Saturday, 5 March 2011

PESTEL Trends - The Global Village - Profiting from Prophetic 'Fusion', Whilst Avoiding Cultural Heresy.

The number of times that the 1960s social prophet Marshall McLuhan has been re-quoted in cultural and academic circles is countless. His (in)famous phrases: "the global village" and "the medium is the message" became the staple interpretations for generations of humanities-educated westerners, conveying the essence of an evolving world in which socio-technological breakthroughs - such as the telephone, TV, affordable air-travel, and latterly, the PC, mobile phone and internet - created a faster and more culturally pluralised and (critically) hybridised world.

18th, 19th & 20th century history has shown that such cross-fertilisation is initially a one-way trend: 'paternal' in as much as it conveys the progress of more 'advanced' western culture to become absorbed into the 'lesser' cultures. Usually as a result of imperial power over colonies and influence on neighbours.

This truism far better articulated by Niall Ferguson's basic edict: that the west's dominance for the last 500 years was born from a well intertwined amalgam of factors - primarily legal, financial, socio-logical and technological; thus creating an ever evolving 'advancement incubator'. Whilst Persia & China of course had similar 'social pillars', they were not as synergistic, interactive or productive.

The adoption of the railway, bicycle, truck, car, became the literal 'vehicles of economic growth', benefiting both coloniser and the local populace; though undoubtedly to different degrees. These benefits periodically lambasted by the indigenous intelligentsia - as with Ghandi's 'anti-imperialist' words regards the tentacless of the railway'. But for most they brought about new freedoms and opportunities to explore beyond the regional realms that had been the typically tribal &/or geographic based boundaries for so long.

Horizons were broadened even more so for the populations who migrated to the adopted 'mother-land', such immigrants introduced to a myriad of marketing and fashion led product variations that at the time seemed in comparison dream-like.

However, unlike the US, UK, Europe and post-WW2 Japan, the transplanted technologies in what were called 'developing countries' became frozen in time for decades. Little local know-how or indeed incentive to evolve the engendered technological solution.

Thus, a developing country 'homeland' appeared at best 'analogue', whilst the newly adopted 'mother-country' appeared 'digital', a divided condition between east and west that existed for generations. Furthermore, 'new mother-lands' offered the addition of social intrigue, given that such colonial centres reflected social melting pots. Even if for the most part the ingredients of that pot be realistically connected only by periodic observation; the more marginalised Indian, Pakistani & Caribbean peoples - more heavily marginalised due to racial differences - understandably staying largely within their ethnic group (to this day) to maintain social support networks and maintain ethnic identity.

Thus the migrants' prime identity was seen as 'cosmopolitan' whilst their homeland 'counterparts' viewed as comparative 'peasantry'; that peer generation difference unfortunately often flaunted through dress-code and disposable wealth on return trips home.

Thus the West vs East divide for Europe & Asia, and the North vs South chasm for the US and South America set in stone the cultural identities for millions, whilst 1st , 2nd & even 3rd generation children found themselves with bi-faceted identities imbued by their parents old cultural links and their own personal birth links within their own countries.

Migration, trading routes and the creation of dual-influenced generations is nothing new of course, it has been the core story of the world's anthropological and commercial development, affecting our behavioral habits and the multi-faceted aesthetic of luxury & utilitarian goods – best perhaps seen in the trickle-down of foreign influence in household items, pottery and furniture.

Such family and personal items were, and still are, the 'social identifier' of a person, a collective/community or indeed a nation. Clothing serves as perhaps the most prominent and useful illustration: the origins of basic (typically rural derived) national-dress subsumed to sociologically (work derived) status-dress to zeitgeist prescribed fashions. This evolution prominent for other items including household goods and of course highly evident in the development of the motorcycle and car. Beyond the symbolism of the purchase itself, these items latterly personalised by users to add additional 'individuality' within the social framework. Today perhaps the most obvious example being BMW's Mini - the nadir of 'mass customisation'.

