America and Europe — A False Debate

A few days ago I came across Umair Haque’s post on how Europe is going to kick America’s ass in innovation and immediately tagged it in del.icio.us to blog_later. And yet, every time I tried to start a post on it, I found Umair’s logic so off that I didn’t know where to start. Umair’s thoughts are usually pretty good and he seems like a nice guy. Moreover, early comments on his post were complimentary. So I held off, a bit uncertain of my gut reaction. Then I saw Jeff Nolan call it a "whopper" and woke up this morning to Chris Yeh’s long, devastating take-down of Umair’s theory. Go read Umair’s original and then Chris’ response.

I only have time to add one more thing to the pot, and that is to reference my earlier post on globalization’s effect on unique culture. It’s very hard to attribute cultural exports to a single country or region and thus generalize about its aesthetic vibrancy. The character of cultures is increasingly cosmopolitan. Indeed, the spread of markets and commericalism has not diluted the best of culture, it has instead provided more and diverse choices for citizens. So, I think it’s unproductive to argue America vs. Europe and then especially derive predictions about innovation, a process that will be more and more de-nationalized.

Thanks Umair for sparking this conversation!

I categorized this Silicon Valley Junto since we discussed Americanism at our last lunch.

10 Responses to America and Europe — A False Debate

  1. Chris Yeh says:

    Excellent point, Ben. I believe that nationalism will eventually be obsolete.

    The nation-state will still exist, but the virtual and electronic overlays will be more important to most individuals.

    For example, I’d be willing to bet that for the next generation, their online guild affiliation in their MMOG of choice will be more important on a daily basis than their citizenship.

    We’ve evolved from geographic tribes to nation-states. The future lies with interest-based or passion-based tribes.

  2. My wife is irish and told me on her last trip to ireland there was growing concern there about Polish plumbers. The Irish have been allowed everywhere (and been great contributors) but at home, the principle does not apply? Our open attitudes to immigration and free trade are an experiment – never tried at our scale ever in history. But thank God for that. The best and brightest from every where. Europe is more about tradition – the very things that endear us to Europe are those that are character flaws in a rapidly changing world.

  3. indeed, the spread of markets and commericalism has not diluted the best of culture, it has instead provided more and diverse choices for citizens

    Sorry Ben, but I feel this is wildly oversimplistic. It would be hard to argue that the chain stores and fast-food joints that have homogenized cities and towns all over the planet — including in most of “middle America” — have enhanced choice or not helped destroy some of “the best” of regional cultures even in this country alone. Just look at Florida, for a banal domestic example — when I was there 20 years ago, there were still a lot of roadside stands and little shops and mom ‘n’ pop restaurants that seemed particular to the region; now it’s Wal-Mart city, indistinguishable from most towns in the Midwest. Without the names of towns on the signs, you wouldn’t know if you were in Florida or Illinois.

    For 40 years, my family visited Provincetown, Massachusetts every summer. P-town has been a tourist trap for over a century and a half, but only in the last 20 years has its retail infrastructure been remade to look like any other generic resort town (albeit with an infusion of gay millionaires who disdain to mix with the locals, unlike the previous generations of gay bohemians who summered there). Gone are the little gift shops and restaurants owned by the local Portuguese families; with them goes the delicious Cape Cod cuisine influenced by the cooking of Portuguese fishermen’s wives. (The fishermen are gone too, driven out by resource depletion and the temptation of selling the cozy family house for $1 million-plus.) With the exception of the natural beauty there — soon to be undone by Bush’s next assault on the environment — you might as well stay home.

    A trip to central Paris is nearly shocking in this day and age, because the streets feel so different from more Americanized European cities. There is very little visible advertising, and the famous French uptightness and xenophobia have kept out the tsunami of Starbucks and Burger Kings that have made many European cities virtually indistinguishable from American ones. Just to walk down the street in the Marais district is not only like visiting another century, it’s like visiting another planet.

    When you just want your standard Starbucks skinny latte by pointing to a sign, this can be annoying. But such homogenization also pre-empts the experience of learning about different ways to live, and feeling another set of rhythms around you.

    I’m alas too busy this morning to look into the previous posts in depth, so I may be way offbase here. Certainly regional American culture is no better or worse than European culture. But I would argue that local culture has inherent value in it that is lacking in corporate, internationalized culture.

    That’s not going to stop me from listening to African or Tibetan music, or Japanese jazz. Promiscuous cultural intermixing often makes for very vibrant culture, which is one of the main reasons why it’s so exciting to be alive now. But when every place feels like the same place — safe, sanitary, standardized, comfortably familiar — there’s nothing left to mix.

