Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Return of the Local

1990s were heady days. The decade of the global, I shall say, of optimism, of a sudden step change in human, and all our personal, histories, indeed the time when the end of history could be claimed. The decade built up in perfect crescendo, big events at the beginning, slow build up in middle years reaching the perfect storm towards the end. In India, where I spent the decade, my familiar world of government jobs, predictable parochial life, limited choices available through local corner shops, all disappeared in the space of few years. I got on to a plane first time in 1994, but by 1998, with cheaper flights and business reaching to far flung destinations, I was flying once in a few weeks. I had no passport in 1994, but by the end of the decade, my job, of a humble trainer/ training manager, took me to different countries already: On 16th January 2001, I left Calcutta for good. In short, 1990 is when the world arrived in my suburb.

There were other deeper changes. In 1990, our house had one phone in our entire locality and many people would come to our house to make phone calls. I started my working life installing and supporting email installations, in 1993, and doing user training, where one of my standard overhead slides, and one that generated most discussion, was about the advantages of email over fax. By 1995, Internet connections started replacing those email installations in workplaces. By 1997, I had a mobile phone. By the end of decade, everyone seemed to have one. At the same time, our dreary, state-owned TV Channel, Doordarshan, gave way to the proliferation of satellite TV. Suddenly, we were watching a lot less of Indian regional cinema, Bengali or otherwise, and Hollywood had taken over the viewing time; I soon abandoned my local heroes for the sake of Clint Eastwood and Julia Roberts. The stately 1950s GM model, Ambassador, which was more or less the only car available in Calcutta (as it was locally manufactured, Fiat was more popular in Bombay for the same reason), couldn't withstand the competition from the cheaper, more fuel efficient Suzuki variants and gave way by the end of decade: Suddenly, there were different shapes and sizes and colours of cars on the road. All middle class lives would have changed somewhat within the space of a few years.

However, the biggest change was in how we viewed the world. I saved few spare Rupees by skipping lunch while in college and bought, one by one, the cheap, Moscow printed collected works of Lenin: I couldn't complete the collection and start buying Marx-Engels, before Soviet Union folded and those books disappeared. By the end of the decade, I was reading the almost unreadable Road Ahead, Bill Gates' vision of the future with everything Microsoft, which turned out to be another bad investment. By 1995, I was chatting - with people from faraway lands - and by 1999, I was ordering books from Amazon. My passionate internationalism, fueled by socialism but grown under the influence of Tagore and his humanist writings, had given way to globalism, on the regular diet of Internet visionaries and Hollywood movies. A different kind of life seemed to have started.

All this seems to be in reverse gear now. All in a decade, as it goes, the prosperity and the middle class aspirations are dented. There are more cars than roads, but rising fuel prices made car travel extremely expensive: Alas, there is no way back to the public transport, as it teeters near extinction after decades of neglect and underinvestment in India. The middle class jobs, which kept growing unabated for many years on the back of newly liberalised, technology-enabled or egged by neo-liberal policies, industries, are suddenly going in reverse, being eaten up by labour-replacing technology or neo-conservatism in the Western countries.

In the sphere of opinion, the Internet is not free anymore: It is not free as in Beer, and not free as with thought. Most sites where you could go looking for information have been locked down, and most governments are watching what you are doing. All those little freedoms earned during the heady days of 1990s are receding on the fear of a terrorist takeover of the world. Besides, the Western communities, one that I live in now, are struggling to cope with migration, and wishing they had the Berlin Wall standing for a little while longer. It is a world where Google seems to be evil, Apple a dictator of tastes, and Facebook a creepy voyeur; the universities are again bastions of elitism and privilege; the media, increasingly dependent on sensationalism, has reached Armageddon moment, with its practices, such as hacking dead people's voicemails, under public scrutiny. The political masters are faring no better with their various scandals, fiddled expense reports in Britain to Mauritian bank accounts in India, and love in relationships with business houses. The bankers are having their tobacco moment, as The Economist dubbed the recent LIBOR scandal to be, with the usual excuses of banking as a creator of jobs lies in tatters, with the bankers, their inability to meet even the most basic responsibilities of civic life, stand exposed. Greed has finally gobbled up the world.

At this time, the Local makes a comeback. It is not just a nostalgia but a destination, everyone having left and reached a point of uprootedness. The global identity, which we all fell in love with, now appears too nebulous, almost a fraud. The global dreams of 1990s have come to just this - you are lent global money to buy global commodities, and in the spiral of debt, sacrifice your private lives and local identities. The global story, spun around the media, schools and all other nooks of our lives, manipulated us into a spiral of debt, consumption and loss of ability to live 'wisely, agreeably and well', as Keynes summed it up. We traded local for global, only to know our place in the big game and becoming bankrupt with everyone else. Those realizations suddenly found a place as the global machine came to a halt, its fundamental assumptions challenged and its proclaimed values of freedom and diversity in full retreat in the face of challenge to its power. 

There is one other thing, knowing that the time of plenty is perhaps over. For all the promise of internet, the real food and real clothes and real work has become all local. The jobs that could be transported has been transported: It is not a good idea to be good (and therefore earn more) in a global job. The gardener, who can not be outsourced to China, had his life least disrupted: The office worker who employed him lost out. The transport costs are back to the pre-euphoria levels and rising, and suddenly it is not possible any more for mexican yarn to turn into clothing in Thailand and be back in California to be sold in shops in Calgary (I picked this up from Patagonia) at a reasonable cost. It is time of shortening the supply chain; Prahalad's r=g equation came a tad bit late. 

The powers-that-be got the local, and it is time we get it too. It is time to start thinking, perhaps by giving up a few things we got too used to. In a world in danger, living on less may mean more. It may mean undoing a lot of things we did in the 90s: But the same thing may now mean thinking ahead, rather than back.

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