Nations, as Benedict Anderson famously proposed, are 'imagined communities'. But 'the global' is also an imaginary horizon. When we think of 'the global', we think of something, and it isn't typically a planet. It typically involves something about trade, cosmopolitanism, information and financial flows, diplomacy. And it varies constantly. In the 1960s, to imagine 'the global' would most likely have included space satellites, that made a visualisation and a technological use of 'the global' possible. But now, we're far more likely to think of telecom cables or internet platforms.
It follows that nations aren't only imagined by their residents, but also, just as importantly, as components within the (equally imagined) global horizon. There is, as I explored here, an 'America' as imagined and constructed by Americans, then an 'America' as imagined and constructed by Europeans. And it recently occurred to me that one way in which 'the global' has been transformed over the past decade is in the gradual disappearance of 'Japan' in its formulation. How could an imagined nation disappear from our cultural, political and economic consciousness quite so rapidly, yet without us even noticing?
Japan's status as our (i.e. the West's) economic and cultural horizon peaked in the 1980s, a time when Clive James created an entire television genre dedicated to marvelling at strange techno-oriental practices, which supposedly avoided the charge of racism because the Japanese economic and social model was eminently so much more successful than our's. Rumours of hotels where you slept in a small capsule, mobile phones which could communicate with microwaves, vending machines selling used underwear (please tell me I didn't imagine that one on my own) animated pub conversations in Britain throughout the 1990s, even as the supporting social and economic model was dwindling under an economic depression. By the time that the UK show Banzai was launched as a kitsch play on such things, the reference points were fading from memory. The stupidly over-rated Lost In Translation was merely a coda (its primary cultural significance is to have nudged The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine out of retirement for a few months).
When I dabbled in consumer technology research circa 2002-03, Japan still carried an exotic hint of our own future. Powerpoint presentations were not complete without some reference to what Japanese teenagers were doing with their mobile phones, no doubt generating a fair amount of apocrypha along the way (there was always one rumour about teenagers ringing each other, then hanging up after one ring, as a cost-free way of saying 'hello').
So much has changed. The depression of the Japanese economy meant that the wonks and economists lost interest in the model some years ago. Japan was a scarcely-noticed absentee from the global financial crisis, having been weighed down by its own collapsed credit system for nearly twenty years. The plundering of Japanese production techniques (just-in-time production, Total Quality Management) by American management specialists over the 1980s meant that 'Toyotism' is no longer the horizon of productivity, as these tricks have now spread. But remembering that phones-speaking-to-microwaves used to be our global future also throws our new global future into some relief. Here are a few ways in which the global is now imagined differently.
Firstly, we now imagine the global in terms of the rising BRIC economies. The future will now be produced by cheap and abundant labour, not by mysterious oriental tech-wizardry (NB I am trying to describe an imaginary, not a reality!). 'The global' is therefore a harsher, more primitive horizon than it used to be. It no longer represents scientific progress, so much as sheer scale of population. (Meanwhile, the concept of 'the third world' has also fallen away, due to a combination of political correctness and economic trends). One feature of this is that, where 'globalisation' used to be conceived as the partner to acute urban densification (with Tokyo as the iconic example), it is now conceived as the partner to a more primary process of voluminous urbanisation (with Mumbai as an iconic example), not unlike the urbanisation of Europe and the United States during the 19th century.
Second, and in combination with the first point, the internet now dominates imaginations of the global. Around the time of the millenium, companies such as Cisco started to run advertisements with Chinese and Indian children staring into the camera, asking "are you ready?" - ready, in this instance, for the emergence of a single, virtually free, global medium, which was no longer exclusive to wealthy or technologically advanced nations. Again, the global was now about sublime numerical scale. A decade on, it has become clear that the companies with most to gain from the internet are not those with the most far-fetched technological imaginations, but those with the greatest numerical imaginations. Google and facebook are mathematical business propositions, based on insight into what changes once things are measured in billions, not millions.
Thirdly, and relatedly, imaginations of 'the global' now include a somewhat different status for 'America', once 'Japan' is absent. From the mid-1970s onwards, the US became increasingly paranoid that Japan was "eating its lunch", taking American jobs by producing consumer goods and cars that American consumers then bought. The reversal of fortunes during the Clinton years changed all of that. 'Off-shoring' of US jobs went from being viewed as a 'threat' to a means of exploiting the huge new cheap labour pools that were opening up. Post-2008, the US has lost any pretence of being a financial hegemon, but it retains some status as a technological hegemon. 'The global' is now conceived in terms of the relationships between the US and the BRICs, and while dependence on Chinese surpluses means the US is scarcely in charge, nor does this balance of power look especially troubling for a US statesman.
In all these ways, the new imagination of 'the global', lacking Japan, has gone hand in hand with a new imagination of what our collective technological future looks like. The influence and status of Clay Shirky is a good indication in this respect - Shirky's expertise is in people, not in machines. As he says, it is when technology itself ceases to be remarkable that its social effects are most radical. This is quite the opposite of how 'the global future' was imagined during the heyday of Japanese tech exoticism.
If a single company defined the imagined global horizon in the 1970s and 1980s, it would have been Sony or Toyota - Japanese firms out-performing, out-thinking tired, Western competitors. Their prowess was best represented in making things that 'we' would scarcely even know how to use. Today it would be Apple - a home-grown US household name, that exploits Chinese labour and the lessons of American business strategy, to enable ordinary people to sit at home or in a cafe, idly toying with a multi-billion user medium. Their prowess is in taking the global, with all of its numerical sublimity, and somehow transforming it into a source of comfort.