October 3rd, 2003


Creative Destruction

Good book review here of Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures.

To draw upon my Australian experience again--the tourist authorities there take pride in having closed down the original hotel for Ayer’s Rock. It was too close to the site, threatening to spoil the view and offending the aborigines, who hold the great rock, which they call Uluru, sacred. The Australian tourist authorities emphasize the fact that they have moved the hotel accommodations 20 kilometers away from Ayer’s Rock, and done what they could to make the new complex as unobtrusive in the landscape as possible--and I applaud their efforts. But what they do not point out--we learned this from our Mt. Connor guide--is that the aborigines have chosen to move into the abandoned hotel. I must say that if I had been living in the world’s second driest desert, I too would have jumped at my first chance to get in out of the sun. In thinking about globalization we need to do more of this kind of putting ourselves in the other fellow’s shoes. As Cowen suggests, what we as tourists see as a loss may well look like a gain to the local natives.

In a particularly insightful moment, Cowen identifies the collectivist mentality of those who inveigh against the homogenization of the world that globalization is supposedly bringing about: "The metric compares one society to another, or one country to another, instead of comparing one individual to another, or instead of looking at the choices faced by an individual" (15). For Cowen, the way globalization expands the range of choices for individuals around the world is the overriding concern: "Different regions may look more alike than in times past, but the individuals in those locales will have greater scope to pursue different paths for their lives, and will have a more diverse menu of choice for their cultural consumption" (15). Moreover, Cowen points out that globalization produces another form of diversity: "Trade tends to increase diversity over time by accelerating the pace of change and bringing new cultural goods with each era or generation... Yet many defenders of diversity decry the passing of previous cultures and implicitly oppose diversity-over-time" (15-16). Cowen argues that many opponents of globalization would like to see other communities frozen in time, denied the benefits of progress that they themselves enjoy. As Cowen puts it, "they grant special status to particular cultures and time periods; they admire 'Breton as it was before the War' or 'Bali as it was in 1968'" (132). This kind of critic of globalization in effect wants to sacrifice the members of other cultures to his own nostalgia for the past and the primitive. Other people must continue to live at earlier stages of development so that the advanced Westerner can continue to project his fantasy of the unspoiled world of pre-modernity. In Cowen’s argument I could recognize myself and my self-centered desire to see all of Australia, or at least the outback, stuck at the stage of, say, I Love Lucy, doomed never to enter the postmodern world of Seinfeld.

Creative Destruction is so rich in detail that it is difficult for me to single out a highlight, but, if pressed, I would point to the chapter "Why Hollywood Rules the World, and Whether We Should Care." Never one to shun a challenge, Cowen confronts the anti-globalization argument at perhaps its strongest--the claim that international blockbuster films from Hollywood have come to dominate the world market and are in the process of homogenizing the art of cinema. But Cowen shows that this argument is in effect Eurocentric or more specifically Francocentric. It is made largely by those who lament the decline of the once vibrant French film industry. And, as Cowen shows, that industry is in decline precisely because of efforts by the French government to protect it from foreign competition--government policies that typically have backfired and produced the opposite of what they were intended to achieve. As for the rest of the world, Cowen shows that in fact the art of cinema is thriving in many other nations, particularly in Asia, and above all in India and Hong Kong. As Cowen notes, "in numeric terms most of the world’s movies come from Asia, not from the United States." It is not unusual for India to release between 800 and 900 commercial films a year, compared to about 250 from the United States (75). Moreover, Cowen points out that while we tend to focus on the Americanization of cinema around the globe, what we like to refer to as Hollywood is now globalized itself and hardly restricted to Southern California anymore: "A typical production will have Sony, a Japanese company, hire a European director to shoot a picture in Canada and then sell the product for global export. Of the world’s major entertainment companies, only Time-Warner is predominantly American in ownership" (93).