In his book „The world is flat” Thomas Friedman describes the changes and chances globalization and technology bring to all of us. I have thought about this flatness again and again travelling these days. Maybe not accurately the way Friedman meant it.
It’s more like a metaphor for some other observation that repeatedly came to my mind: the visuals of globalization. I will try to specify what I mean:Looking at American towns, bigger cities as well as smaller villages, I am always thrown back to one single layer of perception. It’s like a binary existence: something is there or is not there, a restaurant, a gas station, a hotel. You look at the façade that represents a function (eating, getting gas, sleeping) and that’s it. No context, no aesthetics, no embedding in a social texture around it. It’s just there.
If you want to grab a coffee you drive to a Starbucks, a building on a square right next to the interstate. There is no ‘attitude of coffee life” around it, no aesthetic of drinking coffee in a surrounding that’s made for that and no social pattern of people dropping by from school or on their way from the supermarket to meet others. It’s having a coffee or not having it, that’s what it’s all about. And that is what I mean by the single layer of perception which sometimes deranges me. In Europe this sort of binary existence can rarely be found (and in New York, Boston or San Francisco it’s different, too). It’s not one layer, it’s a bunch of complex and interwoven threats of social life that create and make up a place where one would have a coffee (why would I have one, whom will I meet there, do I like the place, why would I want to stay at this place … ?).
The one layer perception has even a meta interpretation. There is often only this one single layer because there is not more than one way of representation (I am simplifying a little, I know …). Starbucks is coffee, McDonalds is hamburgers, Kentucky Fried Chicken is chicken, Walmart is superstore, Taco Bell is Mexican food, CVS is pharmacy. The range of standardization and the reduction of brand variety in daily life are amazing, especially in rural and small town America (maybe indeed a reason for getting bitter …). That’s one result of the ongoing process of globalization. But: In the U.S. I sometimes ask myself whether it has ever been different.
It might be human to reduce the scale of choices one has to make every day. But I have to admit: I would rather do so because I am overwhelmed by the wide variety of opportunities to make a choice, not because there is pretty much none.