In a recent LSE lecture, the historian Ian Morris noted that the greatest progress in human history often happens when civilisations bump up against each other. They might exchange slings and arrows, or bombs and bullets, or for that matter, bacteria and viruses. But they also exchange goods, ideas, foods, culture and technologies.
If this is true then you could argue that one of the reasons for our current accelerated rate of progress is the now constant overlapping of civilisations. We interact with others from around the world at multiple levels.
This globalisation has positives and negatives that have been well documented and oft-debated. But one that seems to have become accepted is that a natural result of globalisation is the domination of a small number of ideas — most notably in the form of brands.
You could call upon any high street around the world as evidence for this. Familiar brands populate the prime spots.
But for me these brands are relics of the pre-Internet age. It takes a long time to build up the scale and reach to place a branch of McDonalds or Zara in so many locations. In the low-friction digital environment, companies might achieve this scale much more quickly but that presence will be much less durable.
I’ve long been a sceptic about the durability of companies like Facebook, and I remain so. But even if they do sustain, it’s somewhat irrelevant to the wider point: systems like Facebook are platforms over which others ideas are shared, more than ideas in their own right. The ideas they allow to be shared are more diverse and numerous — and visible — than ever. Not singular and homogenised as previous iterations of globalisation might suggest.
Just take a look at the diversity of topics that form tumblrs, the array of themes on deviantart, or the bewildering range of conspiracy theories. All of which can be expressed and find an audience like never before.
These ideas are competing. And we can only hope that some of these ideas lose that competition, whether its fundamentalist terrorism, or the misogyny of trolls.
But if and when they do lose, I don’t believe the diversity of ideas will diminish. The more rapid integration of global ideas may help us to find consensus in some key areas. But such is the freedom we now have, to access knowledge and to synthesise and express new ideas based on what we have found, that I think the diversity of ideas will continue to grow, not shrink, for some time to come. While some ideas are defeated, or at least returned to a small minority of minds, others will continue to co-exist, and still more will be introduced.
The hive mind that the Internet has created is not a recipe for homogenisation, as earlier forms of globalisation may have been. It is a commons, a space in which many ideas — creeds, brands, behaviours, interests, cultures — can and will co-exist.