When the CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman, told the Cannes Lions Festival to look east, he captured the prevailing business heuristic of the day: that the future lies in the aspiring and emerging markets of the BRIC markets (and those beyond).
Even though the foundations of these markets are often in an inchoate state of (e.g. lack of the rule of law, prevalence of corruption), the rebalancing of the world’s centre of gravity from West to East seems set. It is accepted for good reason: China’s GDP will soon outstrip USA, the expanding middle classes in African markets and India’s large, rich crop of well educated under 30s.
This is even though some of these markets – Russia and China in particular – have previously come to the threshold of global domination, before turning their gaze inwardly. As K Scott Latourette writes in ‘The Chinese, Their History & Culture’: “it is little short of amazing that a people who pioneered the invention of paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass…did not also take precedence in devising the power loom, the steam engine etc.”
But there is an intriguing, unspoken (and perhaps unrealized) reason why, this time around, that eastern domination is guaranteed. And it’s all to do with the move from a printed world to a digital one.
Marshall McLuhan identified that the invention, use and, most importantly, distribution (via the printing press) of the Roman alphabet, was the driving force in the development of the currently dominant western culture.
Moveable type ended oral, tribal culture, specialized one sense (the visual) above all others and, for the first time in human history, created a fixed, chronological and reader-centric narrative. Its impact has resonated and shaped our culture for over 600 years.
It has created the concept of individuality, the sense of a national public, the ability of freely ideate and the acceptance of a passive consumer role in the presence of other media, whether the medium be a book or a market stall. Ultimately, it has led to the discovery of the method of discovery, the industrial revolution and the mass-consumption-mass-media world of the 20th century.
Those cultures that remained oral, less literate, or those with ideographic literature (which offered none of the specialization of sense of phonetic alphabet) seemed static in the face of the grinding cogs of industrialized, western culture.
But a move to an electric, digital, interconnected form of consumption is going to leave western culture flatfooted and leaden. As McLuhan writes, “our enormous backlog of literate and mechanistic technology…renders us so helpless and inept in handling the new electric technology.” We are simply not able to conceive of the potential role of digital technology.
If we’re not, who will? This is where the aspiring and emerging markets come in. Even with recent increases in literacy, these countries have maintained aspects of oral, tribal and ideographic culture. Because of this, they can naturally and intuitively understand the interconnectedness of digital culture: they are the true digital natives.
JC Carothers notes in ‘Culture Psychiatry and the Written Word’, that Africans, through their education, “come to view themselves as an insignificant part of a much larger organism: the family and the clan. However, great freedom is allowed at the temperamental level; there is an expectation of living in the here and now, an acceptance of being highly extroverted.”
A belief in interconnectedness; an acceptance of extroverted expression; these are the themes of both African and digital culture.
The real innovation in digital will not come from Silicon Valley, but from countries such as India, China and Nigeria. Western innovations – Facebook, Google, Youtube – are scratches on the surface of the potential of digital culture. They reflect not the future, but the past – just as Gutenberg’s iconic work was a Bible, the content and style of which mirrored the manuscript culture he had just (unknowingly) fatally wounded.
Already, this change is in progress. Nigerian companies like Pagatech have innovated in mobile payments; the Reverse Innovation model, devised by Vijay Govindarajan, has been circumnavigating expensive Western R&D and NPD processes; Brazil, a hotbed of digital creativity, has the highest percentage of social media users in the world.
So the centre of gravity will, inexorably, shift East. Not because of growth in GDP, or an increasing middle class, but because the future of digital culture – that is, the future of global culture itself, can only be written there.
This post originated on @tompuukko’s personal blog