Though personalisation of a BMW Mini may be out of reach for most consumers in EM nations, the ability to construct their own modern personal identities - via a 'pick & mix' of both their own ethno-cultural references and western-derived iconography - plays an increasing role in the purchase of goods and services. So as to create a 'patchwork quilt' of goods and experiences that have personal resonance.

It is thus a 'quilt' that becomes ever more complex as the society fragments as a consequence of demographic patterns and the expansion of lifestyle choices, whilst the media tries to weave both elements together to both reflect social trends and to support commercial enterprise.

This interplay between west and east, especially for western companies seeking greater EM business, becomes ever more complicated since population and consumer perceptions are build-up as layers of conscious and sub-conscious interpretation.

So the exporting of everything from ideologies to products (and all in between)from the west becomes an ever more tentative ambition, requiring highly sensitive exploration and delivery.

In this regard, two TV items, with very different aims and formats, highlight the rights and wrongs of the west communicating with the east: in this case India.

The 'wrong' in the form of a soon to air programme on UK TV, the 'right' a near decade old TV advert screened in both the UK and India which even 10 years on still has far more 'social connectivity', sensitivity and essential respect.

Here in the UK the latest attempt of cross-fertilization of European & Indian cultures – to assist European reach into the sub-continent - is a TV series which centres on a group of Indian school-children who are chosen to sing the musical 'The Sound of Music'. As many will know, the plot is set near & in Saltzburg, Austria, just preceding the breakout of WW2. Its songs are of course a British middle-class tradition, also adopted through the 1960s, 70s and 80s by a once overtly aspirant British-centric, Indian population which 'refracted' the old Victorian-Raj ideals through Anglo-affectation. Today, in DVD format the musical is still enjoyed but primarily works as an English language teaching aid for a small sliver of upper middle class families, the disc often bought or sent from the UK. Though the DVD is naturally outsold by locally produced Bollywood family movies of similar ilk.

However, from the trailer of the upcoming TV programme, it's actions appear to heavily patronize modern India. Especially when the darker-skinned, brown-eyed, black-haired boys and girls dress in Germanic lederhosen in order to sartorially mimic the mostly blond-haired, blue-eyed von Trapp children - the presumably unintended 'Aryan contrast' could hardly be greater. Furthermore, it could be argued as recreating the worst of previous era colonial cultural 'impregnation', embedded into the psych of young children. The massive irony being that the innate sentiment of the musical is about the retaining of a regional cultural heritage in the face of heavy opposing cultural influence. This then is the very antithesis of what a modern, globally astute Britain must be seen to reflect.

Quite what the school-children make of a storyline so distant to them both historically and geographically is impossible to deduce, since the cultural dissimilitude could not be greater. It also unfortunately subverts perception of the local origins, importance and historical regional uses of the Proto-Indian derived swastika, as seen in Hinduism, Buddhism & Jainism. The icon's peaceful, goodwill intent was already previously subverted by the Nazi's, so why continue its tainting in its very heartland, and critically in which it has a very different meaning?

Perhaps beyond the enjoyable songs the general idea was to have Indians sympathise with those oppressed by the Nazi's (ie tyrannical regimes). But given India's still prevalent caste system, its own internal political frictions of 'capitalism vs socialism', its on-going troubles with bordering Pakistan, and wish to see continued peace in Sri Lanka, one must wonder what the programme makers' intentions were? India is still a country in major flux, and must sort its own fractious differences, before absorbing 'historical baggage' which though important to Europe is not India's to also psychologically carry.

Instead the TV programme's content should have sought to reflect an 'enlightened', 'perceptive' and 'outward-looking' mindset for Indian children , perhaps more akin to the likes of Rudyard Kipling's 'Kim', who was the embodiment of a young, aware pragmatist. He artfully bridged 2 and more cultures, an ability so critical to India's future prosperity. A contemporary case study ripe for exploration could have been to extend the multi-cultural strides made by Danny Boyle's film 'Slumdog Millionaire'; some 108 years later than 'Kim' but just as involving. Or to have used the Anglo-Indian film 'Bride & Prejudice' as a morality-based tale about social-divides, yet would have offered both both child-centric entertainment, multi-cultural learning and offer hope for the future.

