Thursday, November 10, 2011

History Repeating Part III

History Repeats Itself In A Flat World Where Currency Value Is The Holy Grail: Understanding The World Here And Now

5. The Borders Of The Flat World

In the book, ‘The World is Flat,’ Thomas L Friedman explains how he came upon the idea of a flat world while in India, visiting the Infosys office in Bangalore. Friedman draws a parallel between his journeys to the real India to Christopher Columbus’s journey to the New World in 1492. The contemporary geography believed that the world was flat and if someone dared to sail the ocean, he’d come to a point where he’d just fall off the Earth’s boundary. Columbus’s plan was not to find this boundary, but to find India, the mythical land gold and spices, where everything was exotic. He set sail, endured unimaginable hardship and finally found land, in what is now modern Honduras. What did he do? He immediately claimed ownership of the land under the name of the queen of Spain, and made the local inhabitants slaves, to mine gold for him. In time, his discovery became the turning point of world history. Columbus not only proved that the world was round, he also paved way for how the political and economic future of the world.

What Friedman saw in the Infosys office was a revelation. The information technology company, which offers assorted services to the American economy while being in India, connecting the world via videoconferencing in the flat-screen monitors, defines the very essence of globalisation. Writes Friedman: “… “So this is our conference room, probably the largest screen in Asia-this is forty digital screens [put together],” (Nandan) Nilekani explained proudly, pointing to the biggest flat-screen TV I had ever seen. Infosys, he said, can hold a virtual meeting of the key players from its entire global supply chain for any project at any time on that supersize screen. So their American designers could be on the screen speaking with their Indian software writers and their Asian manufacturers all at once. “We could be sitting here, somebody from New York, London, Boston, San Francisco, all live. And maybe the implementation is in Singapore, so the Singapore person could also be live here . . . That’s globalization,” said Nilekani. Above the screen there were eight clocks that pretty well summed up the Infosys workday: 24/7/365. The clocks were labeled US West, US East, GMT, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia. “Outsourcing is just one dimension of a much more fundamental thing happening today in the world,” Nilekani explained.”

Friedman argues, the way Columbus proved that the world is round, his visit to India, his understanding of how technology has brought the world closer, made him believe that the world is flat, It’s now a global village. Writer Friedman: “We were sitting on the couch outside of Nilekani’s office, waiting for the TV crew to set up its cameras. At one point, summing up the implications of all this, Nilekani uttered a phrase that rang in my ear. He said to me, “Tom, the playing field is being leveled.” He meant that countries like India are now able to compete for global knowledge work as never before-and that America had better get ready for this. America was going to be challenged, but, he insisted, the challenge would be good for America because we are always at our best when we are being challenged. As I left the Infosys campus that evening and bounced along the road back to Bangalore, I kept chewing on that phrase: “The playing field is being leveled.” What Nandan is saying, I thought, is that the playing field is being flattened… Flattened? Flattened? My God, he’s telling me the world is flat!”

In the context of technology and economy, it’s a great achievement, Friedman agrees, but what about politics and culture? How this flat world will also work better for the terrorists, the fundamentalist forces? How the local identities would survive? If Indians turn to pseudo Americans to provide services in return of money, what happens to the local, indigenous identity?

Friendman’s worried are different. He worries about the survival and security of the American state and what the American state represents. But, in India, our worries are different. Things have changed so fast in India in the last 20 years or so, that it’s almost impossible to take stock of these changes while still being inside it.
In 1977, Coca Cola wanted to start business in India. But the then government did not allow it because according to reports the aerated drink was not healthy enough. Post 1991, Coca Cola is common in India, health be damned. This is globalisation. The fashion that is popular in New York is equally popular in Mumbai, and Chandigadh, and Jhumri Talayya. Today, every Indian city has a KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonald (It sells McAloo for us Indians…).

A Hollywood movie is released in India before it is released in, well, Hollywood. And Indian? They are everywhere. There were times when an Indian in the US was a taxi driver, or on occasions, a mild-mannered doctor or a second rate teacher. Now, Indians are everywhere, and not only in information technology. Mumbai’s Frieda Pinto is now a first-rate Hollywood heroine. Even Bipasha Basu is doing a Hollywood film. We shed tears when Michael Jackson dies, when Steve Jobs dies. We obsess over iPhone, iPad even when Apple never really tried to sell its products in India. While India remains a favoured tourist destination, Indians travel around the world, with confidence and ease. Each Indian today is a global citizen; well connected via their mobile phones and Facebook and Skype and what not.

What all these mean to the larger Indian identity of nationhood? What it means to the larger Indian way of life? The so called “Indian culture” is a complicated entity, it’s all pervasive, it encompasses all, and moulds everything to suit its purpose. In India, history does not repeat itself; it’s the same history since time immemorial, which has adapted itself with the passing of time.

Yet post-1991, things have changed in India, especially in the context of the individual Indian identity. For long, the individual Indian identity was linked inexorably with the larger community, social structure. With economic independence, an Indian individual now can be his/he own self; he can now spend a large sum of money on a fancy mobile phone without feeling in any qualms, he is no longer forced to perform the family duties, he can now find his own marriage partner, or seek the help of the website to do so. As he starts earning early in life, it gives him the freedom to leave the confines of his parental home, and find a place of his own in the world.

In his book, ‘The Argumentative Indian’ (2005), economist Amartya Sen writes: “What exactly is globalization? A diverse basket of global interactions are put under this broad heading, varying from the expansion of cultural influences across border to the enlargement of economic and business relations throughout the world. It is often argued that globalization is the new folly. Is that a plausible diagnosis? I would argue that globalization, in its basic form, is neither particularly new, nor in general a folly. It is through global movement of ideas, people, goods and technology that the different regions of the world have tended, in general, to benefit from progress and development occurring in other regions.”

In essence, Sen is saying the same thing Friendman said, the world is flattening. There are no longer the bounds, every nation has its opportunities, every individual have its chances. Globalization is the extension of the great American Dream; you will get what you want if you work hard. Globalisation proffers socio-political equality beyond the ranges of tradition categories of caste, class, race and religion. You will be given your fair chance if you can contribute to the economy. In one sense, it’s is what Marx envisioned, a classless society. The irony is, at the centre of this classless, progressive world view lies the exchange of money. And, the money wants to be controlled, dominated.

(The author of this piece has copied liberally from entries to make himself clear)

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