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The Cultural Superpowers of 2072
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Written for the Effective Ideas Monthly Blog Prize for May 2022
America is the most dominant country today culturally. Everyone wants to watch American TV shows, listen to American music and follow American politics.
There are three important things to being culturally dominant: high incomes, a large market and cultural freedom. America has all three, and is unique to have all three at the same time.
Other countries will grow faster and hit all the three criteria in some time. They will grow faster and then they will become culturally dominant.
By 2072 I expect the market for popular cultural attention to be dominated by (currently) developing countries.
By almost any measure America is the most culturally dominant country in the world. It captures the most attention and the aspiration for many people around the world is to be more like America. They want to watch American TV, listen to American music, follow American popular culture and understand American politics. Out of any country in the world, America takes the most space in the world’s imagination. Far more people follow American popular culture and politics than any other culture.
More people know the details of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp’s court case than they would of similar incidents anywhere else. In my experience, a lot more people followed the US election than they did for any other large country election, or in some cases even their own. On November 4th in Singapore, the home minister joked before giving a ministerial statement in Parliament that by the end of his speech they’d finally know what was happening in the US election. Without question, American culture and politics are far more popular than anything in the rest of the world. Barack Obama’s visit to Germany drew a crowd far higher than what almost all German politicians would. The Economist complains that the British political elite are too obsessed with American politics.
Not only does this near monopolisation of the attention space lead to soft power for the US and economic benefits in the form of cultural exports, this is also self reinforcing. Culture has network effects. The more people that are part of one culture, the more people want to be part of it. More people will want to learn about American politics, if at least to understand what the cultural zeitgeist is about. And this leads to it again being more dominant.
Looking at the phenomenon above, it may seem as if the world is destined to be like that. It looks as as time goes on the US will continue to keep its position as the world’s attention superpower both in politics, and culture. But I think there is a reasonable chance that the world’s attention shifts away from the US and to other countries, and this reshapes not only global culture but also our politics.
The Building Blocks
American cultural dominance comes from a few key sources. It is a large country that is rich, has large levels of cultural freedom and is open to the rest of the world. It also helps that English was already the lingua franca in the Commonwealth, but that plays a much smaller role.
Being rich is the clearest source of advantage in taking over the attention sphere. First, until people hit a subsistence level of income, they’ll be spending their time looking for food and basic necessities. There wouldn’t be much economic surplus left to work on technology, culture and other luxury goods. I’m not sure what that level is, but I think hitting somewhere between $20,000 in GDP per capita makes a country rich enough to invest in these. That was when South Korea and Japan started to produce their cultural exports (like K-pop and anime) and the US started to have its level of dominance after World War 2 when GDP per capita was around the range of $17,000 adjusted for inflation and PPP.
The other important benefit of being richer is that countries get closer to the frontier of technological development which leads to not only better quality media, but also better distribution. Take the internet as an example. A lot of early content on the internet was made by Americans because they were the first to get on it, which led to lock-in effects. The history of technology has high levels of path dependence and I expect any future technologies to have their own lock-in effects in terms of who has cultural dominance on them.
The next source of advantage is being a large country. There are strong economic reasons for why having a large internal market helps. It's much easier to spread fixed costs over a large customer base which leads to lower prices, and a larger market just means that there’s more money leading to more specialisation. These arguments apply to America very well. There are over 300 million people in America, with median nominal incomes of roughly $35,000 per person. If that market was smaller, then there would be a smaller quantity and a lesser variety in the marketplace for cultural goods. The same is true for politics, where a larger country means that there is a lot more influence the country has which forces others to pay attention to it.
The obvious counterargument to all of what I have written above is China. China has far more people than America, and even though incomes are lower, Chinese GDP is around the same as America. But you don’t see Chinese attention dominance to the same level as you do with America. There are two responses to this. The first is that you do see China taking up large amounts of time and attention in the rest of the world, but this is expressed in the form of negative attention. In the recently concluded Australian election, response to China was a topic where both parties were accusing each other of being too soft on China. You also see this in the US where while there is less partisan disagreement on foreign policy, but it is the only topic where the administration has had an easy time passing bills and there is surprisingly strong consensus about the issue during a time of heightened polarisation.
