(First of two parts). Globalism is one of those notions much kicked around and little understood, shrouded in hysteria and knee-jerk cant. People with a host of grievances against technology, multinational corporations and capitalist democracies have made globalism a dirty word, at the same time that many social scientists and economists argue that the equitable spread of technology and a free-market economy is the planet's best hope. Either way, September 11 makes it clear that globalization - pitting fundamentalism against cosmopolitan tolerance - is one of the most important issues in our lifetimes.
In fact, as British political scientist Anthony Giddens writes in his eerily prescient book Runaway World: How Globalism is Reshaping Our Lives, the conflict now underway between the United States and some extremist fundamentalists was inevitable. Cosmopolitans welcome technology and cultural diversity, while fundamentalists find it disturbing and dangerous.
In a globalizing world -- one of its cornerstones being the Net -- technology, information, culture, money, business and imagery are routinely transmitted across the world. Boundaries mean different things now, including the inescapable fact that they are highly porous. This enrages political, social and religious fundamentalists, as we are hurriedly learning. They turn to religion, ethnic identity and nationalism to build "purer" traditions -- and a few turn to violence.
So despite the fact that there's no consensus on exactly what globalism is (my dictionary defines it as the process by which social institutions become adopted on a worldwide scale), the questions torment us: is globalism a force to ease poverty and inequality, by bringing higher standards of living and new technologies to poor and distant regions? Or merely an unprecedented vehicle for promoting the greed, conformity, environmental destruction and profit-at-all-cost ethos of multinational corporations? Perhaps it's both.
Giddens' predictions are coming true before our eyes. The conflict is here, and we seem to be unwilling and unknowing combatants. We, along with our leaders, are astonished at just how much we seem to be hated out there. We see our popular and technological culture despised in much of the world. Fundamentalist extremists have declared a holy war against it, one that may continue for years with bloody and uncertain consequences.
It's not an oversimplification to say that technology is the prime battleground. Technologies from movie cameras to TV sets to the Net are the means by which culture and wealth travel from one part of the world to the other. Fundamentalists have declared war on technology as much as on anything. And from anthrax to passenger jets as missiles, they've shown a sophisticated grasp of how technology can be used to devastating effect against its creators, who revel in making it but not thinking much about it.
In this conflict what Giddens calls "the cosmopolitan approach" is the choice of the people who are reading this column and working in the tech universe. We value free speech, religious freedom, scientific exploration, open communications, cultural choice and diversity. Such tolerance is closely conected to democracy.
Yet democracy and fundamentalism are both spreading world-wide, two seemingly irreconcilable ideologies colliding head-on. As Giddens points out, globalism creates a paradox: democratic cultures are its most enthusiastic proponents, yet globalism doesn't seem to promote democracy so much as corporate profits and practices. In fact, you could argue that globalism seems to expose the limits of democratic structures: Can governments preserve the environment, keep work secure and equitable, ensure fair wages, control capitalism, distribute new technologies equitably, respect diverse cultural values, contain greed and restrict the imagery that Americans love but that frightens and offends large segments of the world population?
In Part Two: Have multinationals hijacked globalism? (Yes.)