Wednesday, February 18, 2004


"The world's languages are disappearing at a "catastrophic" rate that makes the extinction of plant and animal species seem sedate, linguists told the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Seattle.

"It is difficult to overstate the importance to science of documenting endangered languages," said David Harrison, an expert in Siberian languages at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. "Each language that vanishes without being documented leaves an enormous gap in our understanding of some of the many complex structures the human mind is capable of producing."

What's at stake? Languages contain "complex cognitive structures not found elsewhere. They also embody a highly specialised knowledge of the environment - medicinal plants, animal behaviour, weather signs, hunting and gathering techniques - and a rich pre-literate oral tradition."

Some people have argued that the wrold's cultural diversity contains built-in limitations on the progress of globalization.

But what happens when cultural products become traded commodities? Intellectual properties in the form of music, movies, television programming, brand name clothing, etc. as well as the rights of foreign investors to buy telecommunications infrastructure and media outlets are all at the center of the current global trade agenda. One highlight of which the USTR boasts in the recently signed FTA with Australia are the "unprecedented provisions to improve market access for U.S. films and television
programs over a variety of media including cable, satellite, and the Internet."

Prior to this FTA, Australia maintained cultural content rules much like those in Canada to ensure the preservation of their cultural identity amid a tidal wave of English language culture from the US and the UK (special priviliges for the Canadian rules of cultural origin were carved out of NAFTA). Granted that the currently predominant cultures in Australia and Canada represent successful cultural colonization of indigenous peoples in their respective parts of the world, but looking forward the agreement is a harbinger of what is to come should the current language on TRIPs and services trade become part of the WTO or proposed FTAA.

Some market fundamentalists imagine a competitive market where the supply of world cultures meets the demand from individual consumers, neatly allocating cultural resources and cultural consumption based on individuals tastes and preferences. It's cute that people can think this way, but the propagation of cultural products plays by the same rules as any other commercial industry: the power and ability to monopolize distribution channels--which proposed TRIPs and services trade rules aim to ensure--determines market outcomes.


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