The other strong response is that the reason why China meets the economic criterion for attention dominance but does not actually have attention dominance is that it does not have the cultural freedom at home or openness to foreign ideas and culture that lead to a blooming cultural landscape.
Cultural freedom is the third advantage here. Restrictions on the type of art that can be produced hurt the quantity and quality of art produced. Making films, songs and TV shows is not a lucrative profession. It is mostly subsidised by the large number of irrational young people willing to spend time looking for their big break. Restrictions on art type not only make it less clear what the boundaries are and have a chilling effect on art, but also reduce the social status that art gets. This leads to a smaller domestic industry, lesser variety and overall less soft power.
A Small Case Study
South Korea is the closest example to what I’m talking about, but it’s running on a smaller scale than my estimates. It fit two of these criteria: it hit a high level of GDP per capita (~$20k in GDP/capita around 1994) and had liberalised its media industry (via a 1996 judgement that declared censorship illegal) around the same time as part of political reforms. But it missed the third component: a large market. The South Korean government decided to subsidise Korean cultural exports and sell abroad to overcome this. Most industrial policy doesn’t work, but South Korea’s does. The South Korean government subsidised K pop, movies, and TV shows which led to strong cultural impact outside Korea.
In my view, the Korean government’s subsidies only sped up the development of the industry by a few decades. I hold this view for two reasons. The first is that the level of support that Korean music gets and the quality of its cultural exports are so high that it was unlikely that money was the deciding factor here. Giving more money to mediocre artists would not have created the level of popularity BTS has, nor would giving more money to average directors created Parasite. There was clearly a high level of talent here. The second argument is that Japan has been able to create a similar industry in video games and anime without government subsidies. So, given both a counterfactual and the high quality of South Korean movies, I don't think that this is essential for a cultural industry, just that it speeds it up.
Why development will happen faster
The most common way countries have become rich is by exporting to a richer country, making money off that and moving up the value chain. Typically this involves starting off with low value goods, using the export surplus to invest in higher value industries like electronics and repeat till they hit the frontier of technology. After that they have to innovate, but even if they don’t they get to a decent level of income.
In the 1950s when Japan started to follow this, there was only one large developed country rich enough to purchase Japanese goods and provide capital for investment, which was the United States. But around 30 years later when China wanted to start the same strategy, they were able to seek technical assistance from many countries, including Japan and Western Europe which had developed by then. And now today when for example Ethiopia wants to pursue the same strategy, because so many other countries have developed, it has more markets to sell to and more countries to get technology from. It’s a lot easier to find export markets today because there are more.
Previously, you had to be geo-politically aligned with the US or at least not directly harming their interests (like China pre 2010s) to have access to American technology and markets. But today as Kenya, Laos and Sri Lanka are realising, even Chinese inflows and export markets can be a great place to start development and move up the value chain. So, if you’re a developing country today, moving up the value chain has fewer external hurdles because there are more countries to trade with.
I expect over 5 highly influential countries to become rich (>60% of top 10 countries GDP per capita) over the next 50 years for the above reasons. My main candidates are Indonesia, Malaysia, China and Vietnam. The next tier would be India, Bangladesh and Mexico. My weaker bets would be on Rwanda and Nigeria.
Even if only a few of the above become developed countries or even if they become middle income countries (like Malaysia and China are), I think the cultural implications will be massive.
The Cultural Change
If my predictions above are right, then the relative dominance of American culture will be history. I’ll be using the example of India here because I know it better but the same arguments apply to other countries.
