TCG National Conference 2001

June 23, 2001

Photo by Mark Garvin

It's a treat to be here with you this afternoon, especially for someone who grew up in Minneapolis with the Tyrone Guthrie Theater from an early age. I learned to both appreciate and respect independent nonprofit theatre, so it's a great opportunity for me to talk to you this afternoon.

I'm going to talk to you about the world I tried to describe in my book, TheLexus and the Olive Tree. I know some of you have read the book. Those of you who haven't, I know who you are. I know exactly who you are.

So this will really be a two-part talk. I'd like to begin the first part by giving you a very broadly sketched framework of how I see the big forces in the world in which we're all operating today, whether we're in theatre or in business or in journalism, and then try to focus a little more narrowly on what impact I see this world having on issues of environment and culture in particular.

If I were to draw the broadest framework of the world today, my argument really can be simplified as follows. I believe we are in a new international system today, a new international system that replaced the Cold War system, and like the Cold War system, this new system has its own rules, logic, pressures, and incentives that will and do affect everyone's company, everyone's country, everyone's community, and everyone's culture either directly or indirectly. And this new system is called globalization. That's why globalization isn't a trend, it's not a fad, it's not just about trade and economics; it's actually the international system that frames and explains more things than anything else.

The best way to understand the globalization system and how it's different from the Cold War system is to compare the two in terms of their core logic. The Cold War system basically was a system that was characterized by one overarching feature, and that feature was division. Division. The world was a divided place, and in that Cold War system all your threats and opportunities as a country, as a company, as a community, even as a theatre, tended to flow from who you were divided from, and that Cold War system was symbolized, as we all know, by a single word: the wall. The Berlin Wall.

Now, the globalization system is also characterized by one overarching feature, only it's integration. In this new system, all your threats and opportunities now flow from who you're connected to, and it is symbolized by a single word: the web, the worldwide web. Over the past ten or fifteen years, we've gone from a world of division and walls to a world of integration and webs. In the Cold War, we in the United States reached for the hotline, which was the phone that connected the White House and the Kremlin, which was a symbol that we were all divided, but thank God at least two people were in charge.

In globalization, we reach for the Internet, which is a symbol that we're all connected and nobody's in charge. What's really scary about this new system is that we are all increasingly connected and nobody's quite in charge. The internal logic of the globalization system exactly mirrors the internal logic of the Internet. We are all increasingly connected but nobody is quite in charge. So two Filipino college grads could put their Love Bug virus on the worldwide web and melt down ten million computers and ten billion dollars in data on seven continents in twenty-four hours because we are all increasingly connected and nobody's quite in charge.

The Love Bug virus was to the globalization system what the Cuban Missile Crisis was to the Cold War system. It was the event that underscored our essential core vulnerability. The Cuban Missile Crisis showed us our vulnerability in a world divided between two nuclear-armed superpowers. The Love Bug showed us our vulnerability in a world connected with nobody in charge. So that is the overarching, umbrella framework that I look at the world through these days.

Let me make just two other structural points about this world, because I think there are basically two kinds of people in this new power framework, two kinds of ways of looking at the world, and three kinds of power. Let me first talk about people and then we'll talk about power.

A couple of weeks after the [George W.] Bush administration came into office, I was having breakfast with a British diplomat and he mentioned to me in passing that Colin Powell, our new Secretary of State, had spent the last two years before he came back into government on the board of America Online. I thought, isn't that interesting? Just sort of popped out of me. Colin Powell spent the last two years working for America Online, and he spent the previous thirty-five years working for America On Duty. I wonder which perspective he'll bring to the job. And out of that flowed an idea, and it emerged into a column, which was that these two perspectives on the world, America Online and America On Duty, really characterize the two perspectives that I find characterize diplomats in the world today, and that is what I call "wall people" and "web people."

America On Duty sees the world as built around walls, and they see the job of American foreign policy as defending walls, breaking down walls, and erecting walls around other people. They're wall people, and, of course, their favorite movie is A Few Good Men, where in the climactic scene Jack Nicholson, the Marine colonel who's on trial for murdering one of his men, stares at Tom Cruise, the Navy lawyer who's got him on trial, and sneers at him and says, "What you don't want to admit at those fancy little parties you go to is that at the end of the day you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall."

Now, the America Online people, they, of course, see the world as built around webs, and they have their own favorite movie also, You’ve Got Mail. The AOL people like You’ve Got Mail because they understand when Russia has a financial crisis now, we've got mail. When two Filipino college grads put their Love Bug virus on the worldwide web, we've got mail. They understand the world is not built around walls, but around webs, and the job of American foreign policy is to strengthen the web, protect the web, reinforce the web, and extend the web to more and more people.

