Will the steady pace of globalization make the world better or worse? On the one hand, the shrinking of our planet due to increased speeds of travel, trade and Internet exchange all contribute to create a true global village. On the other, due to deeply ingrained human traits, cultural differences and distrust for those outside our "tribe" remain entrenched.
Futurists have long predicted that the world will evolve to a techno-driven state of oneness. Take, for example, Mikio Kaku's Physics of the Future (Doubleday, 2011). A theoretical physicist by training, Kaku interviewed over 300 scientists to dream up a utopian world defined by science: By the year 2100, intelligent computers will work in tandem with humans; people will have access to the Internet through contact lenses and will move objects with the power of their thoughts; nanobots will cure cancer by intervening directly with the diseased cells; laser-propelled rockets will change the face of space exploration and Mars will be the next frontier of colonization. Furthermore, trade barriers will be practically nonexistent, and the same culture and foods will be shared by all. As people share the same values and goods, wars will be isolated events.
These technological marvels are, of course, extrapolations of what we already have. If someone had someone predicted, in 1920, that by the year 2000 we would have laptop computers capable of downloading gigabytes of information from across the world in seconds, no one would have believed it.
The unexpected is hard to predict.
But how realistic are visions of scientific utopia, of a world made better and peaceful through technological advances and, more importantly, through the percolation of the scientific modus operandi of sharing information in a democratic way into politics and culture?
Michael Shermer, in his Skeptic column for the August issue of Scientific American, brings up a new book by Pankaj Ghemawat, a professor of strategic management, and Anselmo Rubiralta, chair of Global Strategy at IESE Business School at the University of Navarra in Barcelona, where such visions are strongly criticized. Globalization, understood as representing the vanishing of cultural and value barriers, is unattainable due to our evolved tribal natures. The book puts numbers to this claim, showing that, indeed, most of societal relations and trading remains local: international mail constitutes 1% of the total; international phone calling, less than 2%; international Internet traffic, between 17 to 18%; exports as percentage of GDP, 26%; first-generation immigrants, 3% (I'm one of them).
One of the most obvious and terrifying responses to tendencies of cultural merging is the upsurge of fundamentalism. If values and traditions that have defined how you and many generations of your ancestors have lived become threatened by "outside" forces, you have two choices: You either open up and absorb them to a lesser or greater extent, or you entrench and fight back. Humans have evolved in tribes and are still tribal. Beyond our families and blood relations, many of our social and cultural relations are vested in allegiance to certain groups, from the Red Sox or the New York Yankees to being an American or Mexican to being White or Hispanic to being an Episcopalian or a Muslim. We pledge allegiance to this or that flag, and many are ready to die defending it.
There is enrichment in the exchange of ideas but impoverishment in their homogenizing.
Many of the technological extrapolations Kaku and others discuss are definitely coming our way (see, e.g. Freeman Dyson's wonderful The Sun, The Genome and The Internet). That's a good thing, as I believe that one of the central tasks of science and technology is (or should be) to alleviate human suffering. Questions of culture and trade are subtler. Again, no question that trade barriers will keep falling, and that goods will become ever more globalized and accessible to everyone. (Although you could also argue that even with the upsurge of new economies such as the BRIC countries, purchasing power is becoming more polarized and not less.)
The challenge is to reinvent our tribal make-up. Can we live without our flags? Unless we find ways to respect and celebrate our differences while jointly creating an atmosphere of open exchange and mutual understanding, I fear that the utopian world of the future will have a very dystopian bend to it.