  4. Ben Casnocha says:

    Steve — thanks! I always want to hear the other side of the coin. It’s not fun when everyone just agrees with you. In fact, your perspective is in the majority I suspect. Benjamin Barber, e.g., wrote a book called Jihad vs. McWorld would espouses your view. But I disagree with it.

    I’m a optimist when it comes to globalization in general and its impact on culture specifically. Tyler Cowen has shaped my thinking a lot. If you have time, see:

    link to gmu.edu
    link to reason.com

    You are right that small towns probably look more similar now than they did 40 years ago. As I said in my post: “For example, 50 years ago kids growing up in New Jersey and Louisiana would be slightly different (though still very similar) due to being in different parts of the country. Now, the kids would be VERY similar, though their hobbies and career paths could be much different than before due to increased opportunities to learn about other cultures, jobs, etc.”

    Fast food chains have spread across the country (and the world), yes, but as has higher forms of culture. It’s easier than ever to listen to Japanese jazz in San Francisco. There are more and better genres of literature, dances, music than ever before. It’s just as easy to get good sushi in San Francisco as it is London or Frankfurt or Tokyo. Yes, those four cities are now more the same because of this common offering, but as people we become different through this greater choice; we can buy high quality sushi OR authentic Indian food, and so forth.

    As Cowen points out, the junk food — the McDonald’s all around us — is a symptom of the riches we now enjoy. You don’t have to buy the junk if you don’t want to.

    I also am wary of plain nostalgia. If a community wanted to support a local fisherman, they would. If they don’t vote with their wallets, then the fisherman goes out of business. People made conscious choices. Just because the consequences of those choices don’t align with a few people’s idyllic memories doesn’t mean something is wrong in the system.

    Tks again for the comment!

  5. Chris Yeh says:

    Good discussion. I actually touch on some of these issues in my latest post (link to chrisyeh.blogspot.com) which tackles the question of whether financial and cultural gain are mutually exclusive.

    I won’t quote the whole thing here, but here is the relevant excerpt:

    “I think we can achieve both financial as well as social and cultural growth.

    The key is to apply the simple economics of competitive advantage. There are times when we can reap substantial economic gains with no negative impact on social or cultural capital (or even positive benefits). There are also times when we can reap substantial social and cultural gains with no negative impact on financial capital (or even positive benefits).

    As one example, we can seek efficiency in the offline world, and seek distinctiveness in the online world.

    In the online world, the costs of communication are so low that infinite diversity is not only possible, but darn near inevitable.

    And with the rise of mass customization plays like Cafe Press (and someday, actual fabs that can create any sort of product using solid printing), we’ll be able to have our cake and eat it too–efficiency and soul.

    Just take a look at the success of Threadless (link to threadless.com) and DeviantArt (link to deviantart.com). These are the farthest thing from homogenized, yet they are just as much a product of the American Way as Wal-Mart.

    I may be an early adopter, but I can say pretty definitively that I gain more social and cultural enjoyment out of the things I find online than by the things I encounter offline. Why let an accident of geography determine our options?

    What would you rather do? Live in a quaint European village full of charming shops and restaurants but have no access or communications with the outside world? Or live in Orange County with broadband access to the Internet, Skype calls to anywhere on the globe, and the ability to order the world’s treasures delivered to your doorstep by Amazon and UPS?”

    I think that given a choice, the kids of 40 years ago would choose to live in today’s hyper-connected society. Of course, just because people choose to do something doesn’t make it right. People choose to smoke. People choose to take drugs. People used to choose to force non-whites to the backs of buses.

    On the other hand Steve, don’t you choose to live here in the Bay Area? What would prevent you from choosing to move to Paris? Or do the benefits of being here outweight the costs of homogeneity?

    If we as tourists want to travel to far off places and drink in their different cultures, we may find the entry of McDonalds and Starbucks outlets an unwelcome intrusion. But what do the natives think?

    If McDonalds and Starbucks were inferior, why would the French fear them and protest against them?

    Do we ever have a right to say, “I am government minister, trained by the Ecole nationale d’administration (ENA), and thus I am making the judgment that eating at McDonalds is bad for you, and I am banning it.” Once we start thinking that we can make decisions better than the people who have to live with them, we head down a slippery slope. If we can force people not to shop at Wal-Mart, others can force us to worship a particular church, or ban abortion.

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