Sunday, March 29, 2009

Culture in a Flat World

Shueisha publishes magazines in Japan, magazines like Weekly Shonen Jump. Shonen Jump's weekly circulation in the mid-1990s was upwards of 6.5 million. For comparison,* Time's weekly circulation in the US at that time was just over 4 million. People, around 3 million. Keep in mind, the US population is twice that of Japan.

There's an deeply held, if unstated, American conviction that the States will always run a cultural trade surplus with the rest of the world. The belief has deep roots. In the last century, America has certainly exported a huge number of cultural artifacts to other countries. As early as 1918, the US was producing around 80% of all films worldwide. Fast forward, and we now pipe MTV into over 100 countries. The most successful film in French theaters thus far? Titanic. These trends were enough for NY Times to label American Culture The New Colossus in the mid-1990s. But is there any reason to believe that the 21st century will continue the trends of the 20th?

This cultural dominance can partially be explained by our economic and military dominance over the last hundred years. But this economic dominance, as Zakaria and Ferguson have brilliantly explained, is on the wane.

Of course, we have maintained our cultural influence in other ways. Technologically hamstringing DVD players with region codes, creating subtle import barriers, and forcing advanced Intellectual Property legal regimes on other countries for the benefit of our sophisticated content creators, we have helped ensure cultural products can most easily flow from here to there, from us to them.

With new technology, however, content creation is becoming democratized. With wider access to the Internet, distribution is taking on new forms. With these advances, the old political barriers to a globalization of content are eroding as well.

This isn't just about Youtube videos of Ghanaian street art, either. Unbelievable opportunities are emerging around the world for low cost cultural products to reach wide audiences. Consider the Indian film industry, currently growing at 13% per year. While the total revenues of the average American film remain far higher than those in Bollywood, India manages to attract far larger audiences with lower production and marketing costs. Hollywood is falling all over itself to get an American presence in that market. One might wonder why. Slumdog Millionaire may have increased the cachet of the Indian film industry, but that was a successful export of Indian filmmaking ideas (Danny Boyle's contribution notwithstanding). Filmmakers have so far had extremely poor results attempting to break into Bollywood.

If cultural presence is an extension of economic presence, then as other nations rise economically, a perpetual cultural trade imbalance seems unsustainable. Some argue that America created its cultural rivals by exporting recording, publishing and filmmaking technologies. Perhaps America was really creating cultural rivals when it imported durable goods and exported capital, helping so many foreign economies around the world to grow to the point where they can afford cultural industries.

With the staggering popularity of Japanese magna or Indian musicals, you might wonder if the folks at Viacom or Condé Nast are trying to push culture the wrong direction.

* Wikipedia reveals that all these numbers have fallen off, with Shonen currently nearer 3 million, and now comparable to People and Time.