A Culture of Difference
The future is upon us, or so it seems. Every day, we are besieged by new technologies and forces of distortion that claim to improve our lives. We willingly trade our habits and quirks for streamlined convenience, placing our faith in artificial intelligence and machine learning, hoping that we will become smarter in the process. As we consider this next chapter in the evolution of the human race, or at least the next step in our ongoing technological revolution, we need to ask ourselves just how much difference and divergence we are willing to sacrifice in the name of progress.
As electronic tools and computer systems augment our capabilities and regulate our increasingly busy lives, our world is shrinking and becoming ever more connected. Every day, the human race documents and evaluates every facet of the planet and unravels the mystery of our surroundings.
Consider this: I can board an airplane in Los Angeles, fall asleep and wake up half a world away. Once I disembark from this quasi-magical, virtual time-travel experience, (using English, an imperfect but widespread lingua franca) I can usually find an ATM where I can withdraw cash in the local currency, purchase a regional SIM card to use in my phone, browse online maps to navigate and choose my transportation options, and stay in a multinational hotel chain. If I forget an item of clothing, I'll undoubtedly find a (Spanish) Zara store, a Gap (American), or even a Muji (Japanese) store. If I'm thirsty, I know I'll stumble upon a Starbucks before long and, if I'm hungry, there's always a McDonald's or a Subway.
The more I travel, the harder it becomes to find a culture that has not been affected by globalization. Gradually, there are more similarities than differences among cultures. Even poverty is becoming a more streamlined universal experience. Of course, there are still stark differences‒‒being poor in Europe is not the same as being poor in sub-Saharan Africa, for example‒‒but I believe our experiences are increasingly converging.
It should be clear that I am not condemning this interconnected world, which is hardly a new phenomenon. I have merely noticed striking similarities while observing people in their natural environments. Having lived in a few different countries and experienced different cultures, I can safely say that the vast majority of humans seek the same things from life: a roof over their head, the company of loved ones, meaningful work and good health. These basic needs cut across nationalities, religions and philosophies.
Today, the world seems markedly different from when I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s: there are no longer two superpowers fighting for supremacy, but rather a patchwork of smaller powers vying for leadership; telecommunications have transformed every aspect of our lives; there is greater transparency, for better or for worse; and, remarkably, there are fewer poor people on a global scale. China and India, among others, have benefited from globalization and technological progress, lifting millions of people out of poverty. As this evolution unfolds, the newly-minted middle classes look to satisfy the same needs as their counterparts in Europe, Japan and the U.S. Soon, they crave the same phones, big-screen TVs, cars and fancy handbags. The middle class looks the same in Asia, Europe, the U.S., South America and Oceania.
People don't just look the same because of the way they shop and dress either: the racial differences that once clearly delineated our heritage are starting to erode. Ethnicities, nationalities and religions are blending to a degree I could never have imagined as a mixed-race child. I used to have to explain my family's background on a regular basis when I was growing up. Never have I been mistaken for an Englishman, despite being born in South London. It was only when I had lived in California for a while that I realized that America was my spiritual home, because no one really cares where I come from. Everyone hails from somewhere else. However, I think this phenomenon is now spreading around the world. Gradually, we are becoming a homogeneous global society.
While I am comfortable with this unification of our species, I can't help but wonder if we will lose some of what makes us special. Maybe it's a necessary sacrifice to move beyond the tribal differences that have fueled centuries of warfare and intolerance. Consider the rise of right-wing extremists in Europe, the contentious U.S. primary elections and the ongoing crisis in the Middle East. Even the "Brexit" crisis in Britain boiled down to a sense of national exceptionalism and a desire to preserve the perceived English way of life from outside influence.
Considering the remarkable similarities between all of the Earth's cultures, it's unfortunate that we always tend to revert to fighting about our differences. Eventually, we will need to cede some control over our national identity if we want to transcend these differences and live a shared future free of conflict. To guarantee peace, the world will likely become more homogeneous, with fewer nation states. The European Union, despite its flaws is remarkable proof that nations can transcend their narrow, national self-interests, by tying their future to the success of the group. France and Germany have managed to create lasting peace by working together since 1950's Schuman Plan.
However, on a more personal level, if we accept the idea of a gradually more uniform world, there are still many questions we need to answer: Will the future belong to a homogeneous group of "normal" people? Will deviance will be tolerated? If so, how much? Will we retain some degree of individualism? Our societies seem headed toward a culture of conformity‒‒they are already following the same trends in fashion, music, art, race and sexuality. While this means we might finally be able to erase inequality, we risk erasing the extremes and rough edges in the process. Is this an acceptable trade-off? Only time will tell.
To date, the history of mankind has been a amalgamation of the good, the bad and the ugly. Will we lose the very thing that makes us strive for change and progress? I'd like to think we will not, based on my experiences in California, one of the most diverse places I know. While this state is famous for its naked adulation of those who stand out from the crowd, the majority of the population is surprisingly conformist in its nonconformity—witness the cult of self, the importance of fashion and the sense of spiritual providence that drives the state's identity.
Yet, California is also messy; it's a mix of socioeconomic strata, races, religions, political beliefs, sexual identities, life philosophies and visions of the future. If we can retain creativity and individuality here, as we lead the way in bringing people together through entertainment, technology and a sense of shared destiny, I believe there's hope for everyone.