The America On Duty people care about who's on your terrorism list, and they divide the world between friends and enemies. The America Online people care about who's on your buddy list, and they define the world in terms of members and nonmembers of the network.

So these are the two paradigmatic ways, from a foreign policy perspective, that I find very useful in characterizing people. The Bush administration is full of wall people. Okay. I'm a web guy, all right? Don't let it out of this room, but Colin Powell is a closet web guy, too, and you'll be seeing that more and more, I think, over the coming years. So those are kind of two rough frameworks underneath our structural umbrella of how you look at the world.

I think the third structural point I'd like to make very quickly, and it's important, I think, in your line of business, is about how power is organized in this new international system, because it's organized slightly differently than in the Cold War system. Basically the Cold War system was a system characterized and organized around nation states, and in that system you and I acted on the world stage through our state. The story of international politics in the Cold War system was the story of states clashing with states, balancing states, and confronting states. It was a state-based power structure.

What is different about globalization is instead of having just one power balance between states and states, we now have three power balances. The first is the balance of power between states and states. That's still there. That still matters, whether it's Russia balancing China, Japan balancing Korea, America balancing Russia.

The balance of power between states is still there and still matters, but now we have two new balances to keep track of. The first is the balance between states and what I like to call the super markets. The super markets are the 25 largest global stock, bond, and currency markets in the world, which today have become increasingly autonomous geopolitical actors, in some cases more powerful than, in many cases the rivals of nation states. So we have superpowers now and super markets. Who ousted President Suharto in Indonesia? It was not another superpower; it was actually the super markets.

The United States can destroy you by dropping bombs. The super market can destroy you by downgrading your bonds. Take your choice. So now we have states and states, and states and super markets.

Thirdly, though, and most uniquely in this globalization system, we have states and what I like to call super empowered people. Now, as my daughters would say, this is way cool. Because when you blow away the walls and you start to wire the world into networks, what that means is that you and I can increasingly act on the world stage directly, unmediated by a state.

Jody Williams won the Nobel Peace Prize three years ago for organizing a global ban on land mines, a global movement against land mines, against the wishes of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. She was asked afterwards, "How did you do that?" She had a very short answer, "E-mail." Jody Williams used e-mail to galvanize a thousand NGOs on seven continents into a global movement against land mines. She was a super empowered, nice gal.

Now, we had a famous story here a couple of years ago, you all remember it, I'm sure, where Time Warner/CNN, the world's biggest media conglomerate, right after their merger, their first joint project between Time and CNN, reported that American troops used poisoned gas during the Vietnam War.

Let's remember this story. Peter Arnett lost his job at CNN over this story. A very interesting background to this story. When that story worked its way up the editorial chain at CNN, it landed on the desk of a retired general named Perry Smith. Perry Smith was a retired general working as a military consultant for CNN, and when that story landed on his desk, Perry Smith said, "That story is bogus, and if you run it, I quit."

And Time Warner/CNN, the world's biggest media conglomerate, said, "Bye-bye. Bye-bye. We are Time Warner/CNN, the world's biggest media conglomerate. We don't take threats from retired generals around here."

Perry Smith's a friend of mine. Perry Smith is an e-mail freak. Perry Smith went home, got on his e-mail network, e-mailed his five closest general friends from the Vietnam War. They e-mailed their five closest colonel friends from the Vietnam War. They e-mailed their five closest captain friends from the Vietnam War. In the space of a little over a week, they assembled a dossier so compelling, without the benefit of a single document out of the Pentagon or the Freedom of Information Act, that they brought Time Warner/CNN, the world's biggest media conglomerate, to its knees, recanting its story, apologizing to its viewers, and begging for mercy from five retired generals with e-mail, who got super empowered.

Unfortunately, there aren't just super empowered nice guys and nice gals in this system. There are also super empowered angry men and women. Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire who blew up two American embassies in East Africa three years ago, he's also a super empowered person. He had his own network, too, kind of Jihad Online, JOL, which he used to take on the United States of America. And you know what we did to Osama bin Laden? I have no regrets about this, but I found it fascinating when it happened. One day we fired 77 cruise missiles at him. Now, think about that for a second. We fired 77 cruise missiles, at a million dollars apiece, at a person. That was the first battle in history between a superpower and a super empowered angry man.

Ramsi Youssef. You remember Ramsi? Ramsi was the Pakistani gentleman who wanted to blow up the two tallest buildings in America six years ago, the World Trade Center. I always wondered what did Ramsi Youssef want? Did he want a Palestinian state in Brooklyn? Did he want an Islamic republic in New Jersey? What did he want? So for my book I went back and reread the court case. And what he wanted was to blow up the two tallest buildings in America. Period, paragraph, ended.

