Exactly one century ago, in January 1908, the rigorously sensitive English novelist E. M. Forster, who would go on to write "Howards End" and "A Passage to India," learned that a heavier-than-air machine had flown successfully around a one-kilometer circuit in just 90 seconds. The event gave him a glimpse of the future that left him despondent. In the high-speed world he saw coming, he wrote in his diary, "Man may get a new and perhaps a greater soul for the new condition. But such a soul as mine will be crushed out."
In a lingering moment of foreboding, Forster sat down to write a story that reads today as one of the most prescient and disturbing works of science fantasy I know. Largely forgotten or ignored by literati, "The Machine Stops" has been embraced in recent years by the technology-minded crowd as a sinister vision of a completely wired and globalized society. In it, all the people on earth live their lives through an omniscient-seeming mechanism that handles their communications over bluish screens and, indeed, addresses the needs of all their senses. The potential the Machine offers for experience is vast, but all of it is derivative. "There will come a generation that has got beyond facts, beyond impressions," one of the Machine's impassioned apologists tells a vast videoconference call, "a generation absolutely colorless, 'seraphically free/From taint of personality'."
Of course, we're not there yet, but a trend in that direction seems much easier to discern now than it did 100 years ago. Today, at the touch of a remote control or the click of a mouse, people everywhere can experience what people anywhere experience. This ought to be enormously stimulating, opening all sorts of new creative outlets. And it is and it has. But there's also this risk: that the ever-accelerating interactions of people everywhere in the world will destroy the?uniqueness of their societies, offering tastes of seemingly infinite variety, but?also?creating?a single global culture of common denominators that evolve ever lower.
The United States, as the biggest and most voracious market on earth, has long been the real-world machine that drives this global process of appropriation, absorption, marketing and redistribution. Inevitably, those elsewhere who believe their own distinct ways of life—whether they are indigenous peoples in Bolivia, Islamic preachers in Cairo or Parisian intellectuals extolling French "exceptionalism"—focus their ire on the United States as the source of this culture-corrupting juggernaut.
But if Americans are its most powerful purveyors today, they are not the original creators of this phenomenon. Not at all. For as long as history has been recorded, cultural strains have been blended to reinvent art, architecture, music, literature, haute couture and even fast-food cuisine. Alexander the Great and his Greeks were in many ways absorbed by the civilizations they conquered. When all roads led to Rome, all the known world's art and culture found its way there, too. It's impossible to imagine the Renaissance without the clash—and the synthesis—of Western and Muslim civilization that was begun during the Crusades and was exploited for generations by the traders of Venice. The opening of Japan in the 19th century had a profound effect on French impressionist painters, and "primitive" African masks and sculptures vastly expanded the horizons of Picasso and other modern artists.
What's different today is not the process of the cultural remix, but the speed at which it takes place. Thanks to air travel, satellite communications and the Internet—all pioneered as mass-market phenomena by the Americans—crosscurrents flow much faster than ever before, almost instantaneously, and in almost every direction. The risk, of course, is that instead of becoming considered elements in new art, they just get blended into mud. If you churn together paint from?all the colors of the rainbow, after all, you might hope to duplicate the spectrum of white light, but what you get in fact is brown, or what Forster called "sloshy stirrings."
Consider the food we eat. The old American meat-and-potatoes diet has been transformed over the past 30 years by the arrival of what would have seemed, in the 1970s, quite exotic culinary experiences. In those days, if you wanted sushi, salsa or croissants worth eating, you basically had to go to Japan, Mexico or France. Now you can find excellent versions of them almost anywhere in the United States. When Jimmy Carter was elected president, who had heard of wasabi? Who hasn't heard of it now? As formerly rare foods and spices became mainstays of "fusion" cooking in restaurants all over the country, that influence then spread back across the Atlantic. Much of the haute cuisine in France these days could as easily have been cooked in Seattle, say, or, for that matter, South Carolina. (And it's often as good or better in the States.) Meanwhile, one of the best French restaurants in Paris is now run by a Japanese chef. All this can make for some wonderful eating experiences. But there's a downside: cultural influences instantly assimilated then become instant clich?s. Like wasabi.
Even in a society as self-conscious about its "exceptional" nature as France, some of the institutions that make it distinctive are giving ground to the onslaught of global assimilation. The classic French caf? has been disappearing for decades, and still is. In my Paris neighborhood, we've lost three over the past few months. Meanwhile, McDonald's, which opened a 400-seat restaurant on the Champs-Elys?es in 1988, has spread all over the country. The company's latest innovation: bringing the McCaf? to France. Starbucks has invaded already. There are dozens in Paris, including one in the Louvre—which, by the way, is home to a vast shopping mall and food court.
If, when you travel abroad, you are going to find the same sorts of stores and restaurants and caf?s, and art and music and movies, that you had at home, you might wonder why it's worth traveling at all. (In Forster's story, "thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over.") The quintessential capitals of this first century of globalized culture are not New York and Los Angeles, London and Paris, or even Mumbai and Shanghai, but Dubai and Las Vegas, where urban developers have created extravaganzas of ersatz in the sands of the desert. Why actually go to Paris or Giza or Lake Como if you can have the Eiffel Tower, the Sphinx and Bellagio all in one place?
