Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The world is flat...or is it?

The first thing I read this morning was Fred Wilson's ecstatic short reference to a Thomas Friedman piece in the New York Times. [Registration site.] It is in summary form the core ideas in a book being released this week, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. The title's reference to a flat world derives from When the world is flat, you can innovate without having to emigrate, one of the lines in the piece, telling how the world has now become so interconnected that immigration has been rendered obsolete.

It is a brilliant and well-organized piece, but it doesn't explain why I greatfully switched internet service providers mainly because I like talking with people in Nebraska and Kansas whose mother tongue is English when I have the need for tech support. I am as international and ecumenical in my thinking as anyone, but as a consumer I really want to speak with someone who can discern the difference between "s" and "f" on the telephone, or catch the humor if I use an English idiom to lighten the conversation.

Friedman ticks off a list of ten developments, starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the release of Netscape, the placement of a trans-Pacific fiber-optic cable, and a spate of buzzwords like workflow, outsourcing, offshoring, open-sourcing, insourcing, supply-chaining, and informing ("...this is Google, Yahoo and MSN Search, which now allow anyone to collaborate with, and mine, unlimited data all by themselves").

I left Mr. Wilson and Mr. Friedman waxing ecstatic over globalization and moved on to Jeff Jarvis who is beginning to tire from an overdose of Pope-pouri, noting that

Major news media around the world devoted 10 times as many stories to Pope John Paul II's death as they did to the re-election of President Bush, according to an analysis released Monday.
The Global Language Monitor, which scans the Internet for the use of specific words or phrases using Roman characters, found 35,000 new stories on the pope in the 24 hours after his death Saturday.
That compares with about 3,500 new stories on Bush within a day of his re-election and 1,000 new stories on former President Reagan within a day of his death last year.

Reading down the column I came across some interesting comments from a couple of days ago. In some way the observations of Mr. Jarvis reverberated aginst what I had just read about the impact of technology and globalization as I remembered that most people in the world still do not know how to read and write.

Think about that.
If most people cannot read and write, what is the meaning of globalization seen only through the lens of a computer monitor?

As he thought about the legacy of the late Holy Father, Jeff Jarvis reflected on three worldviews...

There is the heirarchical worldview of the Catholics that places authority in the pope and his priests.

There is the fundamentalist worldview that puts authority in the Word and strict interpretation of it. This, I'll argue, is the view not only of Protestant fundamentalists but even more so of Muslims, who believe the word is not only the authority but the embodiment of God.

And then there is the Protestant reformed worldview -- in this context, I'd say that Congregationalism is the clearest exhibit -- that says man must grapple with the word and the word made whole in Christ to discern the will of God. I'd also argue that this is similar to the worldview of Judaism, in which man takes the law of God and tries to interpret it, via the Talmud and study, to decide how to live under that law.

These are three fundamentally different ways to look at the world and we see this reflected not only in religious institutions and arguments about religion but also, simply, in the inability of people of one worldview to understand those of another.

These three "worldviews" bring up a seldom talked about feature of human development that even in today's wonderful (can we say "brave"?) new world, is more divisive than geopolitics: literacy.

The world is now divided by literacy more than lines on the map.
When one speaks of religious understanding and interpretation of words, the starting point has to be who is able to read them. Broadcast media, I would suggest, are more important than printed (read internet) technology in parts of the world where people cannot read and write, especialy women (one third are illiterate in Muslim societies because women are not expected to read). This point was made last week in a program I listened to on the importance of Al Jezeera as an information medium to the Middle East.

Jarvis made oblique reference to the same phenomenon...

Some see journalism through heirarchy: Journalists so often believe they are the priests who intepret and communicate from on high; hell, Dan Rather thought he was the pope of news. Others see in journalism an orothodoxy of rules and standards: professionalism, they usually call it. And others -- yes, the bloggers pounding their theses on the door -- see journalism as a process that can now be written by the people in the vulgate. Jay Rosen has written about journalism as a theology and journalists as its priests. The reference to the Reformation is quite apt.

