Steve Sachs Duke


Monday, November 17, 2003


Thought for the day: I've been doing some reading on globalization recently, and came across some interesting thoughts on changes in communications. One of the most intriguing ways in which the Internet can change our lives is that it makes geographical closeness less necessary; an email takes no longer to reach Paris or Cape Town than it does to reach the room next door. The authors I read were more concerned with the implications for sovereignty -- "unbundling" the exercise of political power from territorial proximity, etc. -- but I kept wondering about the impact of communications on social relations. It's increasingly easy (and, perhaps, increasingly common) to have a circle of intimate friends spread across cities and continents, while hardly knowing your neighbors. This reminded me of the following passage from Marc Bloch's masterful Feudal Society, describing the flow of information in medieval Europe:

There was scarcely any remote little place that had not some contacts intermittently through that sort of continuous yet irregular ‘Brownian motion’ which affected the whole of society. On the other hand, between two inhabited centres quite close to each other the connections were much rarer, the isolation of their inhabitants infinitely greater than would be the case in our own day. If, according to the angle from which it is viewed, the civilization of feudal Europe appears sometimes remarkably universalist, sometimes particularist in the extreme, the principal source of this contradiction lay in the conditions of communication: conditions which favored the distant propagation of very general currents of influence as much as they discouraged, in any particular place, the standardizing effects of neighborly intercourse. (i, 64.)

It's somewhat eerie that Bloch's book, written half a century ago (he died a hero's death in 1944, shot by the Nazis for participating in the Resistance), would describe two of the most significant trends of our time: the steady integration of distant peoples and cultures into a global society, and the increasing fragmentation and tribalism that accompanies it. Or, to put it in cruder terms that I generally reject, "Jihad vs. McWorld."

(For more connections between medieval Europe and the Internet age, though, you'll just have to wait until I finish revising my thesis.)




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