Jean-Paul Baillargeon, editor - The Handing Down of Culture, Smaller Societies and Globalization


Smaller Societies, Globalization
and Handing Down of Culture

William D. Coleman*

This chapter returns to the core questions of the colloquium and examines the possible answers to these questions in light of the presentations and discussions that took place. It focuses particularly on two general issues. First, to what extent has globalization destabilized the construction of identities by individuals and by smaller societies as collectivities? If identities are destabilized, what are the implications for the handing down of culture in such societies? Second, does the increasing commodification of cultural forms shrink the range of cultural diversity in the world? What are the possible openings for cultural creativity in such a context, particularly as they relate to smaller societies? In order to address these questions, this chapter begins with a discussion of the meaning of globalization and its relation to information and communication technologies. It then turns to examine the implications of these globalizing processes for identity and for cultural creativity and expression. The chapter ends with an assessment of what role governments might play in promoting and encouraging cultural diversity.

1. globalization and information and communication technologies

With the round of protests in Seattle, Prague, Washington, Québec, and Genoa among other cities over the past years, there is little need to note that globalization is a highly contested term and phenomenon. Like many core concepts in the social sciences and humanities, it has a variety of meanings in public debates in the mass media and in the academic arena. What is more, there is a constant interaction between these public understandings of the phenomenon and what is going on in the academy. For the purposes of this chapter, however, I will work with an academic definition of the concept. In his book on globalization and culture, John Tomlinson (1999: 2) suggests that we see the phenomenon of globalization as an empirical condition of the modern world that he terms complex connectivity: “the rapidly developing and ever densening network of interconnections and interdependences that characterize modern social life.”

In their book on Global Transformations, Held and his colleagues (1999) help us understand what might be new about “complex connectivity.” This assistance is useful because human societies have always been interconnected and interdependent in various ways. They speak first of the extensity of connections: to what degree do the connections between individuals and between communities extend across the whole globe? They answer that the global extensiveness of such connections has increased significantly over the past three decades. They also ask about the intensification of these connections: are these more globally extensive relationships isolated and random or are they regularized to the point that we can talk about a significant change in their intensity. They reply that these connections are becoming more regularized. The third question they pose concerns the speed of these connections: they may be more globally extensive and more regularized but take place slowly or quickly, one after another. The answer here too is obvious: the velocity of the global diffusion of ideas, products, capital, people and information has risen exponentially over the past two decades.

If you put together then this increase in the global extensiveness of connections, their more regularized and institutionalized character, and the speed at which they take place, we witness a growing enmeshment of the global and the local. The possibility rises that what happens locally somewhere on the globe will have a significant impact somewhere else. Hence, Tomlinson’s notion of complex interconnectedness is a useful idea.

Many of the presentations at the colloquium emphasized the linkage between this empirical condition and the development of information and communication technologies. Castells (1996) work on the “network society” is helpful here. He argues that some rather special things began to happen in the realm of communications and information technologies in the early 1970s. In a way that is equal to the effect of the industrial revolution, the information and communication technologies revolution is centred on four key technologies that have gradually become more refined, more powerful and more interlinked: the semiconductor transformed into the microprocessor; the computer; the move to digital transmission of information in telecommunications, facilitated by fibre optics; and biotechnology. These kinds of technological changes make the boundaries and imagination of space even more autonomous from location, and time becomes even less of an obstacle to building human relationships in these new spaces. With these technologies, individuals and the communities and organizations to which they belong are highly likely to become more conscious of this compression of space and time and thus situate themselves more in a global context.

Chapter 20, continued >


* McMaster University.


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