Einstein’s Globalisation

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
8 January, 2019
Editorial: 270
Fecha de publicación original: 5 junio, 2001

Every wineskin smells of the wine it holds

The suspension of the World Bank’s Annual Conference on Economic Development which was to be held in Barcelona from the 25 to 27 June 2001, is the latest episode in a series of confrontations experienced in various world capitals wherever the World Bank tries to show it face. It’s like a boxing match. In this corner, the so-called “globalisers”, the representatives of liberal capitalism whose structural plans impose unbearably unfair conditions on developing countries. In the corner, the so-called “anti-globalisation” groups, fiercely opposed to the former’s attempts to impose their laws on the whole world. No matter how well-defined the opponents may seem, however, the basic question still remains: What exactly do we mean by globalisation? Do the labels we apply to both camps really fit? And this is no trivial question either, because, depending on how we define globalisation, we might find some rather strange friends (or enemies) on one side or the other.

In this editorial, and the few to come, I’d like to do my bit towards clarifying ideas (or definitively confusing them) on this much vaunted subject of globalisation. In the first place, it is important to distinguish between the processes of internationalisation and globalisation. Despite the fact that many people use them as interchangeable concepts, they do not mean the same and describe fundamentally different historical processes. To begin with, internationalisation applies to an era when the the physical goods of capitalism moved around. That meant that you could have an internationalised worldwide economy with people, organisations and companies acting on their own. In other words, they could physically move somewhere else and begin to operate there without further help. With globalisation the opposite is true. There is no need to physically move elsewhere in order to operate in new territory and use the resources available there. Also, as we will see later, an environment of reciprocity is essential if this is to take place.

From the dawn of the industrial society and capitalism, when people gained the capacity to operate in accordance with the capitalist model far from home, establishing economic relationships of one kind or another abroad, via empires, colonies or direct production relationships, we use concepts with a strong sense of territoriality such as worldwide economy and internationalisation. Internationalisation implies physically transferring production and commercial activity, moving equipment and manufacturing or service units to other parts of the world. Globalisation, on the other hand, is the capacity to act virtually in a new space where physical interaction in terms of geography and bodies in contact with one another, is not so important.

And if we talk about globalisation from the virtual point of view then we are talking about a process that has developed at different speeds over the last 300 to 400 years but which is accelerating at a vertiginous rate now. If we want to put a date on it we could say it began with the Age of Science, on the one hand, or the End of Cosmogony, on the other. In other words, from the moment we were able to see ourselves as bodies that operate simultaneously in the same virtual space.

So, what do we mean by the End of Cosmogony? All through human history different groups, collectives, tribes, peoples and nations have developed their respective cultures on the basis of their belief systems. Beliefs that explained the world they lived in, its origins and destiny, its paradises and hells, etc. This scaffolding began to crumble as the edifice of knowledge, perceptions and intuitions began to outgrow this framework of beliefs. From the time of Galileo and Copernicus, for example, we have accepted that the planets occupy specific places in the universe, that these have fixed relationships with the sun, that the sun is related to a specific galaxy, and we arrived at the last century with one of the great masters of virtual reality, Mr Einstein, able to make us go along with a theory that has still not been totally proved, a theory that tries to explain the way the universe works. And his theory, if you’ll forgive the pun, has universal value. In other words, its validity is not determined by beliefs, cultures or religions, but creates a new culture itself .

We know that a series of laws exist, many of which we are unable to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt or find the origin of, but which we regard as having universal implications. When, in the 1920s, Mr Hubble discovered that stars and galaxies were moving apart, he expressed this in his famous formula, “All objects in space are moving away from each other at the rate of the square root of their speed”, he highlighted the fact that there was a unique moment when all the objects that make up the universe started from a common point, thus giving birth to the Big Bang theory.

Before that, of course, the electromagnetic spectrum and radio electronics had been discovered and we had already begun to operate “within them” via the telegraph, at first, then the telephone and, a little later, the whole range of satellites and telecommunications networks that constantly increase the capacity of humans to express themselves. Somewhere in the middle, nuclear energy was discovered and in 1946 the first computers, specifically based on these conceptions of global virtuality with universal application, made their appearance.

Satellites gave us the first images of our planet from outer space and allowed us to capture information that our senses couldn’t pick up, and transform it into knowledge. We had never experienced anything of this ilk before. Nevertheless, in just a few years we became adept at creating virtual environments from which we could extract information without depending on touch, taste or even our field of vision: we began to see the Earth from places we could not physically access and in areas on the electromagnetic spectrum we are not biologically endowed to see.

And it was in this world that telematics networks, and more specifically those that gave birth to what we call the Internet, made their first appearance. The latter, from the time of its predecessor ArpaNet, was designed as an Open Architecture Network, an empty network whose content depended on the activity of users and whose access was universal (all those connected could access its content), simultaneous (users acted as though they were connected at the same time) and did not depend on time or space. Moreover, it grew in a decentralised — by simply adding computers to the network– and de-hierarchified way –no computer decided what other computers could do–. In other words, it was a network whose value lay in what people could communicate (where they were was not important as long as they connected to the Net), without having to go anywhere while still being able to exchange the information and knowledge they generated. And all this, I repeat, without having to move. Each individual could operate from where they were connected –locally– and relate to everyone else –globally– in a virtual context, without any apparent relationship in the real world. This local/global duality illustrates the enormous cultural dimension of globalisation: we are all together in the only place where this could possibly happen, the Net.

In other words, globalisation is basically and fundamentally a technological construction, an abstract one, which has its own range of unique features, or to put it another way, it is based on an environment artificially created by us and universally and immediately applicable to those who access it. It is a technological design of a new cultural reality within which we have decided to live, for better or worse, whether we want to or not. Nonetheless, its characteristics are not those that are reviled or extolled in the confrontation between globalisation and anti-globalisation lobbyists. In reality, the World Bank, for example, is the least globalised organisation in this globalised world. While, on the other hand, anti-globalisation movements are the epitome of that globalisation and, much as they might dislike the idea, at the forefront of it. But this is what we will be taking a look at next week.
Translation: Bridget King