By Rutherford Card Johnson
What do actor Will Smith and a collection of astronauts have to do with the cultural conflict and international disharmony in the ever-expanding global marketplace? It turns out quite a lot.
When it comes to the economy, national boundaries seem to be disappearing. It is tough to tell where one country ends and another begins, at least in terms of commerce. Trade is no longer seen virtually universally by companies as a means of promoting national glory and strength. The quest for profit transcends flags. It’s a brave new world, but it has been here for a while, although it seems like we are not quite used to it yet, especially not politicians.
We live in a global psychological state resembling cognitive dissonance in which we wave our national flags and feel unsure about people beyond our own borders, but then freely exchange our money with people in other countries. Many times our hearts are closed even though our wallets are open. The expanding global economy, especially spurred by the internet revolution, has opened the world to businesses that previously could only sell locally or regionally. Global trade is not simply limited to massive corporations. For example, a small business in India or a family craft store in Australia can sell to Europe and the United States through eBay, Amazon and other similar platforms. This expanding trade is bringing together people with diverse backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, and religions at a lightning pace. Trade, of course, always did that. One need only to look to the adventures of Marco Polo. Yet today the speed of encounters with people different than ourselves seems faster than we can handle.
Will Smith and the Overview Effect
So, back to Will Smith. He has a new show called One Strange Rock, all about how the overview effect – the change in thinking that happens when astronauts see the entire earth from space – can help us understand the world and the people in it better. The Overview Effect was invented by Harvard and Oxford-educated public relations expert Frank White. He came up with the name while looking down at the ground below from an aeroplane in the 1980s and later wrote a book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. In the decades since, he has worked with a number of astronauts who have experienced a cognitive shift in awareness about the planet Earth and the people on it. Applications of the Overview Effect were largely centred on environmental science and sustainability but recently has been applied to more areas, including business and global finance. And, it turns out it can teach us all a lot about cultural interaction and international diplomacy in the era of the global economy.
Experiencing the Overview Effect from space (and it can only be fully experienced from space), national boundaries disappear – just as they do in the modern global economy. Yet there is one major differencee: money may flow across borders, but we humans still live within borders. The old cliché is true enough that sometimes we can’t see the forest for all the trees. In space, astronauts can see the whole earth as one single entity. Those things that cause dissent, disagreement and even war fade away into nothing. There is a tremendous lesson in that for all of us. The Overview Effect sees the business world as one just as it sees the whole world as one. If we are going to live in a global economy – and it seems that will be the case for the foreseeable future – then we need to view the planet as one. The “cognitive dissonance” between national sentiments and economic globalism need to be resolved. The Overview Effect can help with that, no matter where we are from, and indeed because we are all from a diverse array of cultures, nations, ethnicities, and religions.
The Overview Effect beyond space
But, the Overview Effect can only be fully experienced through space travel, which really is out of reach of most people. The community of astronauts and cosmonauts is really quite small, and those who can afford commercial space travel currently comprise an even smaller group. Fortunately, there are ways that the Overview Effect can still benefit those who have not travelled to space and likely will never do so. First, virtual experiences are being discussed by which individuals could experience some of the sensory and visual aspects of space travel without the expense of actual space travel. The digital technology already permits virtual reality simulations, so this has become a distinct and affordable possibility that could help people around the world undergo a sensory experience that changes the way they see the world and the people in it, spurring them to undertake positive action and attitude.
Another option is termed an “overview analogue” experience, which does not involve space travel but does involve some form of usually difficult, yet typically enjoyable activity that brings the individual to a new perspective and causes a similar cognitive shift. Such experiences can include mountain climbing in the Himalayas, skydiving, wilderness adventures around the globe, and many more. Such activities are far more widely experienced, available, and affordable relative to space travel – but they are not quite everyone’s cup of tea, either.
So, the other option is to learn from the experiences of those who have experienced the Overview Effect or even overview analogues. It is indeed possible if one is motivated enough, to learn vicariously through the experiences of others. That is, however, not to be confused with merely passive observation such as that which is seen with “reality” television shows. What is needed is truly deep, detailed observation that involves internalising the experience of others. Internalisation can then lead to internal growth, which can lead to changes in attitude and better interaction with others, both on an individual basis and in a collective sense. It is an ongoing process, and enough people in a society must be willing to participate for there to be any real, positive change towards greater harmony and cooperation in the world.
Do we still need countries then?
Nations seeking to serve national purposes often come into conflict with the economic interests of multi-national companies and even small businesses or family operations that want to trade around the world through the internet. However, it should be considered that nations still serve valuable purposes. Empires eventually fall, and it is largely due to the practical problems of managing their size. Nations help to manage the global economy by creating manageable segments and effectively delegating authority so decisions can be made as much as possible by the most localised level of government appropriate to make the decision. They also help to preserve the cultural identity of the diverse people of the world. Of course, it is not always perfect. Nations do not in fact always protect the cultural identity of their people, and indeed the massive globalisation of the world’s economy has helped to give strength and voice to oppressed people in the world.
Also, being “one” as humanity and as an economy as the Overview Effect suggests does not mean that our various cultural, religious, and ethnic identities should be absorbed and lost into a least common denominator. Rather, being “one” as humanity means working together as fellow humans, across national boundaries, while still keeping all those things that define who we are as ethnic groups and individuals. Indeed, looking at earth from an overview perspective, one still sees diversity within the unity. Nature is diverse, and that ought not to be lost.
Again, though, people must be motivated to grow. We have to want the world that the Overview Effect promotes in order for us to take the necessary steps to make it happen. Surely reasonable people really do want to get along with people in other nations. Surely rational individuals are capable of being themselves, honouring their own cultures while respecting and working together with others. The whole is made of the diversity of the parts and that is the message of the Overview Effect.
Rutherford Card. Johnson (PhD, FPRS) is a cleric, author, and economist teaching economics and international business at the University of Minnesota’s Crookston campus.
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