Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Spinning the Wheel

One of the lessons I use to generate conversation in my classes is to ask the students to come up with a directory of the most important inventions in history, making the initial distinction between invention and discovery, of course. As I write their suggestions on the board, reminding them to say, “I think the most important invention …” we travel through time, discussing reasons and needs for each object on the list. One of the first things every class mentions is the Internet. However, it is surprising how few students are quick to point out that in order to use this medium we need electricity, and to have energy at the flick of a switch we must have power station dynamos, and to have those things we need: the wheel.

That seemingly simplest of inventions (or was it a discovery?) is paramount in creating the world we have fashioned today. This doesn’t even begin to tap the requirement of rockets to put the satellites into orbit in a circle around the earth so that communication can happen with the touch of a finger.

There are many paradoxes in the culture of life beyond the edge of the map. Straddling East and West, the mix of past and present collide, creating unique and often complimentary traditions. Although it generates many a faction within the nation, most Turkish people, especially those living in larger or more cosmopolitan places like Istanbul, embrace the present and look to the future in various ways.

English is taught in state schools and language exams are required for acceptance at most universities. Fashionable clothing, the latest mobile phones and new cars are much sought after, representing western values and a homogenisation of culture that suggests an evolving contemporary global identity. As a point in case, one of the highlighted attractions of the 2010 Capital of Culture celebrations was the widely publicised concert of the rock group U2. The fact they were on tour and would be performing at other venues throughout Europe seemed to make little difference – this mega band’s appearance provided public recognition that Istanbul had arrived in the twenty-first century.

As a people, the populace of this nation-state recognise the complex and often interchangeable nature of the history of this vast country. Over the six millennia that this land has been inhabited there have been many kingdoms and empires, often with competing aims and ideologies. From the Turks, Ottomans and the Romans to the Byzantines and the Hittites, not to mention several ancient rulers who left incredible monuments to their existence, like those giant heads reminiscent of Easter Island – yet more intricately detailed, at Nemrut Da─či (who made them and why?)

The future is hotly debated. Significant minority groups such as the Kurds have fewer fundamental rights than those who can claim Turkish ancestry. English and Germans among other ex-pat groups, who provide sizeable revenue for ‘resort’ communities, are constantly being hit in the pocketbook with additional taxes, and many resent the unfair nature of their position, which according to the current government requires selective economic sanctions. European status is contested regularly in the political arena as well as the cafes, schools and street corners where the ‘ordinary’ people mingle and share views.

There are many opinions on the possibility of joining a union with the other states further west. Many feel they are economically better off now than ten years ago, and having to adhere to regulations coming from Brussels would seriously damage this progress. Additionally, if they were part of a diverse but interlinked economic zone any failures beyond their control would adversely affect their own stability. Like many Brits, they fear the Euro could drag everyone down if there were serious problems in less developed nations, as was witnessed with recent events in Greece, as well as Ireland, Italy, Spain and other once mighty European nations.

Many feel an imbalance of trade in certain goods, designed to redistribute wealth throughout the union, would hamper their own agricultural development, and the possibility of providing a haven for often wealthy Westerners might diminish as well. Also, they fear this would impose a loss of free trade with non-European nations on their other borders.

Also, the US is a strong military ally regardless of what rhetoric is employed in the media and various (Wiki) leaks that filter out through less mainstream sources, and becoming part of Europe could reduce their role as a major player in the emerging new order that includes China, Brazil and South Africa, especially now that Turkey has the fifth largest army in the world. Although privately, many quietly voice their concern over the apparent power these other nations have within the borders of their homeland. Some view this intervention with suspicion while others accept the inherent obligations to protect a way of life that has made them amongst the wealthier states in the region.

However much the economic progress of recent years has helped develop a better lifestyle for most people the influx of foreign visitors has changed the face of this modernising nation for better and worse. Although money from external sources creates job opportunities, tradition and culture is impacted in other ways, not always benefiting the indigenous population. Pollution, in the form of rubbish and sewage, create their own environmental concerns, and the boom in property sales has helped fuel inflation in the housing market that seriously affects lower paid workers.

There are positive factors though, and most people are quite happy about perceived progress as the infrastructure is improved and luxury goods become more widely available. Most people have computers and all the conveniences of modern living, and many people drive cars whereas not only did most not have the opportunity to own such a vehicle twenty years ago when I first visited the roads were fewer and less well-paved.

Westerners are slowly waking from their consumer dream to recognise the environmental devastation caused by the advance of industry, and yet most will never freely give up their personal luxuries such as automobiles, satellite phones and air-conditioning. However, when it comes to developing nations governments in the West, pressurised by growing popular opinion, seek to limit growth and a potential progress that generally involves deforestation, dam-building, nuclear power facilities and strip mining. The attitude seems to be, ‘we chopped down our trees and irrigated lands by rerouting rivers, we poured toxins into the air and the earth and we now have all the benefits, but it would better serve the future of the world if you didn’t do this while we utilise your underpaid and under-privileged labour force.’

It is difficult to explain to people from poorer nations with abundant resources why they should slow or halt development when they see free enterprise working for Western economies. It suggests an ulterior motive to maintain poverty and minimise standards of living for those outside the bubble of 20th century technological expansion.

How can we expect people to care about the environment when they see the acquisition of consumer goods as the method to equal opportunity? What can Western nations do to share the wealth and still effect positive change for the environment? How is it possible to alleviate ecological damage while accommodating the needs of others to have the equal access to the contemporary comforts of life?

Clearly, we can’t continue to deplete the resources of earth at the current rate with the impact of pollutants ever greater, yet it is understandable that those without should desire the same luxury and comfort available to the wealthy.

Who doesn’t want a hot shower or instant fire to cook with? Who could do without electric lights or central heating? Television is everywhere, and the media sells dreams of bigger cars, faster computers, integrated phones, imported food and travel, not to mention thousands of products we're required to buy regularly, from shampoo and perfume to clothing and compact discs. When do we finally have enough to be satisfied? Contentment, it would appear, is the enemy of consumerism, and so the wheels keep turning.

As the world spins on its axis, and communication is enhanced between those in far-flung nations the distance in culture is narrowed to a point of contact. The homogenisation of culture is approaching through media and technology, and people have developed shared interests that span the globe. The Internet has opened a window and though the sun shines in to light the way, the wind of change is howling.

The place where people meet, clasp hands in friendship and see eye to eye is the start of honest discussion, and talk these days is about equality and freedom and the suppression of the interests of the majority by the few. Those who control the churning wheels of the machine want to maintain growth of industries at the expense of many, but who among us has another way? What message is powerful enough to alter the spinning wheels of progress? Can words of truth, peace and unification be heard above the constant crackle of communication? And is anyone really listening?

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