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NEXT: Zoom Globalization

David Staley David Staley NEXT: Zoom Globalization
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A curious phenomenon has been happening at our CreativeMornings Columbus event series. Ever since we moved into Zoom, a number of people from outside Columbus have been attending our events. We’ve had participants from Detroit and New York, but also from Mexico City and Stockholm as well. In May, I hosted a design event over Zoom that included a young designer from Dublin, Ireland. I asked her what drew her to our Columbus-based event, and she noted that she saw an announcement online, it looked interesting, and so she decided to stay up late to join us.   

There are signs that globalization as an economic and geopolitical reality may be coming to an end. But at the same time, there are signs that the relatively free movement of ideas—what I am calling “Zoom globalization”—might persist even if the economic infrastructure of globalization has collapsed.  

Globalization as an historical reality has long antecedents, of course, but the most recent variety emerged in the early 1990s as a result of the conclusion of the Cold War and the end of the geopolitical bifurcation of the planet. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Western liberal capitalism remained standing as the “victor,” unleashing the spread of global markets and supply chains. Globalization was characterized by the relatively free movement of products, services, expertise and talent. The development of the World Wide Web at around the same time fostered a system of global communications. Information, ideas and culture spread as freely as automobiles and consumer goods.   

Even before COVID-19, there were signs that globalization might be coming to an end—and for some, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Global competition between the U.S. and China suggests that separate economic spheres of influence are emerging, with China’s Belt and Road Initiative indicative of the emergence of a separate economic and geopolitical sphere. The fragmentation this represents leads one to ask if we can continue to speak of “global trade?”

Some in the West have expressed concerns about the hold China seems to have over global supply chains. Even before the COVID-induced economic collapse of the past few months, there have been voices calling for the shortening of global supply lines, and for bringing manufacturing—especially in critical areas such as pharmaceuticals—closer to home. America First-style rhetoric is not limited to Trump or the Brexiteers, as even Joe Biden has presenting a softer version of this nascent economic autarky. The conflicts Western governments are waging with Huawei and TikTok might be viewed as instances of a new economic “Cold War.” One must also wonder what will next happen to the international flow of capital. 

COVID-19 has laid bare the consequences of global linkages and connections. It was already well understood that in a world so seamlessly knit together that disease could spread as quickly and easily as smart phones, refrigerators and music. Tit-for-tat travel bans have slowed immigration flows, suggesting that the relatively free physical movement of people that was characteristic of globalization might also be coming to an end.  

And yet there are signals that, at least for the moment, the global movement of ideas might persist even as economic globalization fractures into competing economic zones of influence. As schooling, office work, and even our social lives have migrated to Zoom, it is possible that global communications via Zoom or other such platforms stay in place, even as economic links are broken. Scientific work has long been a global enterprise, with researchers from a number of countries collaborating on projects. Employees of multinational corporations may continue to work together linked via Zoom, their online avatars crossing international boundaries. Only inasmuch as such transnational work continues will it be possible to say that Zoom globalization will persist even as economic globalization collapses.    

International students, barred from entry into the U.S. by increasingly stricter immigration measures, might instead look to receive an American education by taking virtual classes. At the design event I mentioned above, we imagined what COVID-19 might do to schooling. In holding more classes online, it might be easier and more desirable to expand the classroom, to include students from around the world in the class, not as “special guests” but as, well, global classmates. Organizing time becomes a challenge in such an environment (what might be morning for one student might be the middle of the night for another). But changing notions of the experience of time might well be one consequence of COVID-19 and Zoom globalization.  

It may be that the only kind of globalization that will survive COVID-19 and increasing economic nationalism is Zoom globalization, meaning that such an experience would impact only a select portion of the global population. Globalization impacted everyone on the planet, even a rural farmer who believed himself disconnected from global commerce. In the future, globalization may only apply to a narrow elite connected via virtual networks.  

How long these virtual linkages will persist, however, is not yet clear. There are signs of growing competition between U.S. and Chinese researchers that could tear asunder global scientific communications. The same states that are severing supply lines and closing borders might also decide to sever digital connections between nations. The internet and many of the sites that travel across it are already heavily censored or outright denied to citizens in places like China and Iran, for example. Digital linkages that allow global citizens to connect via Zoom—or its future equivalent—might also be policed and blocked. Zoom globalization—and the free transfer of ideas across national borders—would be a casualty as well.  

I wonder: in what new ways will the world function after globalization?

David Staley is Director of the Humanities Institute and a professor at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcast and president of Columbus Futurists

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