For at least a decade, now, globalization has been a buzzword heard continuously, either at an Apple or Facebook presentation, the UN General Assembly, or in essays for political science classes. This new era of globalization is characterized as one of equal opportunity, where anyone from anywhere can make a living on YouTube, start a business online, work or study on the other side of the globe, or seek opportunity from a much larger set of options than ever before. But this version of globalization doesn’t exist. The cultural interactions that can now occur because of innovations in communication and transportation don’t occur on equal footing. Globalization, in many ways, is imperialism with a new name. It’s far more subtle, and arguably less harmful, but certainly present.
I lived abroad for five years before coming to Amherst: four years in Brasilia, Brazil, and one year in New Delhi, India. In both of those places, I was still surrounded by American culture. I could go to restaurants that served hamburgers, go watch American movies, use the internet to watch American and British TV shows, and speak English in many situations. In Brazil, I spoke accented Portuguese, but the greatest discomfort that came was from the occasional label as “gringo.” By and large, I was able to feel comfortable living as an “ex-pat.” Even this term highlights the imbalanced power dynamic of how different people move through this “globalized” world: when people from the US and Europe go to live in developing and third world countries, they are labeled as “ex-pats,” but when others enter the US and Europe, and other developed nations, they are labeled as immigrants, often seen as people who don’t belong. The ability to work or study abroad, as many Amherst students do, is more accessible than ever before. But when students from the US go abroad, we can bring our own culture with us to a far greater extent than most international students can when they come to the US.
This imbalance also manifests itself in the way international news is reported. The majority of mainstream international media, such as CNN, BBC, Reuters, etc. are English-based, and originate from the US or Europe. As such, it is mostly events that occur within the US and Europe (or pertain to the US and Europe) that receive the most attention, leaving other newsworthy events ignored or left to local press. A recent example of this was the murder of two Sikh men by a police force in Punjab, India at a peaceful protest. Jagmeet Singh, a guest on a BBC show, interrupted the host to talk about this issue, but was forced off the air. When the majority of international news is left in the hands of what were once imperial powers, those countries and cultures are left to decide what is worth covering or not, what narratives are significant to communicate and amplify. We cannot claim to live in a globalized world when our media still prioritizes some narratives so heavily over others.
The internet is thought to be the most powerful tool of globalization, and connection for the entire world. And yet, there is a significant disconnect both in access and the languages of communication used. There is still 57% of the world population without access to the internet, and many of those individuals are those that live in poverty. So when we talk about our globalized world, connected through the internet, we’re still talking about only half of the global population, and people at a certain economic level that they can afford computers, cell phones, and internet access. The basic entry point for our current definition of “globalized” is still exclusionary. Of course, the effects of globalization do affect those populations without access, but it is still false to wistfully claim that in this new generation, the entire globe is connected, as so many tech company CEO’s and graduation speakers do.
Beyond the issue of access is the question of language. There is a significant disparity between the languages spoken by people that use the internet and the percentage of web pages that are in certain languages. While English speaking users comprise only 27% of the internet’s population, English language web pages make up 55% of the internet’s language-based content. Even in our virtual worlds, American and European culture and language dominates. One could argue that the internet itself is also colonized, with the English speaking world taking up the vast majority of space despite having a minority population.
Websites by Language
Internet Users by Language
The only way for us to conceptualize a globalized world in which various cultures can interact on equal footing is by first seeking an end to the structures of colonialism that still remain within our world. Until that is done, any “globalizing” innovations will only work to strengthen that dynamic. This does not mean we shouldn’t make use of a more accessible globe, but it does mean that, as students and people, we need to be aware of how our actions contribute or work to fight against imperialist hierarchies. There are very practical ways in which we can do that. Primarily, being thoughtful about our experiences abroad, especially if those trips are intended as a form of “service” to a community. Going into such ventures, we must first consider what the communities we claim to aid want, and if something as simple as monetary assistance could do a better job than the presence of an undergraduate student. Even in our educational programs abroad, we must be conscious of our impact on a community, and the context in which we interact with those communities.
Even in our day to day lives in the US, we can try to look out for news stories that may be ignored by mainstream, Western-centric media. Instead of checking CNN and BBC or The New York Times as our main news sources, we can also look to news sources from other areas of the globe, such as Al Jazeera, Globo, Times of India, to name just a few. At the very least, when we read news about events happening outside Europe and the US, we can take the time to read about those events from the perspective of media from the region.
But perhaps more than anything, we must recognize that the Western perspective we are constantly bombarded with is not the norm, or “default” simply because it is, but because of a history of violence. The actions we, as individuals, can take in our lives to combat this dynamic are limited, but by realizing that this is not, or should not, be normal, and trying to enact this change in perspective on a larger scale, we can work towards a more equal form of globalization.