There's more diversity but less ... diversity

As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, this year's national census will establish this fact: The United States is rapidly growing more diverse.

Over the next 50 years, the Hispanic and Asian-American populations will surge, each of them doubling as a percentage of the overall US population, according to recent Census Bureau projections.

Yet beyond that truism, a far-different portrait of contemporary American culture is emerging. A number of historians, economists, and political experts see a society of increased uniformity evolving, where the range of beliefs and common practices in a variety of fields, from political opinion to consumer behavior, is actually narrowing.

This is hardly to say ethnicity and race don't matter. In fact, their role in changing American culture is ongoing, say analysts. But other nonethnic forces, including the burgeoning technology revolution, globalization, and even economic prosperity are exerting more powerful influences on society. And while those influences are complicated and often contradictory, many analysts worry that the bottom line is a more uniform culture.

"Connectedness brings conformity, and we're in an unprecedented period of connecting," says economist W. Brian Arthur of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. "Overall, the tide is going against diversity."

For Mr. Arthur, "connectedness" refers to broad movements to harmonize the world's economies, promote trade, and expand communications networks. While societies and cultures have through the ages influenced one another via trade, war, and everything in between, the degree of interaction today is extraordinary, say analysts.

In fact, alarm about a more-standardized culture is generating its own form of activism.

"That's what put so many people on the streets in Seattle," says Kevin Daniher of the Global Exchange human-rights organization, referring to the protests against the World Trade Organization last year.

Corporate homogenization

Mr. Daniher, author of "Corporations Are Going to Get Your Mama," says the WTO and multinational corporations are concerned only with expanding the markets for their products. And that means favoring a kind of global economic "homogenization" that undercuts all kinds of social and even environmental diversity.

America's children may be the most-marketed-to, but youths the world over are now targeted by pitches for everything from Pokmon to Burger King french fries.

As any anthropologist will point out, the forces determining culture are vast and virtually impossible to quantify. That makes pinpointing any change in a culture's overall character difficult.

But many cultural observers sense a powerful perception emerging in America that, even as the number of choices available to most people is rising exponentially, the richness that can come from the smaller corners of society is threatened.

Nowhere is that perception more evident than in the concerns over the "malling" of America. Many communities across the country have become battlegrounds when a Wal-Mart or another "big box" retailer comes to town, displacing mom-and-pop businesses.

The power of national retailers and the ongoing consolidation of corporate America create paradoxes when it comes to diversity. For instance, when a megabookstore like Borders or the online squeezes out a local, home-grown bookstore, the result for consumers is usually more volumes to choose from.

But while choice for the consumer may increase, there is often a loss of what economist Arthur calls "local funkiness," or products with a distinctly local flavor or appeal.

As the nation throws itself into another national election, some see a narrowing of opinion and choice in the political arena, too.

One of the most salient political trends of our time seems to be the rush to the center by both candidates and voters, witnessed by the early rise of centrists in both major political parties: Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush.

"What we see in our political discourse appears to be a very bland discussion, whether you like this kind of vanilla or that kind of vanilla," says Mark Baldassare, a pollster for the Public Policy Institute of California.

But just as in Seattle, a backlash could be gathering momentum with the unexpectedly strong showings of Republican John McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley in the primaries.

Just as economic forces seem to be both spreading choice and limiting it, the Internet is also acting paradoxically.

The wired world has created a whole new realm of affinity for Americans, where people of like interests can congregate without regard to old barriers of geography or income. Grateful Dead fans are linked worldwide, as are mothers seeking advice from other mothers on particular child-rearing problems.

At the same time, technology has created its own common language and its users abide by certain customs and habits that create their own type of monoculture. The Internet is also replacing a range of real-world interaction, a trend that some say diminishes the distinctiveness of local communities.

Ah, the good old days

Historian Edward Ayers of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville says Americans have always had a tendency to romanticize the past, and that can cloud the issue of diversity. Whatever disappears appears to be an irreplaceable loss. But Professor Ayers, who studies regional identities within America, particularly the South, says globalization and the Web are generating new forms of diversity that are just too new to be fully appreciated.

"The fact that we're all talking about this blandness in American culture could be a sure sign that it's about to pass," he says.

Still, others say that what passes for diversity today is more shallow than the deeper diversity of the past. And the replacement is a costly one, says Phil Agre, a professor of information studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"As with diversity in ecosystems and organisms, genuine diversity in institutions, cultures, and technologies is an important resource," Professor Agre wrote in a recent e-mail. Without it, he adds, "we will drown in the white noise of superficial differences."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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