By Suzanne Kashuba
I admit, I popped into a McDonald’s in Rome (yes, Italy). With authentic cuisine steps away, it seemed silly. But the familiarity of this American standby was like a magnet attracting my attention (and my liras). Later, I learned that McDonald’s serves up its assembly-line fare in more than 119 countries.
Ever wonder why Western influences – from T-shirts and blue jeans to Christianity and medical treatment – have dominated the globe? I mean, why don’t most Westerners wear saris or practice Buddhism or eat fish balls?
Imagine world civilization as a giant “smartphone” with societies in control able to “download” apps that ensure their dominance. This is precisely the scenario envisioned by acclaimed British historian Niall Ferguson in the new, two-part PBS special, “Civilization: The West and the Rest” (airing May 22 and 29 at 8 p.m. on WNED-TV). Of course, it might take several lifetimes, or even centuries, to make full use of these “killer apps.” Yet, over the past 500 years, Ferguson suggests, it was the West (notably Europe and the United States) that acquired and honed these essential tools for success.
Watch Civilization - Preview on PBS. See more from Civilization: The West and the Rest with Niall Ferguson.
So what made all the difference? Ferguson identifies six “killer apps:”
1) Competition: It all began with the “spice race” of the 1400s which fostered capitalism. European explorers would soon conquer the world with trading posts.
2) Science: As early as the 17th century, the West adopted an education system based on scientific inquiry. Modern science fostered advanced weaponry and military prowess.
3) Modern medicine: Conquering disease helped the West conquer the African continent.
4) Democracy: In North America, private landownership paved the way for a profitable society. Landowners gained political power when their right to vote gave them a voice in a democratic government.
5) Consumerism: During the Cold War, jeans and t-shirts became a “must-have” global fashion statement as well as a symbol of American industrialism and capitalism.
6) (Protestant) Work Ethic: Hard work, savings and deferred consumption were seen as the means to glorify God, in effect fostering capitalism.
But what of the future? With China’s inexorable rise and Islam re-energized, is the West history? Can “The Rest” overtake the West by upgrading these very same “apps?” What do you think? Share your opinions below, then tune in or stream “Civilization” online to learn Ferguson’s take.