Globalization as Americanization had gotten in his face, and it had empowered him as an individual to do something about it. And the only reason the FBI ever caught Ramsi Youssef was because, remarkably, one of his fellow bombers went back to the Ryder rental truck agency after the bombing and asked for the $400 deposit back on the truck they used. This is a true story. Which was remarkable when you think about it. The morning you blow up the two tallest buildings in America on the basis of your rage with the United States, and in the afternoon you use American contract law to get your deposit back. That tipped off the FBI to Ramsi Youssef. They trailed him all the way to an apartment in the Philippines, where they broke in with the aid of the Philippine police and they found all his plots exactly where he kept them, on the C-drive of his Toshiba laptop. Ramsi Youssef was a super empowered angry man.

And what really makes this system so scary, it's not that Ramsi Youssef or Osama bin Laden can or ever will be superpowers, what's really scary today is how many people can be Ramsi Youssef and Osama bin Laden in this system. What makes this system so complex to manage and understand is that the front page of today's paper and every paper now is the complex interaction between states and states, states and super markets, states and super empowered people, both good and bad. So that, in a real nutshell, is the zip drive version of this globalization system.

Now let me make a few points, if I could, about what does it mean for culture and environment. I put the two together because cultures are nested in environments. When you start to affect environment, you're going to affect culture.

The first thing you need to understand about this system, and if you take away just one message from this talk, please take this away: this system is built around networks, and what that means is that it is everything and its opposite. If you think it's all good or you think it's all bad, you don't get it. It's built on networks and they go both ways. It's like all roads led to Rome, and they were great roads. And when the Visigoths and vandals wanted to sack Rome, they came right up the roads. So it is with globalization.

I was in Aman, Jordan, four or five years ago, and went to the Internet cafe in downtown Aman with some Jordanian friends. The owner heard I was there, he came over and said, "Mr. Friedman, you've got to try the banana cream pie." I said, "Why do I have to try the banana cream pie?" He said, "The banana cream pie is made by the wife of the deputy Israeli ambassador in Jordan." And I thought, isn't that cool, you know. The banana cream pie at the Internet cafe in Jordan is made by the wife of the deputy Israeli ambassador. He said, "But we had a little problem, because when the Islamic fundamentalists found out that the banana cream pie at the Internet cafe is made by the wife of the Israeli ambassador, they called for a boycott of our cafe until we got rid of the banana cream pie, and they called for the boycott on the local Internet."

That's the system. It goes both ways. It brings you banana cream pie from the wife of the Israeli deputy ambassador in Jordan and it brings you the boycott from the Islamic fundamentalists at the same time.

I had my most graphic experience with this a couple of months ago. I was invited to Alaska by the governor to give a talk about globalization, and afterwards I was doing a book signing and people winding through the line, "Hi, how are you?" A lady gets to the front of the line. She said, "Mr. Friedman, my name is Mary Ann Flowers and I'm an Eskimo and I work for AT&T. My job is to wire Eskimo villages around Alaska for AT&T, but what I notice is every time I connect one of my villages to the Internet, a little bit of my local Eskimo culture is lost." So she says to me, "Isn't the Digital Divide actually a good thing?" Hmm.

I said, "Mary Ann, nobody ever asked me that before, but that is a really interesting question." If you're an Eskimo, you care about Eskimo culture. Isn't the Digital Divide actually a good thing? So while I was thinking about that, I took her name and number and said, "I want to talk to you about that."

Flew back to Washington. I was at the office one day. I get a call from a young woman in Seattle who founded her own company with a group of friends out of college, called Viatru. She said, "We just thought you would be interested in hearing about our company."

I said, "Tell me about it."

"What we do is we connect stores and museum shops around America through the Internet to the villages where the people and local artisans are making the products for their shop." So you can now go to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Museum Shop, for example, I think it's the biggest in America, there's a computer terminal there and you can see the village in Jiapur, India, and actually talk to the people or hear them talk about their carpets they're sewing to be sold in that shop, and with one click you can buy it online.

Now, the beauty of this system is it allows the people of Jiapur to continue doing their traditional carpets and artisan work without having to give it up and move into the town and drive a taxi, because suddenly through this system they're being connected to a global marketplace that allows them to stay at home, do their thing, and at the same time generate income for it.

So here you have the two complete contrasts of the Internet. In one place it is saving culture at the most local level as never before. In the other case it's destroying culture at the local level as never before. It's everything and its opposite. Therefore, it all depends on how we manage it, how we get the best out of it, and cushion the worst. It is neither inherently good nor inherently bad.

