Michael Jennings’ talk about globalisation at my home last Friday was both fascinating and entertaining.
It’s tempting for a blogger to assume that because he has said all his stuff several times over, in about a hundred blog postings, that everyone who cares about it now gets it. But a talk that pulls a lot of it together actually tells even his most regular readers a great deal that they probably didn’t previously get. So it was last Friday.
The basic point was that “globalisation”, far from being a great big steam-roller that flattens every individual local culture into ubiquitous uniformity, is actually a complex process, in which the supposed steam-roller is confronted by local forces that are often at least as powerful as the steam-roller and which oblige the steam-roller to behave very differently in each different spot. The result is not a simpler and duller world, but a far more complex and interesting and abundant one. In any given place, globalisation means that there will be far more to choose from, and each place, by shaping how globalisation happens locally, retains its individuality. It even becomes more individual and unusual, because of the extra layer of complexity and interestingness brought to it by foreign influences, locally modified.
The particular example of globalised uniformity that people who have only visited a tiny few of the most famous Western cities regularly cite is fast food chains. But taste in food, whatever the food’s velocity, varies a lot from place to place, and if Mcdonald’s ever had a plan to impose total dietary uniformity upon the world, any such plan has long been abandoned. The simple McDonald’s hamburger mutates into any number of local variations for any number of local reasons, not the least of which is that in quite a few places ham is forbidden, never mind not liked. What and how people eat varied hugely from country to country in the past, and it still does.
Michael’s style was of the anecdotal, feel-free-to-interrupt sort, so different listeners will remember different little illustrative stories among the many he told. My two favourites both concerned exceptions to the general point that Michael was making, exceptions which, with their oddity and rarity, prove the rule, as the rather odd saying goes. Because, both concerned global forces so overwhelming and irresistible in the force that they bring to bear on particular places that the quirks of that particular place really are powerless to resist.
The first concerned teenage girls and their taste in frocks. I don’t know what happened at the recently concluded Oscar Ceremony, and mostly I don’t care, but maybe a particular lady costume stood out and attracted the admiring interest of global teenage girldom. If it did, then this week, teenage girls everywhere are going to be really wanting this dress. And a business which is alert to all this and which can thrash out and distribute copies of this dress on a huge scale and get them to all its shops this week is going to make a lot of money. Apparently, so Michael told us, this business is called Zara. Michael also mentioned the globally ubiquitous Mango, be he reckons Mango is not a real business, more an exercise in business ego fuelled by funny Spanish money, and that it will soon vanish. Zara is also Spanish, but a real business, based on its expertise in design and manufacture of course, but most especially in logistics. It knows how to get the right stuff into its shops really quickly, quick enough to satisfy Global Teenage Girl.
Just how completely teenage girl tastes really do display this kind of global uniformity, I am not remotely qualified even to guess about, but here, said Michael, is a truly global force.
And the other truly global force that Michael mentioned was Steve Jobs. Now recently deceased, of course, but still persisting as a force in the world, in the form of the continuing Steve Jobsness of Apple.
Apple has created a range of products that millions around the world are hugely eager to get their hands on. Even people of quite modest means are prepared to spend a lot more to get the original Apple product, rather than any cheaper imitation. Apple, you might say, is the Rolls Royce of the not totally poor. I am personally engaged in purchasing a Google Nexus 4 smartphone, which is very iPhone-ish but which costs half what an iPhone costs. But for many millions around the world, nothing but the Apple original will do. An Apple Store arriving in your city is like a badge of global approval.
Which meant that when Steve Jobs was visiting some huge city somewhere in Asia, like Beijing for instance, the questions were not: May I please build an Apple Store? And then: How does the new Apple Store have to change, to get past local bureaucracy and to cater to local preferences? Rather was the question: Is this city worthy to have an Apple Store bestowed upon it, in the exact form that Apple ordains, or not? (A delightful business example of one of my favourite archetypal processes, namely Reversing the Burden of Proof.) Whereas when McDonald’s opens up in a new and (for McDonald’s) exotic location, the question is how McDonald’s has to satisfy local bureaucrats and bend its basic template in order to make the new McDonald’s a success, the Apple question concerns what a city has to do and to put up with, to persuade Apple to manifest itself there. Answer: a lot. Or: no Apple Store.
Hence the proliferation of fake Apple Stores of the sort shown in picture number 3 here. (One could write an entire book about fake Apple Stores.)
And hence the fact that in the Beijing Apple Store you can google for Tiananmen Square and read all about it, the only place, Michael asserted, where the Chinese government allows you to do this, as Michael proved by actually doing it, when he himself visited the Beijing Apple Store.
Michael was not trying to give an in-your-face libertarianism-is-the-business kind of talk, but he left us all in no doubt that globalisation, at least as far as its commercial effects and processes are concerned, is a thoroughly good thing, never more so that when Steve Jobs is telling the government of China what’s what, but more generally and more typically, when people throughout the world are grabbing hold of globalisation and making it their own, so to speak.
The extreme desirability of Apple products was strongly implied in Michael’s talk rather than explicitly spelt out. This extreme desirability, and the fact that Apple appliances tend to retain much of their second-hand value, in sharp contrast to what will presumably happen to my Google Nexus 4, was something I only learned more about when I met up with Michael again yesterday. This we did in the YO! Sushi bar in Victoria Station, London. (On Monday all dishes cost what only the cheapest dishes usually cost.)
YO! Sushi sounds like something very global and homogenised, doesn’t it? Another fast-food steam-roller, this time constructed in Japan, even now forcing people everywhere in the world to eat the same debased and identical sushi food? Well, something like that may now be the plan, but actually: NO! YO! Sushi is British, most of its outlets being in London, although it does now seem to be venturing further afield, to such places as Moscow and Dubai.
Don’t get Michael started on Dubai. Dubai, he told us last Friday, really is what a lot people think that globalisation as a whole is, namely lowest-common-denominator, brand-dominated homogenisation. Trouble is, Dubai is a Potemkin Village. “Global” businesses, which are global only in Dubai, are paid to operate in Dubai, catering to nobody except the vanity of the rulers of Dubai, who fantasise that Dubai is a global hub, or some such thing. Dubai, in other words, is a sort of localised Mango only more so.
I was tempted to end this by saying “but I digress”, which in the matter of YO! Sushi (never once mentioned by Michael on Friday) I do. But the truth is that there is no “but” about it, in my mind, more of an “and”. The whole point of these talks is to provoke thought, in the minds of those who attend them, and for that matter in the minds of those who merely hear about them. They are intended to get us all thinking, and thinking beyond our usual mental comfort zones. Michael’s talk certainly accomplished this (comments from others who were present about other things that he said would be very welcome), and once again I thank him for it.