Regretfully, it would not be surprising if ultimately the ill-contrived TV programme 'as is' leaves the UK open to Indian accusation of intent toward a continued pro-western cultural hegemony. Given the contribution of the UK's own much admired Indian citizens, and its desire to play a contributive role on the world stage, that would be a great misapprehension.

Compare in direct contrast, a truly perceptive TV advertisement which Peugeot ran about 10 years ago. Popularly titled 'Made in India' by viewers, it was officially titled 'Sculptor' by the ad agency who devised it, winning a BBC run competition for the best UK televised advert that year; though it was also run in Australia and New Zealand.

It became a TV 'must-see', depicting a young man living in a 3rd tier Indian town who desires a modern (organically styled) Peugeot 206. Unable to afford one, he comically modifies a (geometrically square) Hindustan Ambassador into the 206 shape: using the few 'tools' at his disposal: a wall, an elephant, a sledge-hammer, welder and a lot of toil, day & night hard. The car is re-born as far from perfect but something self-made, with social impact of being 'cool' and able to be enjoyed by himself and friends.

The advert was warmly received in Europe and India as something truly in-tune with the Indian national pysche for ambition achieved through hard-work.

Furthermore, those 45 seconds spanned more than 45 years of pent-up national desire for self-improvement

Hence, the comparitive outcome, is that the TV programme appears to have all the hallmarks of cross-cultural insensitivity, whilst the TV advert contained cross-cultural brilliance.

The core message then, shown by example, is to avoid anything seen to approach 'western indoctrination', instead adopting an attitude of 'eastern co-creation'

Today we live in an ever smaller 'global village' which itself sees greater homogeneity of assimilated products, customs and outlooks. So the decreasing number of innate differences between nationalities and groups – by virtue of their disappearance - means they become ever more precious. They effectually sustain core identities, and should be both respected and explored for the potential of sensitive commercial leverage.

This of course may appear to run counter to the demands of corporate profitability which would ideally offer a singular product worldwide to minimise manufacturing & logistics costs and so maximise margins. And of course – especially so in the automotive sector – a level of pan-regional mechanical and aesthetic commonality is necessary to simplify output and ensure reasonable profits that in turn attract new shareholders to the company. But regional differences also provide for product orientation.

Ford, VW & BMW are perhaps the best exponents of this given their maximisation of platform / modular-set leverage across vehicle models and variants. But they and other VMs well recognises regional differences, hence the production of Ford of India's Icon small sedan (based on Fiesta) and VW's development of Lavida solely for China (based on Golf IV) and BMW's increasing use of Euro-Asiatic styling formulae.

So we see that even the core of western creativity is leaning toward eastern influence in the search for eastern consumer acceptance.

But what of the idiosyncrasies that make up a specific locale and add to the creative milieu?

Naturally, there will of course be partial disappearance of regional-specific features when neighbouring countries form regulation for common practice. The formation of EEC and EU technical standards demanded that French cars loose their idiosyncratic yellow-tinted headlights - which during the 1960s & 70s added undeniable visual flavour to any tourist's trip to Paris; as French as the 'Tour Eiffel'itself.

But typically a sense of regional 'vive la difference' rebounds when locals feel that regional character has been lost. In London and across the UK it was this sensitivity that led to the character of the London Black Taxi being re-instated on the then new TX series cab after run-out of the classic FX4 and failure of the androgynous Metro-Cab. And it is why the next generation London bus will recapture the near lost classic Routemaster aesthetic, to re-inject the London spirit back into the city that the modern but uncharacterful 'bendy-bus' lost.

It is then ironic, but expectant, that whilst the west seeks 'cultural refuge' in the best of its past, that fast developing EM nations want to unshackle themselves from the monolithic products that others effectively installed. Items like India's Hindustan Ambassador car - a rebadged and latterly re-engined Morris Oxford, or the Premier Padmini - a renamed FIAT 1100D. But such places may ironically become all the culturally poorer for not retaining aspects of their past that maintain their distinct differentiation.

