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Jesus College, University of Cambridge

Keyword: Global

In a well-publicized open letter to between one and two billion Facebook users around the world (February 2017), Mark Zuckerberg suggested that “our greatest opportunities are now global” and that “our greatest challenges also need global responses.” There are many people, he noted, “left behind by globalization, and movements for withdrawing from global connection.” In contrast, Zuckerberg proposed online strategies for “Building Global Community.” But running through his newsfeed—which ventured into territory far beyond Marshall McLuhan’s early 1960s vision of instantly transferred information creating a global village—ran persistent tensions in what global means.

Adjectival global derives from the noun globe. The Latin word globus means a spherical shape, and it was the Greek astronomers of the third century BCE who first proposed that the earth was not flat but a sphere, visualized as a fixed sphere within a universe whose other spheres revolve around it in circular motion. This view was acknowledged in both medieval Chistianity and Islam. The heliocentric revolution of Copernicus and Galileo placed this globe in orbit around the sun. In the modern period it is the adjective global rather than globe which creates tensions, for different reasons: foremost, because of its reference to notions of social organization layered onto understanding of the earth as spherical.

The adjective global is attested in English from 1637 (W. Prynne, “The worlde beinge plainely Circular, & globall, havinge no angles nor squares”) and entered the language from Latin globus via English globe (the noun appearing nearly 200 years before its related adjective). Signifying shape both as a matter of observation and speculatively by way of cosmology, globe accreted meanings including that of a religious or mystical “globe” of fire around someone’s head; the human eye or a woman’s breast; fireballs and meteors; cannonballs; and electric light bulbs. From mC16, globe also meant a spherical model, with a map of the world on it, which can be rotated on a stand; and in its name, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre combined a roughly circular shape with theatre’s symbolic capacity to represent all the world on a stage—a naming device transferred later to many newspapers called The Globe. Prefiguring later developments, an 1891 citation for globe in the OED refers to the economic and social interaction entailed by “the commerce of the globe.”

Global carries over and has extended the geographical and social meanings of globe. The meaning “pertaining to the whole planet” continues, including in new combinations: global distillation, a natural process driven by atmospheric circulation; global orbit; Global Positioning System (GPS); and global temperature. In C20 mathematics, computing, and IT, the word’s inclusive meaning, “relating to or encompassing the whole of anything or any group of things,” added specialized expressions including global theorems and global commands, as well as global emails (i.e., messages addressed to an entire group of recipients).

Importantly from eC19, however, global acquired other non-concrete meanings, conceiving the world as a single, continuous social field, as opposed to separate localities, regions, or even sovereign nations on the C17 Westphalian model. Development of this meaning accounts for a rapid increase in frequency of the term from the 1940s. Such use reflects changing technological, economic, and political conditions and possibilities, and shifts the emphasis made by global toward a social rather than physical sphere: in effect, the word changed from describing something found everywhere to something affecting everyone: processes involving interdependent economic, political, or cultural relations “at world level.” Description in such contexts is often infused with either aspiration or critique of how things affecting everyone have been addressed, hence the word’s highly divergent connotations.

Globalization is attested from around 1930 but far more frequent from the 1980s, and has become the general term for processes involved in, as well as outcomes of, the transformation of local, regional, and national financial practices “at world level” (global financial markets, global economic order), along with related changes in social and political organization (global civil society) and cultural behavior and values (global brand). Various definitions have been advanced in different academic fields, as well as in political programs and policies. But such definitions remain highly general if they are to avoid becoming entangled in complexity and controversy.

When used as a verbal noun to describe a process rather than resulting condition, globalization has a temporal aspect that prompts major disagreement. Reference is commonly assumed to continuing projection of Western neoliberal values and policies onto the rest of the world over the last forty years. Even leaving out of account a far longer history of intercultural contact, trade routes, and migration, however, or geographically expansive empires, many characteristics of modern globalization are considered by some users of the word to have existed in earlier periods and so to illustrate the same process.

Economically, societies distributed across the globe began to diverge most obviously from similar levels of average prosperity or poverty (for the vast majority, mere subsistence) in eC15. A first stage is conventionally considered a mercantilist period of European maritime power, beginning with the voyages of Columbus, Magellan, and others, and leading to a connected but fundamentally exploitative global economy based on fortified trading posts, tariffs, and wars over trade in extracted materials, as well as transported slaves. This pattern changed, according to general economic accounts, in the period beginning with the Industrial Revolution in lC18: a period also disproportionately favorable to Western interests which similarly depended on inventions (in this case, for example, steam power) but which, for successful countries participating in global markets and global competition, was underpinned by more concentrated colonial power. Developments of this economic system following World War II were again linked to technological advances. In the aftermath of global conflict and recognizing global inequality, political actors attempted new measures of global governance. In one direction, a liberalizing process leading—ironically during a period of decolonization—to a rising number of transnational corporations (TNCs) with more wealth than many of the decolonized states. At the same time, creation or reform at macro level of international, world, universal, or united institutions directed toward economic and political engagement during a period of regional Cold War (from the Bretton Woods conference to the United Nations, and its agencies; the OECD reshaping earlier OECC; GATT from 1947; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, and subsequent covenants; the IMF, World Bank, WTO, G8, then G7 and G20).

The current period of globality extends earlier trends, with its supply chains of cargo jets and container ships, instantaneous communications and electronic financial transactions, increased mobility of capital and labor, and interaction between cultures not only in goods and services but in new forms of cultural hybridization. Conflicting tendencies, however, include the widening gap between the global North and global South, intensified anti-globalist and anti-globalization demonstrations such as Seattle or Occupy, retrenchment toward economic and cultural protectionism, heightened hostility toward immigration, and concern over global questions including planetary-level problems such as water shortage, food supply, preventable illness, loss of biodiversity, and environmental global degradation and global warming.

Globalization cannot be defined purely by economics. Many users of the word prioritize political over economic considerations, while others highlight cultural processes including 24/7 global media, networking, and a global public made possible by the Internet, as well as cultural interaction ranging from styles of clothing through food tastes and sport to choice of language (including global English). What globalization means, in such varied contexts, appears a matter of conflicting ideological narratives: no singular meaning commands assent if abstracted from some detailed context of use. When a city such as London is proclaimed (with an unstable hint of oxymoron) to be a global city, for example, characteristics are variously implied, including size, transport, and communications hub, presence of an international financial sector, diverse population, and civil pluralism—all combined in some mixture of description, aspiration (or concealed criticism), and effort to attract global investors.

In what was reported as a new, politicized agenda for Facebook, Zuckerberg was not suggesting that one social media site could substitute for geopolitical initiatives on the scale of the UN’s 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development (agreed in 2015 by 193 world leaders). That UN initiative also drew on the rallying attraction of global in articulating a vision beyond historical experience or present international relations: that there will be, “[i]f these Goals are completed . . . an end to extreme poverty, inequality and climate change by 2030.” Yet the multidimensional meanings and implications of global and globalization expose how far dominant concepts associated with these words are contested, rather than the outcome of a logic of convergent political interests or common humanity—something visions inspired by these words should acknowledge if they are to contribute to global community.