The MarcoPoloization of Culture

soc_econ.pngThe McDonaldization of everything faded a little bit from the forefront of American consciousness over the last five years, but the process is still there. Perhaps we have simply become used to it – that not only can you go to most any American city and experience the same stores, the same chains, the same food, but that you can travel throughout the world and have the same experiences as well.

Or maybe it’s because the rest of the world is fighting back.

Really, we should call it MarcoPoloization, if we have to call it anything. McDonalds may have been the most prominent characteristic, but “McDonaldization” is not a new process. The process began the first time Neandertals met Cro-Magnons and traded. It’scultural transfer, just like the kind that occurred when Marco Polo accompanied monks and brought back spices.

What is new is the speed with which this cultural transfer now occurs. It hit me when I was listening to dubstep over New Year’s. Dubstep is a rather new musical subgenre – the first instances were somewhere around 2000 – but it largely stayed in London until 2005 or 2006.

Now I can hear (and like) dubstep only five years later. I can probably find a club that plays dubstep in my region, half a world away. I can marvel at the iterations of dubstep as it has morphed over the last decade – and see a prominent dubstep forum recognize a user who lives in an area where it’s impossible to associate with other fans of the genre.

The speed of adoption for successful trends and fads has increased sharply because it is so easy and fast to transmit cultural ideas across long distances. Those popular trends and fads – the mega-hits – are what we point at when we talk about McDonaldization. The mega-hits have something good about them – otherwise they wouldn’t spread so successfully – but they crowded out local variations. Think about the desolation of Wal*Marts – and the number of small businesses destroyed by that behemoth – across the American landscape and you get the idea.

But we cannot forget the inseperable good things that come from fast cultural transmission. First, our ideals travel as fast as our icons and franchises. It’s never a perfect transmission (kimchee on your Pizza Hut pizza, anyone?), but it’s far faster and easier than what the monks who traveled with Marco Polo faced. When innovation happens, there are few physical barriers to the innovation spreading quickly away from “spiky” centers of change. 1 As someone who grew up away from those spiky centers – but could still look at them – this is a good thing.

The other good thing is evidenced by my earlier example. There is an active dubstep fan who is so far away from the physical center of the genre that they can’t hear it live. (I believe they were in central Asia somewhere…) But they can still participate in a meaningful way. And that’s how things are fighting back. Small centers and locuses of innovation, difference, change, and even deviance are able to survive and even thrive. They are able to expand their numbers due to the same process that brought generic conformity to their door.

I recently saw a picture of Colonel Sanders wearing a kimono, and smiled. Our culture is spreading to the corners of the world – but the corners are spreading into the center as well. Despite the best attempts of corporatization, we are not creating a bland uniform cultural broth, but a chunky thick stew of goodness.

You may never have heard of any of the musical artists I like, and vice versa. And we don’t have to have heard of them in order for them to make a living doing what they love.
And that’s not just okay, put pretty damn cool.

1 Cultural resistance, of course, is a different story.

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