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Globalization’s Unspoken Costs: A Response to Christopher Liechty
Guest Editorial by David Stairs

I thought about going to the ICOGRADA Design Week in Seattle, thought long and hard. Might have gone, too, if the early registration had not been cut off at April 30th. As it turns out, I did not miss much. Marian Bantjes’ reports from the trenches reinforced what I already know about such gatherings, and I’m very happy to be able to donate what would have been a wasted $1,000 to the good people of Cameroon.

Speak Up ran a promotional piece by Chris Liechty a week before the show in Seattle. I assume registrations were lagging, due to the April 30th deadline on reasonable rates, or the super-saturation of design conferences, or both. But it is to some of the assumptions in Liechty’s piece I would like to turn because they support other more insidious cultural truisms I’d like to contest.

Chris began his piece with a description of a cold-war childhood. This was not an uncommon experience in the sixties. My Father was a card-carrying member of the John Birch Society, and in our house the one-world seeking UN was not to be trusted. It’s a wonder that I survived to adulthood, let alone became a socialist. I’m not supposed to say that last thing, not because it’s illegal, but because it’s just no longer fashionable.

Following this typical caveat, “…with full recognition that abuses need to be stopped, I believe the net effect of globalization is positive,” Liechty’s piece soon descended into a litany of apologies for the effects of globalization. He believes globalization results in:
— increased political stability (depending upon where and who you are) and…
— decreased incidence of war (depending on who you’re reading)

Personally, I’ve never worked for the WTCA or the UN as Liechty has. The State Department is as close as I’ve come to a hopeless bureaucracy. Even there, working among friends so-called, I’ve been truly underwhelmed by the bitter realities of bureaucratic decision-making. But I digress.

“Isolation and focused attention on an external enemy are the tools of dictators,” Liechty writes. Not unless our supposed democratically elected government is run, as some would contend, by an autocrat. Liechty, who has much firsthand experience in China, a truly autocratic place, barely shows this in his remarks about Chinese maquiladoras like Guangzhou (a Chinese free-enterprise zone). There is no reference, even in passing, to the infamous environmental conditions of such places. Naomi Klein take aim!

In Red Sky At Morning, his recent book about the global environmental crisis, James Gustave Speth, co-founder of the National Resources Defense Council, clearly outlines the many ways in which globalization as currently practiced is antithetical to sustainability. He quotes a letter drafted by a select committee of the World Resources Institute to the Heads of State and Government of the Americas:

“We therefore welcome current initiatives to liberalize trade and to revive growth in our region more broadly. But these proposals are too limited. They will succeed only in expanding unsustainable and inequitable patterns of growth unless they are complemented by powerful initiatives to promote social equity and to protect the environment. Indeed, there is much reason to believe, based on past experience and current trends, that unless major complementary initiatives are undertaken to bring environmental, economic, and social objectives together in the new synthesis called sustainable development, liberalizing trade and reviving growth could lead to short-term gains and long-term disaster.”

The quaint italicized reference to “the new synthesis called sustainable development” dates this quote ominously at 1991. What has been done to forge the called for synthesis in the meantime? Precious little. And what about those pesky short-term gains? Status-quo-li-’oly.

It’s reasons like these that make me mistrust Liechty’s standpoint. Leave alone his convenient reference to Rob Peters’ “globalism,” which in Liechty’s hands ends with an acquisitive entreaty to, “Let’s take the best from every culture,” when I meet a designer who trumpets the glories of globalization I’m usually staring at a person who balances short-term gains against long-term sacrifices and opts, all too often, for the gains.

I find it ironic that Marian Bantjes was so put off by Liechty’s Flash visualization of Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions (a prominent feature on the Meyer and Liechty website that feels more like this year’s ASID “hot colors” barometer than a terminally un-PC faux pas) that her “eyes popped out of her head and rolled down the aisles.” She characterized it as “…the most outrageously ignorant thing I heard over the two days.” Personally, I’m much more concerned about the subtle implications of Liechty’s AIGA-backed capitalist cheerleading through events like the World Trade Week NYC Global Branding Event “Branding in China.” And you should be too.

David Stairs leaves September 7th for a ten-month tour of duty with Designers Without Borders in South Africa, Uganda, and Cameroon where his self-righteous sermonizing is considered quaint and everyone laughs at his jokes. You can keep up on his and other adventures through the Design Altruism Project web-log at design-altruism-project.org.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Aug.10.2006 BY Speak Up
Nate Schulman’s comment is:

Thank you for the article, and glad to be introduced to your Design Altruism Project. As a member of AIGA, I welcome the oppurtunity to dig deeper into any cheerleading on its behalf. In fact, I thought I'd take the oppurtunity to post a link to an extended research essay I wrote about this very topic. For anyone interested I delved into the Globalization debate and the particular role visual communication plays in its rhetoric, particularly from the Anti-globalization side of things. The paper is available here.

On Aug.10.2006 at 07:32 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

It has come to my attention, through various behind-the-scenes emails amd persona lanecdotes that some people thought I was discouraging people from attending conferences. For the record, that is not the case. I love conferences in general and think they are an excellent opportunity to meet other people with whom you share a commonality, as well as hear different viewpoints. That that particular conference turned out to be a dud, shouldn't deter anyone from going to conferences in general. It won't deter me.

As for your comments on globalism, as with all things, these are complex and variable. It is impossible to say definitively what is good or bad, and I think it's important not to wholeheartedly proscribe to one viewpoint or another, but to always question both what you hear and your own beliefs. Like David, I would define myself as a socialist, but while Socialism might be unfashionable, I tend not to think of it necessarily politically, but as a belief that we as humans have a responsibility to other humans ... on the planet, in our countries, and to those who live next door. A socialist perspective is the opposite of an exploitive perspective. Interestingly, it comes back to empathy. That wonderful trait that is worth nurturing, no matter who you are.

