Browsing in my local library just at closing time, the last chapter of Owen Harries’, Benign or Imperial?, entitled “The Illusion of the Anglosphere” caught my eye. I must confess to harboring a few Anglospheric thoughts so I found my animus piqued. I didn’t have time to finish the chapter, but I was able find it on the Net here as a separate article. I looked forward to disagreeing with Mr. Harries, but was disappointed. His line of argument proved convincing. I learned that the idea of an Anglosphere was first mooted at the beginning of the 20th century and didn’t get anywhere then and that the idea has become fashionable once more at the beginning of the 21st century. Using the mid century example of the Suez crisis, when British and American interests sharply diverged despite the closeness of their WW2 alliance, Harries points out the futility of expecting common language and culture to be the basis for national policy:

The point is that even in those exceptional circumstances, cultural affinities and shared traditions were not enough to ensure common foreign policy goals, to override hard calculations of national interests. Indeed, that should have become apparent to the British several years earlier, when Harry Truman had abruptly cut off Lend-Lease to Britain almost as soon as the war ended, and when the United States had driven a very hard bargain indeed with Maynard Keynes concerning a loan to prevent the United Kingdom, bled white by a war it had fought from beginning to end, from going bankrupt.

Now if that were true nearly half a century ago, how much truer is it today, when the common culture, political and otherwise, that is being appealed to as the basis of association or unity is so much more attenuated–by massive immigration on both sides of the Atlantic of peoples who are unacquainted with that cultural tradition; by a strident and aggressive multiculturalism that insists that the Anglo-Saxon culture and tradition are no better than any other culture and tradition; and, not least, by educational establishments that do not regard the transmission of a cultural heritage as one of their responsibilities.

In these circumstances, it is surely a serious error to believe that a traditional culture is capable of providing the foundation for a worldwide English-speaking union…..Please understand that I am in no way criticizing the United States in pointing these things out. I do so only to try to contest the argument–advanced by some of the most eloquent advocates of an English-speaking union–that cultural compatibility can and should form the basis of a common foreign policy. It cannot. Was it Nietzsche or was it De Gaulle who described states as “cold monsters”? In any case it was Britain’s own Lord Palmerston who insisted that

We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.

Fair enough, but Harries’ Anglosphere and mine are two very different places. At the center of mine is not the mother country, or even America, but India. And what may create it is not common cultural or even national interest, but business. If it happens at all it wont be a political union but an economic one. I note in passing that the EU is still far from succeeding as a political entity, but has worked well economically for decades. English is already the dominant language of both international business and Internet which removes the barrier of language for educated Indians even as the Internet removes the barrier of distance. A virtual Anglosphere involving India has already developed growing out of the embedded structural changes inherent in the technology. The gist of my argument is simply that it may continue to develop on such a scale that it becomes useful to describe the result as an Anglosphere.

Thomas Friedman in a March 2004 column in the NY Times (I extracted this quote prior to the Times Select firewall when it was freely available) describes what can happen when non obvious structural change coincides with a bit of luck:

How did India, in 15 years, go from being a synonym for massive poverty to the brainy country that is going to take all our best jobs? Answer: good timing, hard work, talent and luck.

The good timing starts with India’s decision in 1991 to shuck off decades of socialism and move toward a free-market economy with a focus on foreign trade. This made it possible for Indians who wanted to succeed at innovation to stay at home, not go to the West. This, in turn, enabled India to harvest a lot of its natural assets for the age of globalization.

One such asset was Indian culture’s strong emphasis on education and the widely held belief here that the greatest thing any son or daughter could do was to become a doctor or an engineer, which created a huge pool of potential software technicians. Second, by accident of history and the British occupation of India, most of those engineers were educated in English and could easily communicate with Silicon Valley. India was also neatly on the other side of the world from America, so U.S. designers could work during the day and e-mail their output to their Indian subcontractors in the evening. The Indians would then work on it for all of their day and e-mail it back. Presto: the 24-hour workday.

Also, this was the age of globalization, and the countries that succeed best at globalization are those that are best at “glocalization” – taking the best global innovations, styles and practices and melding them with their own culture, so they don’t feel overwhelmed. India has been naturally glocalizing for thousands of years.

