Exporting American Culture is the New Imperialism

Game of Thrones was the most pirated show in the world from 2012-2017.

Empire-building and its days of colonial rule are long over.  But the spirit of imperialism lives on.  Once upon a time, the British Empire stretched far and wide, across the entire globe.  Everywhere from North America to Africa to Asia, spanned the Empire.  Among its many expansionary territories were the thirteen colonies in America, India on the Asian subcontinent, and a variety of outposts like Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean and Barbados in the Caribbean.

Fast forward to our present day and the practice of colonizing foreign lands and enslaving the local people have largely fallen out of favor (unless your name is Vladimir Putin and we’re talking about the Crimean Peninsula).  But generally, aside from a few notable exceptions, the international community now mostly frowns upon colonizing and enslaving other native lands and indigenous people by force.

So how does one satiate a country’s expansionary impulses and thirst for dominion in the absence of brute physical force?  In a word:  Globalization.  I would argue that America has done it best (though the Swedes –with their Volvo, Spotify, and IKEA– are surprisingly not far behind); from Moscow to Johannesburg to Alexandria, if you visit virtually anywhere in the world, you will find a McDonalds and a Starbucks every few city blocks.  (Sometimes, even on a the same block.)  If you visit Paris or Cairo, you will find Kentucky Fried Chicken.  If you go to Luxemburg, right next to Belgium’s finest chocolatier, you will find a Burger King.

It’s not just fast food establishments either.  In Beijing, Tokyo, Milan, and Darwin, the top-grossing movies at your local cineplex have all been installments from Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe for the past ten years.  They may be dubbed over in Japanese or Russian or Italian, but there’s Captain America and Iron Man on the silver screen, fighting Thanos to the cheers of young Greek, Chinese, and Filipinos everywhere.

Imperialism, in the form of American culture, lives on to this very day.  And it’s everywhere, all around us, all the time.  There is no escape.  This is the new American World Order.

One can argue that there are many positives about this arrangement.  With the internet and The YouTube, the world has never been smaller.  And people from all countries and cultures, even if they can’t speak the same language, can all appreciate the adventures of Shrek, the green ogre, or enjoy Tom Cruise (who’s now nearly SIXTY years old), fighting terrorists on the Seine or in the Brazilian rain forest or wherever.  That’s all good and dandy.

But on the other hand, as old geezers like me are wont to do every generation, one can bemoan the current state of the world and our apparently inexorable death march, Pol Pot style, towards evermore homogeneity.  Is a Burger King in Amsterdam really what we visit the Netherlands for?  Is having a slice at Pizza Hut in Rome really the genuine Italian experience?  Is that the sum and pinnacle accomplishment of the human species?

Intergalactic Expansion & Empire Building

Intergalactic expansion and empire building has been on my mind recently.  Over the weekend, I just finished reading Providence by Max Barry, the Australian author who also wrote one of my other favorite books that I read ages ago, Syrup.  A quick aside– on a very short list, Barry is definitely one of my favorite authors.  I consider him an “ideas guy”– sometimes his storytelling goes sideways, especially in his third acts, but Barry’s ideas in Jennifer Government, Lexicon, and Providence are all superb and set him apart.  At his best, he’s right up there with Robert Charles Wilson. (Spin by RCW is fantastic, by the way.  RCW’s other books, though, I’ve never liked enough to even finish.  But Spin is a legit tour de force.)

Anyway, reading Providence got me thinking: If humanity were to ever get off earth and escape our solar system to another one within our galaxy, it’d most likely be because we’d depleted all our earthy resources, right? Essentially, the human species had reached a point where we were consuming more than earth could replenish. (Which, I should note, given rapidly declining birth rates in all advanced, industrialized countries, is most definitely not a foregone conclusion.) But if it did happen, which resulted in humans flinging themselves across the far reaches of the cosmos, would that mean that humans –in aggregate as a species– are simply kind of like bacteria? We simply don’t want to die. So we’re going to try catapulting ourselves to somewhere else far-flung, reproduce and exploit all of the natural resources there, and then repeat the entire process all over again?

(A long-running trope in science-fiction, by the way, is that the wealthy and powerful flee earth one day leaving only the most impoverished and destitute here on whatever hollowed husk remains. It’s intriguing to ponder but I honestly don’t see the cookie crumbling that way. Space travel is just too risky and expensive. The rich people, my general take, will need to somehow figure out how to enjoy their end of days here on earth, which I argue is a good thing.)

Non-sequitur– Nation States! Max Barry developed this online game! Originally, as a PR stunt to promote Jennifer Government back in 2002 during his book launch. But then Nation States became its own bonafide hit! Barry is truly a brother from another mother. I’ve been contemplating this exact same idea for years now but Barry beat me by at least a decade! Social systems, government styles, political science, and group dynamics— that’s the good stuff.

PS. I also heap upon Mr. Barry my infinite gratitude for disabusing me of any romantic/naive notions I may have once harbored for running a massive online project like Nation States. I think I’m infinitely more enamored with the technical challenge of building a project like NS rather than actually dealing with the legion of randos that’d eventually/inevitably follow. I suspect Mr. Barry was too.

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