Unless you’ve been living under a bushel (not letting your light shine as beacons for others and without nearby WiFi) you’ve noticed our world has changed. It’s no longer the world of your parents or even the world you yourself were born into.
It’s the same earth but, at least on the surface of it and on what paleontologist and Jesuit priest Teilhard du Chardin and Russian scientist Vladimir Vernadsky called the noosphere, there’d been great changes especially in how its dominant species, homo sapiens sapiens, lives.
(The changes do not go deeper usually than a few feet under the surface and earth remains despite our arrogant illusions very much its own self with its own laws that shall outlast even the longest lived senior of our or any other generation. When we act forgetting this, the earth reminds us with unforgettable force that it remains above our human laws and expectations.)
Civilization with its infrastructures has changed from the time of the pyramids at Saqqara and Giza or the so-called Seven Wonders of the ancient world (of which only the Great Pyramid is the lone survivor). One need only look at pictures of the new Shanghai skyline to see how architecturally things have changed.
One of the most exciting changes to me is the globalization of commerce and industry in this digital age. This is the subject New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman explores in his 2005 book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. To Christian Europe before Columbus the earth was flat. The Genoese believed that he would find India not by going east but by crossing the great sea going west. He was the first to act on a guess that the earth was round and that going one direction one could get at the same place as someone going in the opposite direction.
Friedman who won the Pulitzer Prize three times for his work with the New York Times wrote how he came to realize the earth had changed shape again. He was shooting a documentary on the Indian company, Infosys, exploring how India and Bangalore in particular had become such a major pool for outsourcing service and information for North American and European companies.
Infosys CEO, Nandan Nilekani, was telling him that in a world of digitized knowledge, countries like India could now compete for global knowledge work. “The playing field,” Nilekani told Friedman, “is being leveled.” The phrase kept playing in Friedman’s mind like a broken melody until the realization hit him: “My God, he’s telling me the world is flat!”
With the distant places on the planet now connected via satellite and fiber optic cables, communication occurs in seconds via this all-encompassing highway. Someone in Dalian in China (another rapidly emerging outsourcing center) could pick up the phone when I call from Dallas, Texas about my Internet service and the I wouldn’t have to wait that much longer than if the Dalian was sitting at an office across the street. Isn’t this amazing?
There are limits to these arrangements. Dalian gets business from Japan by training hundreds of mostly young Chinese to speak Japanese just as Bangalore service representatives learn to modify their Indian English accents to approach Midwest American sounds but there are limitations that go beyond language.
I experienced this firsthand when I recently called AT&T. The 800 number routed to an extremely pleasant young woman, Danielle, somewhere in India who efficiently answered my questions by consulting her computer screen. She read the pertinent guidelines for setting service and insisted that I was under an annual contract with AT&T. Fortunately I asked to speak to someone else and she switched me to the Disconnect Department
This department was stateside. Tom indeed sounded like Tom. There the customer representative was able to access more customer-specific data and told me that indeed I was not under such a contract. He suggested that in the future I should ask to be connected to his department, which I did when a few days later I made the decision to switch from DSL to cable and discontinued my land phone line. (The landline is going the way of pyramids just as, debunking religious belief, we’re disposing of our dead in less earth space than pyramids or cemeteries.)
What is leveling the field, flattening the world, is not only the speed of telecommunication but the nature of the most rapidly changing commodities and services of our modern world. These are often software-generated products that can be sent in digitized form, packets of information so tiny millions of them travel along innumerable pathways blanketing the earth, physical manifestations of Chardin’s noosphere. Who would have thought in the time of Columbus and the Catholic Monarchs (Reyes Católicos) of post-Muslim Spain that just 1 and 0 (0s are Muslim inventions) could build edifices more powerful than brick or even stainless steel.
As the manufacture of physical products move ineluctably to where labor is cheaper (because the locals are willing to work with passion and dedication for much less money than North Americans or Europeans), industrialized countries are having to re-invent the world. What advantage they still possess today largely consists in technical knowledge and research facilities and superb universities where new knowledge is generated. We’ve become knowledge purveyors, our greatest assets what we dream of in our heads, noosphere.
This state of affairs is rapidly changing, too. Friedman quoted the communist mayor of Dalian teach him about capitalism: “The rule of the market economy,” said Mayor Xia, “is that if somewhere has the richest human resources and the cheapest labor, of course the enterprises and the businesses will naturally go there.” At the time of the book’s research, Dalian had twenty-two universities and colleges with over two hundred thousand students! Xia further emotes: “My personal feeling is that Chinese youngsters are more ambitious than Japanese or American youngsters…”
There is market economics and then there is human economics. The former deals with financial laws, the latter with energy, ambition and spirit. People in poorer countries are forced by circumstance to work harder and improve their living conditions. We in North America or Europe are not so hungry or needy. I think this may in fact be a good thing. Maybe we don’t have to compete as rabidly in the dog-eat-dog world and set the pace instead in truly improving the depth and quality of our lives, focus not only on research knowledge but other forms of knowledge only those who live fairly comfortable lives have the luxury to explore. There is technology information and then what we still could call spiritual knowledge, Chardin’s noosphere.
Members of the our species, homo sapiens sapiens, are said to distinguish themselves from other species in the more elaborate, imaginative thinking of which we are capable. Following Maslov’s trajectory of personal growth, we might climb the pyramid of lessening suffering and increasing joy starting by first providing for our body’s needs. Having those satisfied we move up the hierarchy into satisfying increasingly more subtle needs but instead of stopping with self-actualization we could leap into the empyrean.
“What is quality?” asks Phaedrus in Robert Pirsig’s 1074 classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. Mathematical values have changed our world so much, changed our perception of it from being flat to being round and now again to being flat again. Transcending the technological advances of the twentieth century maybe we can go full circle and with those peripatetic thinkers of fifth century BCE Athens concern ourselves with subtler enterprises.
We might, for instance, work harder at improving the lot of humans everywhere, what we call civil rights (because they are recognized by civitas or cities and societies). We can learn to recognize how we oppress ourselves and other people by the beliefs we hold, by plain, ignorant prejudice. After all a flatter earth means ultimately that we live that much closer to our neighbor and who is our neighbor?
According to Jesus of the Christians, our neighbor is whoever needs us, whoever our compassion enables us to connect with that the distance between us really goes nil, zero, and from round or flat earth we grow into one earth, one life blanketed by one all-encompassing thought, our noosphere.