The second point I think we have to keep in mind when it comes to culture is a point that I really learned a couple of years ago. I was flying from Taiwan to Australia via Singapore. Singapore has the most modern airport in the world today, and they have all these TV lounges all over Singapore Airport, where they beam in Rupert Murdoch's Sky TV. You can have a snack, sit there and watch TV. It's like every hundred paces it seems like there's another one. So I bought a lunch. I had a long layover. I sat down in one of these TV lounges. I looked around. I was only there with two other women. They were elderly, gray-haired Indian women wearing sari traditional robes, and they were watching American All-Star Wrestling. I looked at them and I thought to myself, what could they possibly be making of this? I was just there watching them. And here were these Hulk Hogan guys in Tarzan outfits body-slamming each other and these two little Indian woman watching this, transfixed by what they were seeing. It was, for me, a graphic image of something going on all over the world today.

As you start to pull away the walls and substitute them with webs and networks, we're all going to meet each other so much more directly, and cultures are going to meet each other so much more directly in this world.

That leads to the third point that affects culture, which is if you don't have a strategy for protecting, preserving, and enhancing your culture in a world without walls, a strategy as important as whatever strategy used to financially globalize your country, your culture and environment will be steamrolled faster in a world without walls than any time in the history of the world. We are going to see cultural Darwinism on steroids. We are going to see turbo-evolution, because cultures are like species, and they go through an evolution. Any culture that is not robust enough to survive in a world without walls, without a government that has a strategy for preserving, protecting, and enhancing its culture, not with walls, so it can live in a world without walls, I think will have a problem.

I deal with this in the book, because it's something I encounter so much in my own travels. It's actually the longest chapter in the book. The chapter is called "Demolition Man," and the title of the chapter comes from possibly the worst movie ever made. A movie called Demolition Man, which some of you may have stumbled by accident and seen five or six years ago. It was a Sylvester Stallone-Wesley Snipes movie, truly perversely brilliant, actually, about the age of globalization.

The plot isn't particularly important, but Sylvester Stallone is a hardened cop, Wesley Snipes is a hardened criminal, they kill a bunch of people, and they're both put in a cryoprison. It's a freezer prison in Los Angeles in the 1980s, and they're unfrozen in Los Angeles in the year 2032, when globalization reigns and every restaurant is a Taco Bell. Because Taco Bell has won the restaurant wars, the franchise wars, through evolution, so every restaurant–there's a wonderful scene, in fact, in the movie here Sylvester Stallone saves the mayor of Los Angeles in 2032 and they take him to Taco Bell for dinner, and there's a guy like Barry Manilow playing the piano, singing the jingle of the Jolly Green Giant because all songs are now advertising jingles. And Sylvester Stallone looks around, he says, "I saved your city and my reward is dinner and dancing at Taco Bell?"

Now, the reason I connected up particularly with Taco Bell in that movie is that I had been in Qatar, a tiny Persian Gulf state on the east coast of Saudi Arabia, a country of 125,000 people, the richest country per capita income in the world today, lovely little country, nice people. I was in Qatar and I was staying in a hotel right on the Persian Gulf, and my first morning there, I got up to take a walk. They have the most beautiful corniche, the most beautiful seafront walkway that money can buy. It must be 25 miles long and it goes all along the Persian Gulf, made out of this white stone. It's just spectacularly beautiful. And if there's a place where authentic Qatari culture is there, you see men and women in native costume out there. If there is a native Qatari place, it was there.

I went out for a walk on the corniche my first morning there, and I was really enjoying my Qatari moment. I was thinking, this is really nice. Here's this Qatari woman in native costume and there's this Qatari man. I was walking along, having my Qatari moment, till I turned the corner, and right there on the corniche was Taco Bell, with a huge picture of the Emir growing out of the ceiling. And what's worse, what's really bad, is it was crowded.

We have to recognize a push-pull element in all of this. How we manage this in a world without walls is going to be one of the biggest cultural issues we face, because as one who travels, I would hate to see a world where traveling the world is like going to the zoo and seeing the same animal in every cage, a stuffed animal. And traveling the world can, unless countries have a real strategy for this, really become one Florida strip mall after another, from here to Timbuktu and back.

And how countries manage that, because we also have to admit there's a push-pull element to this, too. If you're a young Qatari and what you're used to is a fly-infested restaurant, you suddenly come to this modern, lit place with a nice restroom and whatnot and great Western global food, there is a push-pull element here, too. We have to come to terms with that. We can talk a little bit later about what strategies one uses to protect your country from this.