Then add some luck. The dot-com bubble led to a huge overinvestment in undersea fiber-optic cables, which made it dirt-cheap to transfer data, projects or phone calls to far-flung places like India, where Indian techies could work on them for much lower wages than U.S. workers. Finally, there was Y2K. So many companies feared that their computers would melt down because of the Year 2000 glitch they needed software programmers to go through and recode them. Who had large numbers of programmers to do that cheaply? India. That was how a lot of Indian software firms got their first outsourced jobs.

When you couple this partnership in software technology with the common language I believe there are real possibilities for an increasing partnership between India and the rest of the English speaking world. I’m not talking about Indians who sort of speak English, reading software manuals over the phone. I’m talking about increasingly numerous educated Indians with strong math and science skills working with other English speaking people everywhere on things like nanotechnology – and any and all of the cutting edge technologies of the future. The Chinese have recapitulated the past – the industrial revolution – with great efficiency and success. Although India’s economy has only grown only about one eighth as much as China’s, it has plunged more directly into the future. I believe America and and other English speaking countries of the West, will continue to be dynamic, inventive and entrepreneurial. While it seems pretty clear right now that everyone will trade a lot with the Chinese, the old English speaking world may partner a lot of the future with India. I’m not saying that China wont innovate and become a serious player in future technology, just that of the two largest countries in the world India has a much lower language barrier to collaboration – to working together rather than in competition with the English speaking world.

Neither am I saying saying that the US and China will necessarily be bitter rivals like the US and the Soviet Union were during the Cold War. Nonetheless, I can well imagine that China will continue to build its empire as it always has – from the center out – and extend its influence into surrounding areas economically if not militarily. It will regain Taiwan eventually. I would be surprised if it lost North Korea to the south except on terms favorable to itself. I would be further surprised if it does not succeed in obtaining much of the mineral wealth of Siberia and central Asia by one means or another. It will have to compete with India to do so and the outcome of that new version of the ‘great game’ may well constitute the centerpiece of much of the power politics of the 21st century. It is also a good possibility that India will turn to the West in general and the English speaking countries in particular to strengthen itself in relation to its Chinese rival. It was Cicero who said ‘time and chance happenth to them all’ which is why I know I am merely speculating on this view of China’s and India’s future and the possible emergence of an Anglosphere.

However, what I want to suggest goes in a different direction from future political alignments and has to do with the nature of the media environment created by the Internet. At play here is what Harries elsewhere describes as the latent function of human institutions, and McLuhan describes as the initially unconscious structural changes brought about by all new technologies. What I am more certain of than any particular future is that the technologies of the next century will profoundly alter the way we relate to each other and how we conceive of the world. McLuhan’s great insight was that each new technology numbs us – renders us unconscious – of the deeper structural forms that remake us inside even as they change the world. Each wave of new technology transforms not just the human dance, but the dancer – individually and collectively.

A quickly accessible example of McLuhan’s thinking about the influence of hidden aspects of form or structure is that while the idea of interchangeable parts was inherent in the invention of the movable type in the 1450s it took until the 1850s – 400 years – to fully emerge. According to McLuhan, the entire ‘galaxy’ of the modern world view – philosophy, technology, the shape of our cities and the sequential patterns of our thought – grew first out of the alphabet which modularized language. Movable type, in turn, translated that modularity into a concrete mechanical form. Mechanization went hand in hand with linear systems of thought. Reason came into sharp focus; the industrial revolution bloomed. Here is McLuhan from page 17 of the 1967 printing of the Gutenberg Galaxy:

W. B. Yeats has an epigram which puts the themes of King Lear and Don Quixote in cryptic form:

Locke sank into a swoon

The garden died

God took the spinning jenny

Out of his side.

The Lockean swoon was the hypnotic trance induced by stepping up the visual component in experience until it filled the field of attention. Psychologists define hypnosis as the filling of the field of attention by one sense only. At such a moment “the garden” dies. That is, the garden indicates the interplay of all the sense in haptic harmony. With the instressed concern with one sense only, the mechanical principle of abstraction and repetition emerges into explicit form. Technology is explicitness, as Lyman Bryson said. And explicitness means the spelling out of one thing at a time, one sense at a time, one physical or mental operation at a time.


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