Globalization: it may be a 2000s buzzword, but it’s brought the world many benefits. Our consumer goods are cheaper than ever before. Surging industrialization has lifted billions worldwide out of grinding poverty. For a while, you could even get Starbucks in the very heart of Beijing’s Forbidden City (if that’s what you were into). But the last few years have also taught us that globalization isn’t an unalloyed good. One unique danger it poses is hypercoherence, or maladaptive syncing between independent parts of a complex system. With the rapid spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus around the world – and its risks for the global economy – we’re seeing firsthand some of the dangers of social hypercoherence.
Before mid-2015, it might have seemed that a fully connected and integrated world system was the ultimate safe bet. For well-to-do people living in hubs like Boston, London, or San Francisco, the world economy was humming, trade was prospering, and exotic destinations (Bali, anyone?) were only a quick flight away. A few quick taps on a delivery app could produce mouth-watering cuisines from just about any culinary region in the world on your doorstep in minutes. What wasn’t to love?
The first big threat to this cozily connected, cosmopolitan global culture came from populism, both of the left-wing and the right-wing varieties. In particular, with the stunning “Leave” vote during the UK’s Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump – Donald Trump! – to the presidency of the US, the structural integrity of the hyperconnected global system looked newly precarious. Borders started going up where previously they’d been coming down. Tariffs were adding friction to international trade, and resistance to mass immigration seemed to squirm out of the woodwork. We were going backwards, not forwards (if you were the sort of person who saw globalization as the inevitable future).
Globalizers have been fighting this battle ever since, hoping to beat back the tide of nationalism and protectionism so they can get back to the business of knitting the world ever closer together. They saw the populists voters’ disdain for global hyperconnection as a problem of external resistance, not a problem internal to globalization itself. But now, the appearance of a potential pandemic – facilitated by fast and easy travel – is revealing intrinsic problems within the process of globalization itself, in at least two ways.