I would say the fourth thing we have to keep in mind when we think about this world we're going into is, in a world without walls, if we don't learn to do more things with less stuff, we are going to smoke up, heat up, burn up, choke up, and junk up this planet faster than anytime in the history of the world.

We now live in a world where about 1.5 billion people live a globalization lifestyle. It's 1.5 billion out of 6 billion. We are rapidly going to be moving to a world where 3 billion people will be living a globalization lifestyle. Therefore, if we can't do more things with less stuff, because the globalization lifestyle is highly consumptive of petrochemicals, hydrocarbons, and bent metal–cars, refrigerators, freezers–we are truly going to junk up the planet faster than at any time in the history of the world. Again, that's why countries need an environmental strategy for globalizing every bit as much as we need a financial one, because cultures are nested in environments, and if you destroy the environment for the Kayapo Indians in the Amazon, you're going to very quickly destroy Kayapo culture. The two go hand in hand.

I guess my last point of the things that concern me about culture is what I call the real Y2K virus: the virus of overconnectedness. It's what happens when we are all always online everywhere all the time. We are in the age of the Internet, but we are rapidly moving into the age of the Evernet, and the Evernet, which is just the next protocol of the Internet, will mean that every light bulb in this room, anything with electricity in it, will have a web address, whether it's your watch, your pager, or every one of these light bulbs. That's what the Evernet really is all about, which really will enable you to be online everywhere all the time.

Well, that's not a world that I welcome, because I believe managing the social implications of being connected everywhere all the time is going to be a real problem. As people who know me know, I don't carry a cell phone, I don't carry a pager, I don't carry a beeper. I'm a deeply disconnected person, for a reason. I have to create. I have to create two columns a week. I start out with two blocks of white space on the Op Ed page of The New York Times every week, and I'm in the creative business, too. It's a different kind, but I've got to create an opinion for that space. If I'm being bombarded constantly by people wanting to get in touch with me, I, frankly, can't think.

Now, I don't know about all you, but people call my office and they say, "Is Tom Friedman there?" My secretary says, "He's not in." They say, "Well, connect me to his cell phone or his pager." The assumption now is that you are always in. You are never out anymore. Out is over. Forget about out. You are always in now. Of course, if you're always in, it means you're always on, and if you're always on, what are you like?

What else is always on 24/7, 365? Well, of course, a computer server. I, frankly, don't want to live my life like a computer server. I first started thinking about this when there was a story in the Israeli paper about an Israeli man arrested driving through Natanya with a cell phone in both ears, steering his car with his elbows. He's my poster boy of overconnectedness. If you really want to know what the disease looks like at stage five terminal, okay, that's really it.

But I do wonder what this social disease will do for the creative process. There's a researcher at Microsoft, Linda Stone, who's come up with a wonderful expression; she calls it "continuous partial attention." We now live in the age of continuous partial attention. Continuous partial attention means you're answering your e-mail while you're helping your kid with their homework and speaking to someone on your cell phone.

Maybe an age of continuous partial will produce another Shakespeare and another James Joyce, another Arthur Miller, but somehow I doubt it, because in a world where we're constantly being bombarded and interrupted, I think you're going to have to find more and more ways to actually wall yourself off to do the work of creativity. I certainly feel that way myself.

Let me simply conclude by saying that I believe culture and environment are actually critical for globalization, because they're really what I call the olive tree. They're what root us and anchor us in the world. There is no sustainable society without culture, and there's no sustainable culture without a sustainable environment. And there's going to be no sustainable globalization without sustainable societies. A tree without roots will never be stable. A tree that's only roots and doesn't grow out into the world and bear fruit and provide shade also will never be sustainable. But the trick is to keep the two in balance. I know that's something that you all are involved in very deeply, for which I'm very grateful, because these roots are really important, those things that anchor us, give us the solidarity of community, the warmth of family, and the identity of nation.

Thomas Wolfe said, "You can't go home again." What worries me in the age of globalization is that you won't be able to leave home again, that everywhere will start to look like everywhere else. Because, after all, there's two ways to make a person homeless: one is to take away their home and the other is to make their home look like everybody else's home.

So how we balance our Lexus and our olive trees is going to be not only critically important to us as communities; I think it's actually going to be decisive in whether this globalization system lasts or not, because if globalization just ends up homogenizing us on the surface, so my kids eat sushi and a Japanese girl wears jeans and watches Disney, no problem. But if it homogenizes us to our very roots and becomes culturally and environmentally lethal, I think people will resist it. I certainly hope it's not the latter. I'm rooting for the former. I wish you luck in preserving our olive trees.

© - 2001 by Theatre Communications Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No portion of this publication may be reproduced in any form, or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher.

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