Thursday, March 26, 2020

Social Globalization, Popular Imagination, and Pandemics

These days, I have been binge-reading several books and articles whose topics overlap, resulting to some interesting thoughts that I want to share.

To keep it short, I think that we have entered a new era of popular imagination (as it is natural when unprecedented events occur): the era of viral pandemics, intertwined with new social reorganizations.

Yes, pandemics have happened in the past, the last one being the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009. However, COVID-19 is not influenza. Described as highly contagious viral pneumonia, which appears to have originated from bats before transferring itself to humans, it has found itself in the spotlight of a world in which the internet plays a more significant role in our lives than ever before, allowing sensationalism to run loose online, and where the once-privileged work-from-home lifestyle becomes a reality, albeit a temporary one, for much of the population.

The world will act and imagine from home but will live globally.

Unlike past events (for example, fears over nuclear destruction which have heavily shaped entire genres of literature, videogames and movies—and especially our politics), infectious diseases are a part of our future legacy, for they are unpredictable in nature and, combined with the the increase of the world's population, can strike at anytime. Diplomacy doesn't work on them. You cannot bomb them. And you certainly can't stop them from evolving (at least not yet). What we can do, though, is invest in multilateral institutions that rely on the principles of transparency and openness, allowing us to confidently tackle future outbreaks. 

Epidemiologists almost unanimously agree that more pandemics are inevitable. This is not a pessimistic view or a conspiracy theory; it is a scientific consensus. I believe that international institutions will start becoming more proactive and cooperative, all while seeing a tightening of physical borders and a restriction of movement across the world.

A momentum that had started before the pandemic, the strengthening of physical borders is becoming an inevitability. When that happens, the concept of globalization becomes fiercely contested, yet its economic dimension always remains intact. It is its ambiguous social dynamics that come under fire, inviting an interesting tangent about the crushing of a hopeful global lifestyle reality for the masses (from which technocrats and the rich will escape unaffected).

This is where Latte Land comes in: a social global experience for the masses.

The social fiber-optic globalization


If we are to include Venkatesh's analysis on the concept of folkways and globalization, we might find out that social globalization has skipped border-crossing interactions altogether, jumping straight to the idea of Latte Land (different "geographic areas that are tied together into one latte-drinking entrepreneurial folkway"), which is maintained by fiber-optic connections rather than physical ones.

Venkatash writes that the erection of external barriers and the connection of internal functions serve as characteristic features of "an emerging social geography." Today, however, this idea has evolved: connections are fiber-optic, transcending the traditional notion of external-internal, thereby allowing individuals from, let's say, Bay Area and Bangalore to live very similar lifestyles, despite the physical distance that separates them:
In Bangalore, walled gated communities seal Latte Land off from the rest of India, their boundaries constituting a fractal Great Wall. In California, if you drive too far north or south of the Bay Area, the cultural change is sudden and very dramatic. Head north and you hit hippie-pot land. Head south and you hit a hangover from the ’49ers (the Gold Rush guys, not the sports team). In some parts of the middle, it is easier to find samosas than burgers. Unlike in Bangalore, there are no physical walls, but there is still a clear boundary.
Within the fiber-optic walls people are more connected to each other economically (and, increasingly, socially) than to their host neighborhoods. This, to me, sounds like a very unstable social landscape, but it is not impossible to conceive it if you live in an urban center and you have a stable internet connection. The criteria are flexible, and I have not attempted to think of tall of them, but I am increasingly optimistic that common social narratives begin to emerge despite a lack of physical proximity.

While this reality unfolds, economic globalization will continue to reign, leaving the always-complex social side of things to uncertainly evolve.

We currently lack the historical elevation needed to understand what the long-term impacts will be, but I am confident that writers, story-tellers, politicians, and of course, the markets, will keep the coronavirus pandemic in mind as they continue to untangle their conflicting visions for the future.
[Yet], you are pricked by a lingering optimism, and you marvel at the resilience and potential of those around you, particularly of the youth in this city, in this, the era of cities, bound by its airport and fiber-optic cables to every great metropolis, collectively forming, even if tenuously, a change-scented urban archipelago spanning not just rising Asia but the entire planet. — How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), Mohsin Hamid