The world used to be divided into distinct locales that were sensitive to the traditions of the past. Western popular culture and communication technology have changed that forever.
The power of rock and roll, for example, has altered the way young people relate to culture, society and each other -- and gives anyone in reach of a satellite link the ability to share in this medium.
Western foreign-policy specialists pay little attention to the influence of popular culture on the lives of the next generation in countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Pakistan. Nor are they gauging the impact of popular culture on the future stability of these regions.
But this same evidence is causing jitters for political leaders from the Philippines to Bahrain. Throughout the developing world there is no misunderstanding the pulsating media message of individualism, consumerism and creative freedom.
I witnessed this phenomenon last summer in Southeast Asia. Everywhere attention was focused on Rupert Murdoch's purchase of 64 percent of HutchVision Ltd., the parent company of the Asian satellite giant, STAR TV.
At first I did not understand why the $525 million transaction interested anyone other than Mr. Murdoch himself and Richard Li Tzar-Kai Li, the 26-year-old enfant terrible of Hong Kong's
business world and the founder of STAR TV. But when I checked into my hotel in downtown Hanoi, I had a chance to see for myself just what it was that Mr. Murdoch was willing to pay through the nose to get. While watching the brand-new Toshiba color TV set in my room, I discovered that the programming beamed to Vietnam and all of Asia via STAR TV featured a glimpse of life so wild and so Western that it deserves to be dubbed, "in-your-face capitalism."
STAR TV, or "Satellite Television Asian Region," produces its own version of the American-made Music Television (MTV), designed to appeal to audiences made up largely of Asian youth with an appetite for Western popular culture. With its 24-hour-a-day programming, reaching 38 countries and an estimated 45 million viewers, Asian MTV is as powerful an influence on young people as any political or economic dogma -- and leaders in these traditionally conservative countries are cocking their ears to try to figure out what has gotten hold of the younger generation.
During the three weeks I spent in Vietnam, I watched Asian MTV every chance I got. I realized the policy analysts and forecasters who rely on mainstream economic and political variables to determine the trends and forces shaping international affairs are deaf to the message reaching millions of young people every day.
Asian MTV's around-the-clock rock features programming styled after its American counterpart. For classics fans, there are segments devoted to the music of Jimi Hendrix or The Who or a profile of the eclectic singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen
MTV Unplugged" for the month of August featured a look at the music of two of the year's hottest bands, 10,000 Maniacs and Arrested Development. An MTV "Rockumentary" showcased the Australian hard-rock band AC/DC.
What most grabbed my attention were the hour-long "MTV's Most Wanted," (hosted by the super-savvy Chinese Valley Girl, "Nonie") and a follow-on call-in show, "Dial MTV," broadcast daily from Hong Kong.
In both programs, video jockey (VJ) Nonie holds the viewing audience with hip lingo, breezily flipping back and forth between American slang and Mandarin. During the course of "MTV's Most Wanted," she counts down the top 10 music videos of the week (mostly Western). She gives a brisk, gossipy monologue on the artists; there are ads for sponsors like Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Toshiba large-screen TVs. Artists from Aerosmith, whose "Living on the Edge" stood at No. 8 on the charts, to UB 40 ("I Can't Help Falling") at No. 3, receive equal enthusiastic treatment from Nonie, who presents the material to fit as neatly into the scope of a teen-age viewer in Islamabad as in Vientiane.
By the time Nonie reaches the No. 1 music video of the week, Jeremy Jordan's "Wanna Girl," one is convinced we are all one happy rocking global village. We all go to sleep under the same satellite dish; in the morning we choose our attire based on what the Pet Shop Boys are wearing.
Late last summer the prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir bin Mohamad, registered his disapproval of Mr. Murdoch's purchase a controlling interest in STAR TV. Speculating about Mr. Murdoch's motivation, he said, "Their main idea is how to create friction and instability, so that if we are unstable, they can compete with us."
Echoing similar suspicions, the Indian minister for information, K.P. Singh Deo, recently introduced legislation designed to restrict Western cable programming, citing the threat advertising and films pose to India's conservative culture.
Objections to MTV's "cultural insensitivity" are voiced in most Islamic countries as well, especially when the programming comes face-to-face with women's rights or gets too close to sexually explicit material. STAR TV decided not to air Madonna's "Erotica" video; it refrains from ads for hard liquor in Muslim countries.
Labeling the growth of cable television "a cultural invasion by foreign TV networks," Indian Minister Deo recognizes that he is up against a formidable foe.
STAR TV executives do not try to disguise the fact that for them the bottom line is the ever-expanding market. In August the Los Angeles Times interviewed Mr. Li, who said, "Using technology to break barriers and bring people together was the human side. But frankly, 95 percent of my motivation was business, pure business."
Politicians with culturally conservative agendas who want to restrict Western broadcasting may be able to stem the influence of Madonna, Bon Jovi and Guns and Roses in the short term. But, if the experience of the last few years has taught us anything, it is that the free market is a cultural, as well as an economic, bazaar that offers new forms of artistic expression at reasonable cost to the individual.
When policy analysts in the coming century look back on this final decade of the 20th century, they will wonder how our leaders could have so underestimated the impact of popular culture on the rapid pace of social and cultural change around the globe. How could we have missed the clues -- some measured in decibels -- as the younger generation came to embrace wholesale the values espoused in Western pop culture?
It is possible that the volume is tuned too low for anyone over 40 to hear. Or maybe we are not as dense as we seem. We just are not plugged in.
Gail Griffith is director of executive and leadership programs for Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. She wrote this commentary for the Christian Science Monitor.