Of course, that is not to say do not modernise, but do so in a way in which aspects of the symbols of national character are re-vitalised. Otherwise cities and nations become increasingly culturally bereft and thus increasingly nondescript.

[NB this begs the question as to whether Manganese Bronze's LTI cabs - manufacturers of the London Taxi, with Chinese JV production facilities - could not 're-produce' a modern Oxford / Ambassador based on TXI for use as India's 21st century? No doubt the idea has been aired by MB/LTI given its ambition for international expansion, and as such it is something that the Indian authorities should take seriously as replacement 'economic vehicle' for the out-moded Morris, and a foundered Hindustan Motor Co].

This then in turn begs a question about the involvement of the individual relative to
cultural creativity, whether on a national level - as a replacement taxi design competition might evoke - or on a personal level, simply to ascertain greater individuality.

The essential difference between previous centuries and our 21st century age, is the fact that the technological advancement has become increasingly socially orientated, putting the individual into the creative chair and opening up the level of input into both media & products. Increasingly affordable pre-programmed music synthesizers have transformed music-making and by-passed the studio-system, whilst the web allows for self-promoting artists. Equally, photo-realistic graphics packages allow people to create their own visual output. And whilst not as advanced, their is a growing tide toward self-generated '3-D printing' which allows for new product creations.

This means that cultural creativity has been for want of a better phrase 'democratised', hence both manufactured and absorbed by the individual, the group and the mass – or any combine of the 3.

It also means that cultures can be theoretically 'deepened' by overlaying old cultural reference-points upon new items or media, aswell as opening up the white-space for cross-cultural amalgamation, something perhaps especially of interest to the the many people who themselves span two or more cultures.

Given the role of music and dance in global and national histories, popular music has over the last century provided perhaps the most fertile ground for such 'culture-meshing'. From the 1920s re-appropriation of working-people's music in upscale Jazz joints, to Rock & Roll's foundations in Deep South 'Blues' and its recapture through 1960s R&B, to the mainstream of C&W in the US, and the adoption of 1970s Hip-Hop by the global youth, it in turn fragmented to form Garage, modern R&B, Parisienne Arab-Rap, UK Grime, UK Urban Bhangra and much else besides.

However, the notion of cross-fertilized influence from the 'Global Village' is today well demonstrated by music artists such M.I.A - British (London) born of Sri-Lankan Tamil parentage. Since 2000 she has become the archetype of the seemingly marginalised yet anti-oppressive 'empowered' individual. She imbues her Tamil (Tiger) lineage and her femaleness with a savvy appreciation and conglomeration of the 'every -day soundtrack' from global and historical sources. Juxtapositions that range from F1 engines to old Bollywood musicals.

As such she has become a type of 'anti-hero' by developing a broadly cross-cultural artistic output (visually and audibly) to the 2nd and 3rd generation immigrant youth in the US, Canadian & Britain. Adding to her plausibility and standing in the eyes of her fans is that she is a well-publicised philanthropist, giving portions of income to the apparently marginalised or oppressed: primarily African Liberian schooling and Sri Lankan (Tamil related)causes.

As is also typical of any 'street to star' story, an alternative viewpoint is to regard her as simply a similarly fabricated product for target-market consumption. Extracted from obscurity by an independent record label, attracting a following, then sold-onto a big record company and essentially 'commercialised' for major sales success. And finally possibly considered to have 'sold-out' her own heritage by marrying into a wealthy non-Tamil family.

Either way, M.I.A. replicates age-old case stories of fringe communities providing the seeds of musical invention, the typical cross-fertilized output of which is brought into the mainstream and thence re-played back to the migrant heartland and a afar broader 'in-touch' audience. The record companies executives identifying and developing an artist who ticks all the boxes of prevailing sociological trends.