On Aug.10.2006 at 09:08 PM
Nathan Philpot’s comment is:

Oh, brother.

I’m very happy to be able to donate what would have been a wasted $1,000 to the good people of Cameroon.


Design Altruism Project

Putting aside whether globalisation ( whatever that means ) is good or bad. These actions can have the same effect as McDonalds and Disney. And, I think, stem from the same rationale as the author's antagonist.

On Aug.11.2006 at 09:58 AM
hexhibit’s comment is:

These actions can have the same effect as McDonalds and Disney

Eh? When did either McDonalds or Disney get into the foreign aid game?

If you're implying that donations of filty lucre or helping out some localised NGO are a devious means of cultural colonialism and/or welfare-reliance, you might do well to acquaint yourself with what charity or volunteerism does to promote self-reliance and sustainability in under-developed regions. Teach a man to fish etc.

On Aug.12.2006 at 02:05 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

I think its fair to say most people here are anti-fascists. That's good.

There's something a little weird--I didn't say "bad" or "stupid"--about designers playing armchair political analysts. Lots of broad issues theorized about in very, very broad strokes. Increased political stability? I think the people of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Indonesia, Russia, much of China, and the entire continent of Africa especially south of the Sahara would probably disagree. Of course, Americans generally aren't exposed to what ACTUALLY goes on in those places (Africa especially--that's the one land mass most of the world just tries to ignore). Decreased incidence of war? WOW is that a clinical way of putting a flagrant fallacy. Remember Rwanda? Humans haven't killed so many of each other that quickly since atomic bombs obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I know it "feels like a long time ago," but it wasn't. And I'll again refer to the rest of Africa and stetches of Asia and the Mid-East. Y'know, Lebanon and all that.

What we do NOT see is global conflict on the scale of WWII, for instance. Thousands of years ago the technology didn't exist to wage war on that level, then the gifts of industrialism in the 20th Century allowed humans to realize the dream of global slaughter, and then later provided a technology that just scared everyone shitless in nuclear weapons and forced leaders to think twice about their frequently insane premonitions. Bottomline is, the absence of a WWIII is more a result of machinations and weaponry and technology tahn it is just strict business.

And through all of it, graphic design isn't going to save children in Baghdad from home-made explosives. Nor will it stabilize North Korea, smooth things out in Chechnya or improve the strength of the dollar.

This isn't cynicism or pessimism, its just the reality of the situation. But Marian's point about empathy--which, if I may extrapolate, probably has something to do with NOT being selfish as well--is pretty important. In a world consumed by worship of self and obsessed with having, craving, and getting, its about the only beacon I can see.

I haven't had time to read all of Nate's paper, but I did go through it, and on a cursory level (I don't know if this was the intent, of course) I was reminded how visual communications can totally commodify pretty complex ideas. For instance, I have a very deep hatred for that Diesel ad campaign that looked like a G8 protest (which was oddly enough shot by a Magnum photographer who I now consider the prototype of a sell-out). THAT is cynicism. It's taking the very real passion of people who fight for an ideal and watering it down to sell over-priced jeans. There's something sick about that.

The bummer about this industry is that the truth isn't sexy enough anymore. I've always admired Cahan & Associates for their relentless pursuit of the truth in their work--its great stuff, but Cahan's firm does not create the global image for the giant brands that are such fixtures in our lives. Because of advances in technology (take myspace, facebook, etc) and enhanced speed of production (not to mention breadth of special FX capabilities), its like we can now broadcast every single base, automatic, impulsive desire across the globe. It's fascinating, and at the same time, fucking terrifying. People have ALWAYS had strong instincts and overpowering impulses--its just that now, you can express it and deliver it to someone without too much difficulty. And "truth" is an inconvenient hitch when you're appealing to that basest of all instincts: the desire to have more and more and more.

You can see a lot of these attitudes in TV spots for Hummer and Miller (a kind of sad and weak discussion of "masculinity" that has all the grace and sophistication of a Zidane headbutt), you can see them on myspace blogs and profiles, you can see them on magazine covers in the supermarket checkout, on the newstand and on network television. The problem here stems from an absolute desire for safety, to assume that by closing one's eyes that all problems and dangers cease to exist. To surround one's self with fantasy and instant gratification is a sort of shield. It is unconscious and unaware, and there's much to be gained from indulging in that, thus the prevalence. But only on a superficial level, and only for a short time.

Chuck Palahniuk has a great line, "Until you find something to fight for, you'll just fight against anything." Its way too easy to "fight against," and ultimately it achieves nothing. In the same way that bands of rebels are great at overthrowing governments but shitty at running them.

I think the hope that graphic design offers is an opportunity to get people to think and to consider an idea or a fact or a story that they never had previously. This is both very big and very small simultaneously. I'll support anyone who's trying to get people to look around and see beyond their own happy little sphere of uterine warmth. Because THAT is worth fighting for.

On Aug.13.2006 at 04:58 PM
David Stairs’s comment is:

Thanks to Nathan for your thoughtful paper, and to Bradley for the Chuck Palahniuk quote. If you would like to see an effective, though branded, example of graphic design in support of a crisis visit Gulu Walk. And no, I didn't have anything to do with it.

On Aug.14.2006 at 01:05 PM
Patrick’s comment is:

Excellent essay. Far too often designers (and programmers) buy into the laissez-faire neoliberal rhetoric, and dream of ways to further gadgetize themselves instead of considering the lives of the people manufacturing those devices.

A fellow socialist designer, eh? I'm sure there are more of us out there. Hey, let's get a conference together!

On Aug.21.2006 at 10:52 PM