As the rest of the world gets richer, their cultural impact will be much larger. The first way this happens will be via the kind of media that is made. On the more formal side, just like South Korea and Japan, media from India, Indonesia, Nigeria will flow abroad. These countries either individually or as a group will meet the three criteria. They will be at least moderately rich, have very large markets and currently are open to the rest of the world. How will this play out? I expect films and TV shows from these countries to be popular in the rest of the world which will shape the rest of the world’s culture. Take for example the Hindi film Dangal which was very popular in China. 50 years later you would expect several films as good as Dangal to come out in India, and even more from the rest of the world. India’s internal market will be large enough to incentivize these films to happen, and because it costs almost zero to send them abroad, it will happen. The same is true for Indonesia or Nigeria which have large internal markets. My concrete prediction is that there will be at least one Indian film which earns (inflation adjusted) $1 billion in overseas revenues by 2072. And I would argue that the same is possible but for a threshold of $500 million for Indonesia or Nigeria.
Aamir Khan in Dangal. Source
This is already playing out. There are kids being born between now and 2072 in developing countries who will get access to a greater range of culture than the American monoculture kids 30 or 50 years ago were exposed to. The main change here will not initially be inside the developing world, where for example Hindi movies like Dangal are popular in China or Indian TV stars like Shaheer Sheikh make a living in Indonesia. Just the sheer number of Indian movies and content with relatively higher quality will make them competitive in the global market.
Movies and TV are very small compared to where the actual impact lies: online content creation. Memes about Indian guys teaching maths on YouTube are common, but they have a clear point behind them. The number of content creators from currently developing countries will change the internet as we know it. By 2070 India’s population should be around 1.7 billion. If English speaking rates increase in India from the current 12% to a more modest 30%, that means that there will be over 500 million Indian English speakers. Add that to the number of English speakers from other countries and it is clear how online culture in English will change because of this. You can already see signs of this. We saw a small glimpse of this with the infamous competition between Pewdiepie and T-series on who would be the most subscribed Youtube account. But if you look closer into the numbers, 14 of the top 50 accounts produce content in Hindi, and 16 of the top 50 are from India (the other two being Wave Music which produces content in Bhojpuri and Aaj Tak which produces it in English and Hindi). In the future I wouldn’t be surprised if over 30 of the top 50 accounts came from currently developing countries and they made high quality English content.
Youtube is just an example. The same would happen to Instagram, Twitter and if TikTok ever is legalised in India it too. Because of higher populations, incomes and internet penetration rates I think the future of the Internet will be written by people from currently developing countries.
I then expect the same flywheel that affected American media and led to its outsized influence in the market for attention will affect the rest of the world too. If my explanation of network effects leading to a self perpetuating loop of cultural dominance is correct, then the same will happen for the cultural forces I’m talking about. The first famous Nigerian (or Indian/Indonesia/Mexican) film will invite interest in the next few like it is happening now for Korean films, or did happen for Japanese video games and anime. A large enough cluster of these leads to a cottage industry forming around these. Fan pages start on social media, gossip websites report gossip and the amount of attention given to these films increase.
The same is true for online entertainment, except for it will be much faster. It doesn’t take very much time to go viral, and so I expect a large number of youtubers and content creators to become popular faster. The same process repeats as above, but it just happens faster. And at least on the cultural level I expect a large portion if not a plurality of attention given to these people. Which will reduce the relative level of attention given to the media creators in the current American culture.
And as these forms of media become larger in the rest of the world, the impact on attention increases. The internal issues of the countries producing the media will spillover to the media itself, just as it has happened with Americans and social media. American political slogans have impacted Britain as described in the Economist article linked above. Black Lives Matter has led to protests as far as Australia, on issues that have different historical backgrounds than those in the original American context. And that will also repeat in the future, just with different people. You can already see small versions of this with Parasite showing inequality in South Korea to a larger foreign audience or the online Milk Tea Alliance protesting in several Asian countries. This will happen as a consequence of the forces described in previous sections.
And if this becomes strong enough, it is not hard to imagine a world where developed countries' attention is diverted towards issues in the (currently) developing world because the cultural influence of the former is much smaller than the latter. If American economic and cultural dominance leads to it being the frame of reference for political discussions in other countries, then it would be likely that the same happens when other countries dominate the cultural sphere.