Nearly 20 years ago, in a collection of essays called "Expats," I wrote about "a new Arabia," a land of both Arabs and expatriates "that blends the convenient and the exotic like a Raj rooted in suburbia and Silicon Valley." Dubai was and remains the center of that world. Before the Persian Gulf region was flush with oil, Dubai had been a port for gold smugglers. Its markets "were crowded with many races," the English explorer Wilfred Thesiger wrote in 1948: "pallid Arab townsmen; armed Bedu, quick-eyed and imperious; Negro slaves; Baluchis, Persians, and Indians … Here life moved in time with the past. These people still valued leisure and courtesy and conversation, they did not live their lives at second hand, dependent on cinemas and wireless."
Today, among Dubai's many glittering glass and steel attractions, there are special office parks for Internet and media com-panies. The model for development—the soaring buildings, the swarming highways, the sprawling apartment complexes—is at once a dream version and a nightmare vision of the urban landscapes that have erupted across America over the past half-century. Dubai's streets are still filled with a marvelous mingling of peoples, now from Ukraine and the Philippines, Iran and Scotland, Kerala and California. But the life of the old souks has been repackaged and sanitized into multifarious malls and hotels. Tours of the desert beyond the high-rise skyline, which will soon include the world's tallest building, are only slightly wilder than a safari park in New Jersey.
The common language in the new world of intercontinental commonality is English. Here, too, the United States must bear responsibility as a nation that has imposed its language on the world—not least because its people are so reluctant to learn any other tongue. Yet the transcultural vernacular has become less than a commercially functional Esperanto understood more easily in Delhi than in Dallas. No novel or poem has yet been written in "international English," but even this hybridized idiom has too many geographical strings attached, so the trend in mass culture is toward visual media—TV shows, movies, music videos, YouTube snippets—where action is extensive and vocabularies are as elementary as possible. The "strong, silent type" and the slapstick comic have always been American clich?s that exported well. Now they're global paradigms.
I confess that all this leaves me more than a little uneasy. The son of an itinerant Southern poet, adman and novelist, I was born in Tennessee, then spent my first 10 years living in Texas, France, Florida, Georgia and Italy. Back then, in the 1950s and 1960s, the states in the United States all felt pretty separate, one from another. You couldn't eat in Oregon like you could eat in Alabama. And travel abroad, well, that was travel to a world where language, food, manners, art—the whole way of life—was distinct from anything you found at home. In the 1970s, you could see the uniqueness of states and regions fading all over America. Local identity, to the extent it existed, was increasingly about distinctions without difference: the boosterism of Rotary Clubs and football teams. The outskirts of every American city sprouted essentially the same shopping malls and drive-thrus. If the Main Streets downtown weren't "boarded up like they never existed," in the words of an Alan Jackson song, they were "renovated and called historic districts."
Over the past year, I've spent time in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Spokane, Washington, and though I enjoyed myself and my friends in both places, my general impression is that when it comes to art and culture, broadly construed, there's not a whole lot to distinguish those two towns.
I am, to be sure, an outsider. Since 1980 I've mostly lived abroad, in Central America, the Middle East and Europe. But in doing so I've seen firsthand the way what we Americans take for modernity has spread its influence across the seas. Today, on the outskirts of Granada and of Reims, of York and of Verona, you find beltways lined with discount stores and fast-food chains, indistinct and indifferent.
Are we condemned to the future of sameness, passivity and delusion that Forster anticipated a century ago, and that?the American penchant for relentless consumption and remorseless mass marketing helped set in motion? Should we just surrender to the inevitable and call it progress?
Would that life were so simple. The global economic machine is now driven by China and India, as well as the United States and Europe, and the imperatives of their explosive growth can burn up delicate sensibilities as fast as hydrocarbons. It's not really up to the Americans anymore. The Machine is out of their control.
What's needed is a rear-guard action to defend distinctions, to shout, as it were, "Vive la diff?rence!" "I don't think the battle is lost, far from it," says my friend, the French novelist and biographer Pierre Assouline. "If it were, I would not keep fighting." But at the same time we have to have the discretion to choose those things from the onslaught of hybrid sensation that really are new and original, not just bland and accessible. I never learned so much about Iraqi culture as when I studied the fascination that Iraqi poets had with T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." And I learned still more a few years later when I hung out with kids playing combat videogames in Baghdad after the U.S. invasion. I am intrigued by the films of South Korea, which repackage and stylize American noir in ways that not even the French nouvelle vague thought of doing. A movie like "Babel" (2006), by the Mexican director Alejandro Gonz?lez I??rritu, tries, with considerable success, to make a whole out of this world that is at once so widely divided and so closely tied together. Over the past couple of decades, some of the most interesting literature out of England and France has been written by people who were not originally English or French, and many of whom, for that matter, are Muslim. The Machine is what it is, but sometimes it can be what we want it to be. What the Machine cannot do is stop.