Davos, 3 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As the phenomenon of economic globalization gathers pace, debate is developing about whether culture itself will become global.
Cultural and religious leaders look at the changes wrought by the rapid advances in technology and wonder whether we will all somehow become part of one massive unit, sharing ways of doing things, and ways of seeing things. They are asking whether such a development will expand our horizons, or whether we will lose our identity.
At the recently completed World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a number of panel discussions dealt with this theme. The forum focused mainly on issues of economic globalization, but participants also considered the effects of globalization on art and culture.
From the various discussions there emerged different schools of thought about what might happen to culture. Some believe a sort of new technology-driven tower of Babel will develop, in which smaller cultures will in fact thrive in a liberated atmosphere. The other possibility foreseen is that a mono-culture will develop, in which the key inputs come from a few powerful sources.
Economies of scale mean manufactured products are already becoming more standardized, giving life a less varied appearance. A century ago an individual in Katmandu, dressed completely differently from an individual in London. He ate different foods, listened to different music and lived by different social rules.
Today, two individuals in those countries may drive the same car, wear the same clothing, listen to the same music and share many behavioral traits. In this sense, globalization is already with us and will intensify.
In the spiritual sense, the question is more difficult. At Davos, representatives of major religions, namely Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Bhuddism, debated what globalization will do for religious belief.
The Bhuddist said, in a sense, globalization has always been with us, as people have always shared much in common. The Christian, addressing the future of technology, said he believed the information revolution which is a central part of globalization will increase tolerance and therefore lead to greater harmony between religions.
Another panel dealt with the impact of the "global village," meaning the world community linked by the Internet. One enthusiastic speaker said it would create what he called an entirely new form of human. That seems a dangerous idea at the end of a century scarred by several devastating efforts to create the "new" man.
The same speaker, however, did introduce the perceptive idea that our present era of television is "killing" smaller cultures. That's because it's a non-interactive medium which imposes the same message on all who see it. The Internet, however, gives an equal voice to the weak as to the strong, and will thereby be a means of strengthening localized and indigenous cultures, and diversity.
That led others to ponder whether restrictions on access would prevent that idea from becoming reality.
One speaker noted that only a tiny fraction of the world's population now has Internet access. Optimists said this proportion will grow quickly. The less optimistic said other needs were more pressing than providing Internet access. One speaker said that access or lack of access would result in the creation of a new elite and a new dispossessed class.