Hollywood film-making has used it ever since the London born Charlie Chaplin for Trans-Atlantic audiences of silent movies, with 'Mid-Atlantic' (European-esque) Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn for US and European audiences, with the 'bit-part' Carmen Miranda to reach South American audiences, the NY & LA Afro-Americans for US, Euro & African audiences, Jackie Chan for reach into HK and Asia and more recently the prominence of Mexican & Latin film-stars to reach once again Southward. The opposite of this American effort were films like 'Soy Cuba' ( I am Cuba) produced by the Soviet Union in 1964 to further its political reach. The film timely 're-discovered' recently in the US as part of its own reach into Cuba with the stepping down of Fidel Castro, his incoming brother Raul, and the warming of Cuban-US relations.

Unsurprising then that cultural-creativity in the world of entertainment acts in tandem with that of global economic development, and is used to further global reach by competing super-powers and emerging powers.

Simply then a continuation of the historical norm.

But as also shown, the advancement of more individually directed culture creating technologies (eg video/audio sampling software to the emergence of 3D printers) means that the experiences being had by people are increasingly self-generated, and taken 'bit by bit' in an 'eclectic quilt' manner, or 'en mass', from far broader cultural influences than ever seen before.

Appreciation which now can relate down through the ages and across cultures given the power of the internet to delve deep and wide; say from the Ancient Egyptian or Mayan right up to the creative impulses of a specific youth group in another part of the world.

Moreover, the west's more recent necessary return to a “make-do-and-mend” mentality plus the move away from sweat-shop purchased cheap goods re-orientates the very ideology of value. Toward something mush more self-generated as opposed to simply shop-bought.

Ultimately, the dynamic of cultural cross-fertilization is as old as the migratory patterns of human history. This happen-stance either as part of a 'lassez-faire' attitude by dominant powers seeking 'soft-expansionism' or in reaction to a more tyrannical attitude of 'hard-expansionism' seeking to try and 'indiginise' a foreign populace.

Yet just as US, UK and European corporations are becoming increasingly owned by non-western investment groups' shareholder interests - typically EM SWFs and similar – so similarly a breakdown of a singular cultural influence or pattern has, and continues to be, the prevailing force.

Critics of 'globalisation' per se may well argue that what is seen at the apparent cultural surface may not reflect the reality of financial and political muscle being leveraged. As ever, they may well ask who in reality gains the largest slice of the cultural economic advantage?.

Yet, this new 2nd decade of the 21st century also demonstrates just how reliant the west's future fortunes are entwined with those of east and south, from the Ningxia province in China to the Ngamiland district in Botswana to the Nickerie district in Suriname. Such critics should instead see the value of a 'rising tide lifting all boats'. This proportionately far more important to any struggling population or peoples seeking an escape from poverty, than the case for the already wealthy.

However, although 'enablers' of a new age for many people in EM countries and those less fortunate, the west will need to avoid any accusations of hegemonic cultural intent and manipulation - as seemingly displayed by the 'Sound of Music' TV series.

Instead to focus its efforts to both develop its own creative identity (historic, modern and futurist) aswell as developing respectful and credible cross-cultural creativity.

With the result that both such activity streams 'domestic' & 'international' attract the professional attention of EM politicians and business-people, aswell as able to draw the mass interests of other nation's peoples.

We in the west must in turn realise that whilst the world's less fortunate peoples may not have similar per capita wealth, they too have an abundance of alternative heritage, engrained self-respect and shared community spirit. Elements that many 'advanced' countries could well benefit by.

Thus, it seems the sooner western nations (and indeed the Chinese powerhouse)seeks to gain anthropological insights into other countries and populations, the better.

Insights far beyond surface differences. In phraseology of the British Raj the west must be willing "to go native". And as an outcome the study of 'Anthropological Economics' may well come into its own; many bankers, diplomats & executives looking for cultural-relations lessons from Cambridge, Oxford, SOAS & even the unsettled LSE* - those that can offer a bridge across the cultural divide.

* Post Script

Whilst investment-auto-motives has had no formal or personal links to the LSE – beyond attendance of public lectures - the recent resignation of Sir Howard Davies was sad news. He was the embodiment of the University, far more than just a figurehead, his best intent obvious to all. A great shame that the Qaddafi regime's awful actions should create such a turn of events and have such ripple-impact. Sir Howard will no doubt be greatly missed by many similar members of the visiting public.