InReview – Issue 13

Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World by Benjamin R. Barber; New York, Ballantine, 1996; x, 390 pp.

Benjamin R. Barber is Whitman Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University and Director of the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy. Jihad vs. McWorld is a challenging analysis of two trends that stand in tension with each other as they reshape our world. On the one hand are the forces of “McWorld”–the new economy, enabled in large part by information technology and communications. Cultures are being redefined through the export of everything from McDonalds (the icon for McWorld) to the globalization of large corporations.

Using 1991 data, the author looked at the top ten grossing films in 22 countries other than the U.S.. More than 85% on these top ten lists were U.S. films. Only Finland and Italy had a domestic film in the top position and in both of these countries an American film was in second position.

On the other hand are the growing forces of “Jihad.” The author recognizes this term’s roots in Islamic zeal, but then extends the idea to any “partisan identity that is metaphysically defined and fanatically defended”(p. 9). Hence, the idea of “Jihad” can extend from Islam to Christianity and from the Arabs to Germans and Hindus. It is the author’s contention that Jihad and McWorld are simultaneously in tension with each other and feeding each other. Culture wars (“jihad”) within the U.S., Ireland, and eastern European countries, for example, are all intensified by the growth of McWorld.

What happens to democracy in this struggle? The author concludes that “neither Jihad nor McWorld promises a remotely democratic future” (p.220). “In the long run, however, as national sovereignty weakens, the new arrangements actually cede power to markets susceptible to no democratic supervision whatsoever and shrink the global possibilities for public choosing on behalf of fundamental social values” (p. 221).

This is a well-written, deep, thought provoking analysis of two forces at work in our world. The author offers no quick fixes, but rather, raises important warning flags for us to consider in a world with little time for contemplation. This book is an important caution to be read alongside the economic argument for globalization made by Thomas Friedman (The Lexus and the Olive Tree) and others.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Turning Away from Technology: A New Vision for the 21st Century edited by Stephanie Mills; San Francisco, Sierra Club Books, 1997; xxxi, 256 pp.

Stephanie Mills, Michigan-based ecological activist and author, did a magnificent job turning a 750-page transcript of 40 hours of discussion into this 250-page book. The forty hours was spread over a 1993 event in San Francisco on “Megatechnology and Development” and a 1994 sequel in Devon (UK) on “Megatechnology and Economic Globalization.” Perhaps 15 of the 46 invited participants were at both conferences.

Inevitably, such discussions (and the books that result) have an eclectic, rambling character. Breadth wins over depth. The value of this book is mainly in giving outsiders a generous sampling of a certain kind of technology criticism. The participants included two or three formidable intellectuals (e.g., Langdon Winner), some important prophets (e.g., Wendell Berry, Kirkpatrick Sale, Jeremy Rifkin), filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, ecofeminist Maria Mies, and a variety of other activists, thinkers, farmers, and eccentrics (e.g., Ralph Metzner: “From psychedelics my interests have changed to sacred plants and their uses in shamanism…” p. 132) from around the world.

While there are some flashes of insight and the concluding list of “78 reasonable questions to ask about any technology” is pretty good, the book as a whole is disappointing. Too often the “discussion” careens between rants against television, global business, Western civilization, Modernity, and males-and self-congratulatory testimonies to one’s virtuously alternative, New Age lifestyle. What the enemy is-or the alternative-is never very clear. This sort of discussion makes its participants feel better, but communicates far too much ignorance and arrogance to those not already insiders in the club.

Reviewed by David W. Gill

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When Things Start to Think by Neil Gershenfeld; New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1999; xi, 225 pp.

Neil Gershenfeld leads the Physics and Media Group and co-directs the Things That Think research consortium at the MIT Media Laboratory. I approached this book eagerly because of the endorsements on the cover from three people whose work I greatly admire: John Seely Brown (chief scientist, Xerox), Joel Birnbaum (R&D senior vice president, HP), and Nicholas Negroponte (Director, MIT Media Lab). I was disappointed.

There are significant insights in this book, that is true. Among the key themes:
• Technology is used best when it is so good it disappears from view

• Most work in technology starts by trying to mimic some already existing system, but the technology is most effective when it creates new opportunities

• When using technology to recreate a physical object (such as a musical instrument), it is best to recreate its function rather than its construction.

The author also gives an exciting look inside one of the more innovative labs in the world. From the wearable computer in the shoe, powered by walking, to the digital Stradivarius, this is a truly fascinating tour. So, there is much to commend the book.

The downsides are many as well. Gershenfeld needs a bit more maturity to write a book like this. A quick read might give the impression he runs the media lab, rather than contributes to a part of it. The technology picture he paints is much more MIT centric than it needs to be. He wanders from areas he knows well to talk about the nature of research and why his lab has better research than other universities or industry.

Finally, he ridicules visiting business executives who don’t understand the technology enough to draw inferences he believes are obvious. “They had been asked to acquire some [knowledge of intelligent] agents, but wouldn’t recognize one if it bit them. (p.107)” I couldn’t help but wonder what could happen if he could combine his technology talents with the business insights of his visitors to create some things that are truly revolutionary, not just novel.

Perhaps in time this will happen, because Gershenfeld is an obviously very bright technologist. As it is, the book offers insights, but is also flawed.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Technoscientific Angst: Ethics + Responsibility by Raphael Sassower; Minneapolis, University of Minnesota, 1997; xv, 140 pp.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. His concern is that “technoscientists” (the lines between scientists, technologists, and engineers are irretrievably blurred now) should take responsibility for their work. Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the Holocaust and the nuclear attack, were made possible by technoscientists, not just by the evil choices of politicians.

Sassower is “postmodern” in that he finds fault with the separation of facts and values, of science and ethics, that characterized the Enlightenment (Bacon, Kant, modern science’s quest for value-free, universal truths about the world). This Modern ethos has provided an excuse for irresponsibility that technoscientists must now decisively reject.

Sassower urges that technoscientific research and development occur in a context of a responsible, critical discussion that includes the creators, users, and all those affected by a technology. He commends a series of guidelines, e.g., ask lots of questions, maintain a healthy degree of skepticism, use your imagination, be prepared to quit your job, divulge information, avoid secrecy, explain things clearly to those who need to be involved in decisions, and remember you are always a citizen, not just a scientist.

Philosophers, especially of postmodernity, are often difficult to understand. Occasionally this is because their ideas are very complex; more often, it is because of an incapacity to speak and teach clearly or (more cynically) it is obscurantism masquerading as profundity. Sassower makes a serious effort here to reach out, and speak clearly, to technoscientists. He is partly successful.

Reviewed by David W. Gill