In the late 1880s, a Jewish ophthalmologist from Poland decided that mankind needed a common language and set about blending a fusion of Romance languages into Esperanto. Idealistic people embraced the concept, created an Esperanto flag and eventually grew the movement to 2 million speakers around the planet. Esperanto means “one who hopes.”
The beauty of the language is that it allows us to shed our chauvinistic mother tongues and meet on neutral ground to recognize our common humanity. Twentieth century history, unfortunately, with its global wars and myriad ethnic conflicts, did not unfold to adhere to the Esperanto model.
Technology made the world a smaller place, yet failed to realize the promise of achieving more empathy or even concern for the condition of people living across the world whom we will never meet. While increasing numbers of people communicate in English on the internet and use a common currency to conduct e-commerce, we live in mostly isolated bubbles.
As a society, we have optimized for convenience over making the effort to understand another culture.
Even when we travel overseas, credit cards allow us to avoid conversion to strange currencies with pictures of quaint aristocrats, and auto-translators serve up key phrases in lieu of needing to know a foreign language. In that sense, we have optimized for convenience over making the effort to understand another culture.
The emergence of polarized communities on the largest communications platforms—Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter—speak to the failure of the promise that humans would begin to recognize their shared qualities and ideals. Modern humans live in a paradoxical capsule, where we can express our fierce localisms instantly on networks that reach billions of strangers on every continent and enjoy rapid delivery of exotic goods from 10,000 miles away without leaving our domiciles.
Not too long ago, it was fashionable to identify as a “globalist.” In the best sense of the word, that meant that one was open to ideas and people from around the planet and sought to build bridges across cultures. We could recognize that economic progress for a person in China or India did not limit our own prospects. Global trade, air travel, and instant communications painted a future where we would close the gaps between people and raise living standards across the planet.
This isolationism is taking place at a moment in history when we need to find common ground and recognize our collective fate more quickly than ever to address serious environmental and even existential problems.
Today, “globalism” has come to mean something different, often negative. Critics characterize it as a threat to national identity and the cause of decline of local jobs and cultures. The world might be shrinking, but our collective mental horizons have shrunk as well, focused more on a “what’s in it for me” mentality than a willingness to promote progress for unknown human beings across the world.
Sadly, this isolationism is taking place at a moment in history when we need to find common ground and recognize our collective fate more quickly than ever to address serious environmental and even existential problems. Not only do we need to “think globally,” but embrace the philosophy that ideas and systems that benefit others around the planet will also be good for us.
Climate change is rising to the top of voter concerns for the 2020 American election, although many foreign observers opine that the United States is very late to the game in recognizing the immediacy of this global issue. A classical economist would view the destruction of habitat resulting from a warming planet as a true “tragedy of the commons” scenario.
A second impetus for global cooperation and recognition of our shared fate is the specter of nuclear conflict as a new arms race heats up.
If each nation acts out of self-interest to consume cheap energy, the entire system suffers. This is why it is so important for climate change skeptics to deny the link to human activity as part of the equation, because they desire a free pass to continue to engage in consumption as usual. Very few of these skeptics ever speak in terms of global good.
A second impetus for global cooperation and recognition of our shared fate is the specter of nuclear conflict as a new arms race heats up. With the dissolution of the key U.S.-Soviet treaties of the 1970s and 80s relating to the testing of nuclear weapons and control of short-range missiles, the prospect of using our dormant nuclear arsenals is heating up. Combined with the demonstrated progress North Korea and Iran have made as new nuclear nations, we can only wonder what it will take for a political consensus to reemerge articulating that no one benefits from an out of control nuclear arms race.
Finally, while people remain rooted in national identities, the personal information of individuals has become globalized and is freely traded around electronic networks that do not recognize national boundaries. Whether we admit it or not, our most private data has become globalized, whether it is collected by a government or by a corporation that provides us with goods and services. If you are reading this digitally, then parts of these words have crossed global networks and traversed computers that serve as hubs for data.
We need to reignite a sense of hope about the world and our common fate, just as the founders of Esperanto did over a century ago.
It is almost quaint to think of oneself as an American or Brazilian, when the data about a person is stored, processed, traded, and sold by platforms that operate independently from nation states. National laws cannot effectively manage global systems, yet there has been very little progress to date to establish global governance over data in order to enforce basic human rights, recognize privacy, and maintain adequate data security. We need to forge the same kind of national treaty on digital citizenship that we have for international copyrights and other forms of intellectual property.
The balance between national identity and global identity will remain a hot topic for the next decade, as we grapple with big problems of climate change and escalating conflict. While it might not be popular to say so in certain circles, isolationism and xenophobia are losing short-term and long-term strategies.
Science, economics, and cultural curiosity operate on a fundamentally global level, because humans not only have common ancestors but a shared destiny. Those of us who optimistically believe in technical and social progress cannot afford to remain on the fence in terms of globalism. We need to reignite a sense of hope about the world and our common fate, just as the founders of Esperanto did over a century ago.
Alex Alben is a Pacific Council member and an expert on privacy and security who teaches at the Tech Policy Clinic at the U.W. School of Law. He is the author of Analog Days—How Technology Rewrote Our Future.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.