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From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives

March 21, 2016

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Jeffrey E. Garten has penned a book about the history of globalization that is perfect for our times.

We tend to think of globalization as a relatively modern phenomenon—the result of modern communications technologies, advances in transportation, and international trade deals that have overcome domestic boundaries and spurred unprecedented interconnectedness in the world economy.

Certainly these things have accelerated globalization, but Jeffrey E. Garten would have us know that it is as old as humanity itself. It is the movement of people and goods and ideas and armies, in all their mess and glory, that have brought us to this point.

Globalization is, in fact, "the story of humanity."

Being the story of humanity, it has both exhilarating highs and depressing lows, which are felt deeply in our daily lives and color how we view globalization. Garten extends the lines and historical frame of the conversation, and while starkly contrasting the negatives and positives of that history, he also adds nuance and shades of gray to the picture.

Most of us have a basic understanding of globalization, the good and the bad. We've seen how expanding trade can lead to more economic growth, lower prices, greater choice, and new jobs, but also how it undermines existing jobs. Many people have benefited from new investment opportunities in companies and countries around the world, but we've also seen the devastation that comes with international banking crises. We are enriched by the cultural and educational exchanges but feel threatened by the spread of terrorism across borders. Every day we experience the ups and downs, the benefits and threats of a more interconnected world. Globalization, however, is anything but a recent phenomenon. It started about sixty thousand years ago, when some 150,000 people walked out of Africa in search of food and security. Over many millennia, these men, women, and children migrated to every part of the world. They intermarried. They traded. The spread and mixed their ideas, religions, and cultures. They fought wars and built empires that brought different populations under political roofs that sometimes spanned whole continents. They created cities that became melting pots of nationalities. They developed technologies and improved communication among themselves. They formulated laws, standards, and treaties governing their growing interdependencies. The story of globalization is no less than the story of human history.

 

Garten's new book, From Silk to Silicon, is a telling of that history through the lens of ten individuals dating back to Genghis Khan, and running from the ancient Silk Road through modern day Silicon Valley (Andrew Grove, who passed away this week) and the rise of China. It tells uplifting stories of adventure, business prowess, and statecraft, and of human slaughter, and economic plunder. And it all begins on the Mongolian Steppe with the son of a murdered chieftain and his kidnapped bride. It ends in an empire that's still larger by landmass than any the world has ever seen:

It is often said that the first golden age of globalization began near the start of the industrial revolution in Europe around 1870 and ended in 1914 when the outbreak of World War I shattered the idea that growing political and economic bonds between nations would guarantee peace. This period had indeed experienced a great boom in global trade, investment, migration, and innovations in communication such as the telegraph. But that period is the wrong starting point. The first golden age was the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It was in the era of Genghis and sons and grandsons when the routes they built and secured opened a new world of possibilities. Europeans were able to buy silk and other rare textiles, exotic spices, even paper-making technology from China. Chinese iron-smelting technology was mixed with Persian engineering skills to build advanced weapons. Medicines from India, China, and Persia were combined to create great advances in pharmacology. Indeed, the story of Genghis Khan is in microcosm a story about globalization itself.

 

It also reflects the tensions and dark sides of globalization. Because while he may have accomplished "first golden age" of globalization, he was also, well… Genghis Khan. This starts a trend that continues throughout the book. Prince Henry of Portugal, while expanding our view of our world through global navigation in ways that are comparable to space exploration today, was also responsible for the rise of the transatlantic slave trade. John D. Rockefeller was both ruthless in business and one of the most charitable individuals in our nation's history (contributed to making the world more economically and socially integrated in both endeavors). Margaret Thatcher, while "freeing trade and investment from governmental control … allowing markets to link with one another to cross borders and build a web of connections" that have driven the great leap forward in globalization in modern times, also "left considerable human damage in her wake." As Garten writes:

Of course, it was nothing like the fallout from Genghis Khan, but what came to be known as "Thatcherism" resulted in the decimation of many communities, the impoverishment of many people, sharply rising inequality in an already class-ridden nation, and a society that favored the rich, the educated, and the connected over the rest.

 

The people in the book seem, at many times, as morally ambiguous and complicated as globalism itself. And, yet, in the stories of these ten individuals we learn the lessons of a world continuing to come together, even if it's in fits and starts, and even if its progress is nuanced and not entirely or universally positive. 

And while it does a great job of pulling the lens back and showing us a wider view of globalization, it  also gets in close and offers great lessons and perspective on our individual lives. For example, while you're learning how Jean Monnet broke down barriers and borders to align and execute strategies in the Allied causes of both WWI and WWII, you'll also learn the mix of traits he inherited from his parents while growing up in his wine merchant family, and how they helped form a temperament that would perfectly suit him to the slow political work he would undertake later on—work which ultimately helped lead to the formation of the European Union. Similar to the lessons in last week's giveaway, it was all rooted in lessons he learned from his mother:

Working in a cognac cooperative, the problems of one member became the problems of the group, and the challenge of growing grapes would test the patience of them all. "One did one thing, slowly and with concentration," Monnet once said. Monnet himslef would later trace his perspective to his father, a man of big ideas, but especially to his mother, a woman who knew how to get things done. "Unlike my father, who could daydream, or lose his temper, or if necessary escape on some journey," Monnet said, "my mother was tied to reality, and she always brought the family back to it. I may have my father's imagination, but my mother taught me that nothing can be achieved unless it is built on reality. She distrusted ideas as such. She wanted to know what was to be done with them." Monnet was an exquisite blend of both parents. Thus, he could not only envision big things but execute them, too.

 

The nearly four hundred pages of From Silk to Silicon are an adventure through the lives and minds of great figures from the history of human conquest, commerce, and interconnectedness. It is incredibly erudite and informative to the conversations happening in both business and politics. Perhaps more than anything, it is extremely entertaining. 

We have 20 copies available.

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