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The new global dilemma: Phone versus Zone

It is interesting how one things leads to another. Following a totally parochial inter-Samizdata phone (i.e. telephone) conversation between Perry de Havilland and myself in which he pointed out how we must not confuse Americans, South Africans, Indians or New Zealanders with unexplained British words like “tube” (London’s underground railway system) or with unexplained British acronyms like “HSE” (which is Britain’s “Health and Safety Executive”, not a cow disease) provoked thoughts in me of a grander sort. For what Perry is urging upon us is a new “international” variant of the English language, comprehensible all over the Anglosphere.

Jim Bennett, popularised the term “Anglosphere” to describe a set of shared cultural values, a meme-stream of common references, that is not just the British Isles and North America or even the USA plus the ‘white commonwealth’. It is the totality of the English speaking world united by more than just a common language: an English speaking cosmopolitan meta-culture.

Most discussions of the “Anglosphere” that I’ve read have concentrated on the ideological affinities of the nations and cultures thus alluded to. Common law, liberal democracy, and so forth. That’s not wrong, but there is a more mundane affinity at work here.

It is no accident that the word “Anglosphere” has erupted into vigorous life at the same time as the eruption of the Internet. Language zones are strengthened by international electronic communication, and physical distance rendered relatively less important, and this would be true even if ideology counted for nothing. We can be sure, for example, that in Spain (or is it Portugal, I can never remember which, and that’s my point), there are ‘internetted’ networks devoted to every tiny detail of what’s now happening in Argentina, patronised by readers on both sides of the Atlantic who never give a single thought from one month to the next about happenings in the USA or Britain or Germany or China, and all because of language. Spanish versions of Perry link Spaniards to the dramas of Spanish South America, just as Perry himself links us all to the dramas going on in Anglo-speaking America, Britain, India, New Zealand, etc.

With the modern “knowledge” economy heading the way it is, this is bound to count economically for more and more as the years go by. Which presents us in little old Britain with a dilemma. A generation ago, in the pre-internet age, geography (“zone”) counted for relatively more than it does now. Hence, partly, our desire to hook up economically with mainland Europe. But what if the new economy is now knowledge and language dominated, and trade of this newer sort with Tasmania is now massively easier for us mostly stubbornly mono-linguistic British than trade with France or Germany or China? And what if the English-language-based culture of the internet is creating (re-creating) stubbornly unbreakable bonds of loyalty and friendship, as it surely is? You would expect a drawing back by Britain from the European political commitment, wouldn’t you? A period of Euro-revisionism. Which might be a part of why that’s what is now happening.

But now forget politics, and think of sport. A few weeks back I did a semi-triumphalist semi-jocular posting about how England now has the best international rugby team on earth. Antipodeans were complaining furiously about this post by e-mail long before France made nonsense of it by beating England in Paris on March 2nd. The Antipodeans protested, quite rightly, that England’s alleged rugby superiority over South Africa, Australia and New Zealand wasn’t based on regularly beating these guys in actual serious rugby games, but on guesswork based on England regularly annihilating the likes of Wales and Scotland, and doing okay in very occasional and not-that-vital games involving touring sides, ours and Antipodean, with home advantage going massively to whoever is playing at home. That one simple barrier, jet lag, dooms us to playing regularly only against people geographically close to us. France has the same problem.

So what do we do? Send our entire international rugby squad out to Australia for the entire season, every season? Doesn’t work. If they can’t also play locally, how do we decide who these people are to be? Yet the alternative seems to be that England will remain stuck permanently just below the very top level. Here’s a case where zone counts for more than phone, even though phone is almost the entire reason that all these geographically dispersed countries are still playing the same game by the same rules. (On the other hand, if all the teams played each other regularly anyway, the rugby World Cup wouldn’t count for nearly so much…)

I don’t have an “answer” to this phone versus zone stuff. I’m just saying that this is an interesting way of looking at the world.

For a more detailed introduction to Jim Bennett‘s fascinating Anglosphere ideas, the Anglosphere Primer can be downloaded here in rich text format.

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