Remember that spooky thrill when the Borg were first introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation? They were built up as being the ultimate enemy, or at least an enemy that might be too tough for the starship Enterprise. And they were scary. They lived in a giant flying cube and operated as a collection of drones in a hive that cared only for the further enhancement of the colony. You could throw anything at them you cared to – phasers, photon torpedoes, whatever – and they would simply take the hit, analyze it, and build a new defense. Loss of individual members did not concern them at all. They had numbers and cool calculation on their side. “You will be assimilated,” they promised, as matter-of-factly as you please. They march relentlessly through the galaxies, sucking up entire civilizations as building materials for their own end. They were as remorseless as they were unstoppable.
What was scariest was their complete lack of interest in individuals. To be assimilated meant losing your identity and becoming only a means for the further growth of the Borg. Your body was drained of blood and you were outfitted with all sorts of technical gizmos that allowed for your connection to the Borg network. Individuals going into the cube were transformed into mechanical extensions of a huge colony, losing their status as individuals.
As I have been reading book after book about globalization, I can’t help but think of the Borg. Individuals – whether persons or companies – are sucked up into the global culture and become mere extensions of it. You will be plugged into the network, so strap on your gizmos and start taking input and producing output. If we look into the future we’re aiming at, we see a world where you can go pretty much anywhere and know exactly the services, languages, customs, and food you can expect to find. Everywhere will be anywhere. The Web is the Borg, assimilating distinctive cultures and turning them into functional units in frictionless commerce.
But no; reading the metaphor in this way doesn’t sound right to me. The forces of globalization are not sinister. On the whole they are bringing about very favorable conditions for the countries that manage to “link up.” Gaining connectivity with the larger, outside world allows for individuals to break out of poverty; it allows for more information being shared, and more understanding among peoples; and it makes it harder for primitive-minded zealots to oppress women or any other group. Admittedly, it may lead to the flattening of culture, as people start to spend more time tending the net than attending to their own cultural settings. But, on the other hand, how kind would it be to lock people up in what are often oppressive, poverty-stricken, and disease-ridden societies just so that the rest of us can ooh and ahh over the distinctive features of their culture? I am not saying that an internet connection solves everything. But lacking one, so far as I can see, does more harm than good.
So imagine the Borg’s brethren race, the Web. The Web reaches out into every region it finds and invites people to plug in and share information and products with everyone else in the Web. It does require some homogeneity – all sharing does – but at the same time it rewards innovation and individuals’ creativity. It allows for massive databases of knowledge, available to everyone. It allows for dialogue and discussion and dissent. The wealth still goes to those who can produce what the masses need or want (as always), but the difference is that now there are broader opportunities for anyone to be the forces of production. To wade further into Star Trek mythology, maybe the Web is in fact the Federation, a collective where different societies try to work together to everyone’s advantage. What they recognize, and the Borg do not, is that fostering innovation and creativity brings greater strength and progress to the collective than does a stubborn insistence upon homogeneity.
Or that’s what it can be, anyway. There are dangers. With all that sharing going on, good guys and bad guys alike can get the information they need to do what they want. With all those services and jobs shifting around, people will be displaced and left without employable skills. Moreover, Marx’s warnings about the ways that capitalism can alienate people from themselves and from one another need also to be heeded. Joining a worldwide community of innovators also means joining a worldwide field of competitors, and we need to think more about how that will affect human relations. If all we care about is gaining global notoriety and making money off everyone else, we’ve got problems, brother.
But – I think — the possible benefits outweigh the possible dangers. Not that it matters. The Web is unstoppable. Like it or not, we have been assimilated.