I left off the previous article with the contention that “interconnectedness” facilitated by Globalization is “seemingly grandiose”. So how does that manifest itself?
Knowing More, Doing What?
I don’t dispute that globalization has left a tread of knowledge in its wake. And yes, I will be that emphatic! I speak from my own experience. Transitioning from biology into urban planning for me happened through half a dozen little steps over a period of almost two years after I graduated. The onslaught of TED talks, the nosedive into landscape architecture and ecology books in public libraries, a nifty little experiment with art and education in The Sketchbook Project 2011, a self-learning tool in the form of my first blog traversing the Lake Ontario Waterfront Trail, and fortunate little grant for an idea submitted purely for the sake of personal intellectual experimentation, COLLECTIVELY led me to my current situation. But I had my laptop, and my parents’ robust wifi connection whose data limit they grudgingly shot up to unlimited status. I used to be told my life was on my laptop until I bought a Galaxy Note that gets all my attention now.
I worked hard to get these things, so I realize their value, but I guess I will never realize it more than those who try and reach for the stars just like I do, but don’t have the world at their fingertips unlike me. And while they’re hardworking, they’re likely just as gifted if not more. Let me give my own example of this digital divide: There’s a man who has worked at our family home since he was 16, and my father and I have a recurring conversation every odd year, about how he could outclass so many of the fantastic minds with his work. He has no training, but he cooks better than most restaurants in North America, fashions beds out of unruly wooden planks, built science projects with fantastic electrical circuitry, builds his own stereo, radio, television, audiovisual room decor…believe me I could go on. But he came from a tiny village in Orissa/Odisha in India, where his family still lives even as he works a 4-hour plane ride away. It took him 25 years with our family to educate his 5 kids and build his pucca house so that the floods cannot ruin things. The last 3 summers, I’ve been giving him my example to let his daughter study further, and he smiles and tells me that he is proud of my work but I should get married sometime. He is not being condescending or dismissive, but his world is smaller than mine. And I can only imagine how much smaller the world is for his kids who haven’t set foot outside their state, let alone the country like their father.
I don’t know his daughter, but she has half his genes, so to me that means something. So I want her to have the chance, to be exposed. If only half the people I knew on Facebook- in a position to take full advantage of this wave of information and “interconnectedness” gallivanting on the back of globalization– actually did more than just talk about how the Keystone XI is a disaster, or that rape requires more stringent punishment, or that India is a patriarchal society and its politicians corrupt, or whatever other castles in the air! I find it refreshing when people talk in tangibles, rather than the hackneyed abstract. So if you’re knowing more, Generation Y, the question is…what are you DOING about it? What can you point at and say, “I did that”? I went to McGill University, and my freshman address by the then-Principal Heather Monroe-Blum highlighted the fact that this was amongst the top 10% of the world’s best. I interacted with enough people who made me realize exactly what that was worth. I milked my undergraduate education experience. But 4 years hence when I meet my fellow alumni, I find literally a handful out of hundreds doing something tangible that they themselves could find joy in.
There even comes a point of time for celebrities wherein the any-publicity-is-good-publicity rule is shoved outside the window. Who wants to hear the same story over and over for the same person?!
The Large-scale / Small-scale Conundrum
As I began to get involved with Model UN as an undergrad, and started doing electives in political science and philosophy, my desire to travel the world through working at the UN burned bright. That dissipated a little with the reading of a lot of material published by the UN on wetlands, Indian demographics, and water infrastructure. So much abstract material! Once you’ve read a lot on a subject, and you start mining your readings for implementation-worthy information, you drift from the UN publications to local ones. The ones that do, and test, reboot, test, and then perhaps launch. UN material is so large-scale that it is survey-worthy and intro-worthy, but not more. My hot air balloon in the UN basket was completely deflated when I had approached the WHO for a partnership on a project for environmental health and hygiene of an open drain-cum-informal settlement site ten feet from their South Asia headquarters in New Delhi. They refused. They were very helpful, and offered to get us contacts, but they don’t do.
Make no mistake, we need this large network, this web, this plethora, this blanket organization. It’s like those massive conferences where nothing concrete comes out but you meet one odd person that changes your outlook or pushes you over a threshold. My latest experience of this was with Elinor Ostrom at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit in January 2012. I had been working on my project trying to implement decentralized public infrastructure, and I had never known of this legendary woman’s entire career being based on displaying the economic benefits of this very thing before hearing her talk that week. It was like getting validation from an esteemed senior. But the important part is knowing the difference between survey and implementation. Surveys are large-scale, and therefore must assume things to draw generalizations, and these outcomes based on assumptions cannot be directly applied just about anywhere. They should be purely used for guidance, and most people tend to forget that. This is the simple logic for a lot of academic and pop-culture jargon used by development workers when they talk about one-size-fits-all solutions or the dangers of implementing Rostow’s model for economic growth for every country at any given point of time in history.
Knowing More, Knowing None?
There is no knowledge that is not power.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
C’est vrai. Really. Aside from the ginormous extrapolations of this fact by cinema when they explore double and triple agents in spy thrillers, or crazy, covert operations with CIA and MI6 or whatever equivalent of those in China, Russia, India, Pakistan. Information is power even when it is not about national security or the fate of the human race against aliens (and all from Mars, huh?). What I refer to in the sub-title is my wariness of massive extrapolations being considered as foresight. As I mentioned previously, learning from large-scale surveys cannot be directly implemented on ground. There’s translation involved, and those doing this must shuttle between what they learn on a large-scale to the realities they face on ground, the small scale. The further up you go in terms of the scale at which you work, the less in touch with ground realities you are. So knowing more by working on a larger scale does not necessarily translate into your work benefiting those whose lives operate on a minute scale. I speak especially for people in international development-oriented careers.
It’s also probably an important reason why people’s definition of democracy does not confine to the representative-style Western democracy, but rather the I-speak-for-myself participative democracy. The latter severely restricts scale of administrative operation. And in a world apparently growing massive in terms of information onslaught, we are in danger of losing track of the people we’re physically in proximity to. It’s going to be a personal juggle for everyone, to be able to expand their horizons to encompass all this information and knowledge, while restricting themselves to the physical realities surrounding them.
My latest read is a book called Niche, examining the downfall of one-size-fits-all solutions in the global marketplace. Ever since my tryst with farmer’s markets began eight years ago, I’ve watched how tight little communities are formed therein. So it’s not just a trend relevant to international development. People increasingly want to be associated with something physical now. And in many cases across the West, that translates into the “Think Global, Act Local” mantra. The first time I came across that was when my penpal from Eastbourne in the UK gave me a sticker with that motto on it. That was 1999. So my 11-year old friend had come to grips with that reality even before the fanatic supporters of globalization.
I’m sure this thesis is incomplete, looooooooong and verbose as it may be. But these are my distillations given my experiences these past few years. And having had them bubbling within me all this while, I can’t wait to have others weigh in and refine them.