Historically, religious leaders have been the class of any society responsible for reading and interpreting words of faith. It is not surprising that fundamentalism is interwoven with autocracy in this regard. There is an unholy corruption of every faith being brought about as more an more ordinary people get hold of just enough information to imagine themselves to be expert. The old saying that "a little bit of learning is a dangerous thing" has never been more true than today. As he sat watching a school play, Mr. Jarvis had passing thoughts of how it may be time for the historically autocratic Roman Catholic Church to loosen up a bit and get more democratic.

Is it time to democratize the Catholic church? Shouldn't the people be electing their pope? If we democracy advocates are demanding popular control and transparency of every nation -- not to mention political, media, and marketing institutions -- can't we advocate that for the church?

Realizing that this was a kind of Protestant fantasy he perished the thought and moved on to other thinking. But the intersection of these two ideas - democracy and literacy - continues to yield political disjunctions as national leaders in much of today's wonderful, "globalized," flat world continue to wield obscene power, unchecked it seems by any meaningful challenges from their various constituencies. (Nothing illustrates the fact more clearly than the current scandals at the United Nations, going right to the top of that puscillanimous assembley.)

Zimbabwe is a case in point where recent elections in have rersulted in the continuation of one of the most corrupt, retrograde political regimes on the planet.
This is from Jonathan Edelstein.

Popular protest isn't likely to work either. There was a small demonstration today in Harare, but it only drew a few hundred protesters, and although the capital is opposition territory, the largely apathetic electorate has shown little inclination to take to the streets since the failure of the 2003 general strike. The police broke up the demonstration quickly, and Mugabe has warned that if the opposition takes to the streets, so will ZANU. The ZANU youth movement has been used in the past as an effective political enforcement group, and Mugabe has shown little inclination for restraint in using them. Despite the past two years' trend toward grass-roots democratization, leaders with effective paramilitary forces have generally been able to shut down public protest, and the MDC doesn't look able to force a different outcome in Zimbabwe.

In the meantime, those of us who are able to read and write can pass the time figuring out how the rest of the world can best serve our needs. We can argue among ourselves about what is the best form of politics, or how best to keep order among the great unwashed. When African bishops perceive that America, though rich materially, is spiritually impoverished, a good many Americans react negatively, offended that these ungreatful converts want to be so cheeky.
Have we really come far from the time when the main purpose of the faith was to insure politeness among the lower classes and have them pull up their socks?

* * * *

The Evangelical Outpost has announced another symposium. The topic is Reflections on culture, politics, and religion from an evangelical worldview.

Overnight I notice that an important word has been omitted from the original description:

For this quarter, I’ve decided to broaden the topic around the theme of Judeo-Christian morality in an ethically pluralistic society. Entries can explore the history of the concept, the applications toward public policy, the best means of arguing for it in the public square, or anything else that you choose.

The missing word, of course, is pluralistic. That was for me the most intriguing part of the challenge. It admits to a multiplicity of values that strays too close to the fires of situation ethics and the slippery slopes of multiculturalism. I note that the word "ethically" is only one letter removed from the word "ethnically," which makes me resist my original impulse to participate in this "symposium."

The neo-flat world view of Friedman and company makes for great reading. I am as taken as anybody by the sweep and flow of the internet and all it has purchased in the form of information and the dissemination of ideas. I think a case can be made that the flowers of democracy now blooming in the deserts of the Middle East are being planted and nourished by an explosion of internet cafes. But when I came across a world map telling the places where technology and its benefits are exploding, against large parts of the world where the expense of accessing the internet is prohibitive, I realized that I am still part, a very small part, of the outer skin of an onion.

I'm not sure if an evangelical world view is distinctly different from the Protestant reformed worldview mentioned by Jeff Jarvis above, but since I feel like an onion among petunias I think it best I stay out of the running. I took part, more or less, in the first symposium mostly because I wanted to be part of the long tail mentioned by Joe Carter. Again, I am fascinated by that tail, but as nothing more than a single hair in the tail, this time it is okay if they get along without me. This morning's post is as close as I aim to get. And let the Devil take the hindmost.

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