries; (4) knowledge of, and respect for one’s own cultural traditions; (5) knowledge of other cultures and traditions, which should both be an end in itself and a means to interacting civilly and productively with individuals from different cultural backgrounds—both within one’s own society and across the planet; (6) fostering of tolerance and appreciation across racial, linguistic, national, and cultural boundaries.

 

One of the dominant discourses in the study of globalization is the "cultural homogeneity" hypothesis. It predicts that global processes of change enabled by new information and media technologies will inevitably lead to a more homogeneous world culture. The new technologies of globalization generate images, powerful and seductive, of the good life and the good things that make the good life and circulate them worldwide, creating new globalized structures of desire, modernist longings, and with them, feelings of relative deprivation. Youth from China to Argentina flock to see the same movies, visit the same Internet sites, and often come to desire the same cool brand-name clothes, music, and lifestyles.

Will the next generation of youth become global citizens eating MacDonald’s hamburgers, drinking Starbucks coffee, and using a globalized English to communicate with each other online? MacDonald’s has emerged as the very incarnation of globalization because, on an average day, the company serves nearly fifty million customers in over thirty thousand restaurants located in 118 countries. “World web English” is an idiom which has conquered the whole world because of the internet. But to limit our means to these by-products of the contemporary technologies impoverish American or English traditions, not only other languages or other cuisines. If that is the case, then the diversity in the cultures and experiences of the next generation may disappear. 

In fact, many scholars disagree with the notion that globalization is destroying cultural diversity by homogenizing cultural practices the world over. Local vectors always transform global products, rendering them meaningful in terms of local sensibilities, social practices, and cultural models. For example, the film Titanic was the most popular movie in China in 1997 because the majority of moviegoers identified the tragedy of the film with their personal experiences during the Cultural Revolution. The current rapid exchanges of images, facts, and artifacts across national and cultural borders may be seen as a media convergence, which tends to be multidirectional, reflecting the circulation of products from West to East, as well as a continuous concomitant cultural flow from East to West, undergoing metamorphoses that are both unpredictable and contradictory. These phenomena offer a theoretical challenge to the widely popular cultural imperialism and the cultural homogeneity hypotheses, by highlighting the critical role of local meaning-making systems in interrupting and reshaping global media and cultural exchanges, nearly always recasting them in autochthonous terms.

Yet a paradox of globalization is that as it unites it also divides the world between those who can access and manipulate the new technologies and those who are left behind, "stuck," so to speak, in local tools and local contexts. The facts are even more disturbing as we learn that the technologies of globalization present unique opportunities and challenges for education. An eminent Argentinean physician, psychologist, and brain scientist Antonio Battro - one of the founders of the new field of mind, brain, and education—examined the extraordinary enabling potential that the digital world offers those with disabilities and children growing up in out-of-the-way places. They open up new opportunities for education particularly among those who have traditionally been shut out, thus more fully developing their cognitive, emotional, and social potential. Battro claims that the ability to make a simple change in the state of a system, what he calls "the click option," is a universal skill that has both evolutionary and developmental origins. He refers to computer use among a hunting and gathering Bushman group in the Kalahari Desert. Battro claims that a universal "digital skill" develops quite early in life and that such "universal digital skills" have important implications for education, particularly in their potential revolutionary effect for special education and for people living in remote areas.

One hundred years ago, anthropologists took long journeys to remote locations to study exotic social institutions and cultural beliefs. Today globalization delivers the "exotic" to the anthropologist’s own backyard. Mexican culture is now alive and well in New York—where by the year 2000 roughly half a million Mexican citizens resided, with well over 300, 000 in New York City alone.

In exchange, over the past decade anthropologists have developed a taste for such topics as trans-nationalism, cultural hybrids and dualities, mass media, and persisting cultural conflicts all brought about by globalization.

These peculiar experiences can, and perhaps must, be transferred in terms of cultural diplomacy, for it is obvious that the core of these informal diplomatic processes has to do with the cultural dialogue and the inter-cultural exchange. Here we should also examine the concept of acculturation, which goes in pair with the metaphor of the soft power. I must tell you why I am not a partisan of this cluster of images: in my own experience, acculturation never works as a download, from the so-called “superior” cultural agent to the immature recipient. In a way, there is no cultural transfer, for each culture picks what it needs from the intercultural market, and invents its own version of facts.

As for soft power, it has to be understood as radically different from power as such, or hard power. Hard power is imposed; it does not have to be accepted to exist. Soft power, instead, does not exist if it is not accepted, chosen willingly by its recipients. Half of the African countries are Francophone, the other half – Anglophone, because in the past they were colonies either of Britain, or of France. In the past century, Romania was essentially francophone because, in the wake of the French revolutions, its intellectual and political elite did choose to be so. Cultural diplomacy has to seduce, and in the globalized Internet era it is rather a challenge to seduce.

In my view, however, cultural diplomacy, and culture in general, has even a greater task: it has to promote knowledge, whereas the general global process produces mostly information. Knowledge is a must in a fluid world, both because it is only deep knowledge that offers the flexibility needed to adapt, assimilate, and understand the dynamics and the complexity of a changing surrounding, and because only knowledge may be the haven in our stressing and complicated lives. The current world crisis has raised a question mark over a great number of options that the last half of century considered as implicit, and makes us reflect on the extent to which our own choices have contributed to the aggravation of the global crisis. If we agree on the fact that, besides the rotten credits, the balloons of imaginary money, and all the speculative ways that have brought on all of us the present financial crisis, there is one common denominating cause – a deep value crisis.  We should also keep in mind that the history of past crises of this proportion shows that our fate will be determined less by the event itself than by how we respond. That is why we must come back to the humanistic sciences. The history of civilizations, the languages of the old documents, the rare languages, and the history of philosophy which are, in today’s society, endangered knowledge species, must win back their epistemic dignity. Cultural diplomacy is a privileged way to communicate in spite of boundaries, and to build a shared soft power of the international fraternity of cultures, of knowledge, and of good will, a fraternity able to mould the complete human being that we need in our world without walls.