World cultural power

[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]

World cultural power

Our final survey of America in the 20th century deals with the century’s cultural impact on America, and America’s cultural impact on the world. When the 20th century began, American culture was peripheral to Europe. By mid-century it had become dominant and in the final half it was overwhelming, and if (as in economics) the future of America’s cultural predominance had come into question, still it was only a question. As in economics, only time would tell. Now, note that cultural preeminence doesn’t necessarily mean popularity. For a couple of decades it was popular in certain European circles to decry what they called “the Coca Cola culture.” Preeminence doesn’t mean popularity; it means, you can’t be ignored.


There could be no more appropriate place to start than the internet, that really began to come into its own in the century’s final few years. This American-conceived and -executed project, begun and continued for strictly American reasons and designed to serve American purposes, seems destined to transform the mental globe, perhaps ultimately pulling us into one global community, certainly in the meantime enlarging the effective community of every far-flung language group. (And what language extends to more peoples than English? English seems fated to become humanity’s common language, if only a universally shared second language.)

No need to spell out the genesis and nature of the internet. Suffice it to say that it began in the 1960s with the military. It’s hard to explain this without it sounding insane, but military planners were concerned that an atomic war would destroy telephone links. That is, they feared that critical telephone exchanges would get destroyed, resulting in the surviving forces being unable to communicate with each other. So they invented a way to pass messages between computers by having the messages themselves search out the best available route. As happened in so many areas, what began as a military need was developed by way of the academic world, which adapted it for its own uses. Thus a military communications system became a network of military and academic sites, and certain governmental agencies, and …

Starting in about 1990, the internet began going mainstream. Its number of users doubling every few months, by the end of the century it already seemed universal, and quickly became indispensible to many businesses, researchers, curious individuals and, eventually, people who really, really wanted to see lots of photos and cartoons featuring cats.

The global effect was probably unanticipated, but it was pervasive. The “global village” that Marshall McLuhan had predicted, and had described in its early stages, was where we now began to live. Villages share rumors, gossip, and backbiting no less than information, common tasks and a certain world-view, and here we are.

Personal computers

And all of this intercommunication is possible only because of the rise of personal computers, another American innovation that transformed the world. Like all technology, it left home and changed as it grew, so that by the turn of the century people were inventing variations and applications suited to their own particular needs. (Some were of little use in developed countries but were revolutionary in third-world countries. For instance, solar recharge stations for laptops where there was no reliable electric grid.) America’s vast domestic market, its educated middle class, and its businesses with sufficient capital to reorganize around the availability of this new way of doing certain things provided the market that allowed the computers to be developed. Apple revolutionized the graphics-design industry, because it allowed things to be done in an instant that previously would not have been done at all, because they would have required too much time and labor. Thus, if you want to change fonts, tinge artwork with another color, insert special effects such as bending the type or inverting the picture, or mirroring it – all of these things could be done without computers, but only with great disproportionate effort, so, in practice, they weren’t done, or weren’t done much.

Apple introduced the first personal computer in 1975. It made a big enough impact that IBM introduced the Personal Computer, or IBM PC, in 1983. Apples far outperformed PCs in every way, but PCs were far cheaper, and were more than adequate for most business uses. Besides, they were safer for corporate purchasing agents to recommend. As someone said, “no one ever got fired for buying PCs instead of Apples.” Apple in those days was seen as quirky, arty, and, in a way, not quite respectable. Apple would not fully come into its own until the beginning of the next century. But it had helped transform the final quarter of the 20th.

Communications satellites

It is safe to say that there could have been no internet without communications satellites. Those old enough to remember the first 15-minute Telstar broadcast in 1962 will remember it as the start of a new age. America broadcasting images to Europe; Europe broadcasting images to America, and it was all live! Until that moment, images got transported from one side of the North Atlantic to the other only be being physically carried. From that moment, things changed. Within a few years a network of communications satellites had been launched, and for the first time the world was linked electronically. Telephones, televisions, computers – they could all communicate faster and cheaper, and in many cases for the first time, because they removed the need for expensive ground links such as undersea cables.

As the century progressed, this emerging satellite web was put to new use. In the third world, it was a great destroyer of the effects of isolation. Now villages in the middle of Africa or India or Greater Nowhere were within reach of the entire world’s culture as soon as they had a laptop, a satellite link, and a source of electricity. In the developed world, the contents of the world’s print and pictorial libraries were soon being digitized, bringing the vision of a day when all the world’s cultural heritage would be shared, and thus would feed into a truly global culture. And all of this, in turn, depended on the prior invention of television, but before we discuss television, we need to discuss one of the century’s cultural icons, one of the men who captured the world’s imagination.

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