The Continued Rise of Global Uniformities

Last October, I went to Mexico without being able to speak Spanish. I would call my knowledge of the language "less-than-survival level." However, I managed to do pretty well navigating the daily need-to-do tasks I had while in Oaxaca. Why is that? I mean, it could have been far more difficult for me to spend five days in Mexico without knowing the language—but it wasn't. The historian in me has only one conclusion to make: The main reason I managed as easily as I did was because of the continued rise of global uniformities.

In his book The Birth of the Modern World, Christopher Bayly traces what he names "the rise of global uniformities" from 1780 to 1914.

Let's explore what this concept means for all of us.

The rise of global uniformities describes all those aspects of human life, ranging from the minuscule to the incredibly important, that became (and are still becoming) more and more similar across the globe.

Tlingit people wearing European
clothing, photographed 1869
Let's take one great modern example—clothing. Most people don't think of clothing as having much of a role in history, but it does. For millennia, human beings made clothes for just themselves, their families, and their small communities. In pre-modern centuries, some trade in textiles and clothing grew, but the nineteenth century saw an explosion in the production and long-distance exchange of what people wore. India exported massive amounts of textiles to Europeans; then Britain overtook it with industrialization; then other nations—like the United States—entered the global capitalist competition. Clothing was really one of the world's first industries, and the need for new markets to sustain its growth left its mark even in places like Tlingit-dominated Southeast Alaska.

outside Oaxaca—where the
streets have no names
The examples I noted in Oaxaca were mostly more mundane—and more recent—than the rise of mass-produced apparel, but these little uniformities go along way toward explaining how I survived so easily in Mexico, and they should challenge all of us to think about the common phenomena we take for granted in our modern lives.

  • First, there was my hostel—the system of having a front desk, room keys, showers, towels, predictable payment at the end. Sure, it all seems perfectly normal, but that uniform, predictable system must have started somewhere and then spread across the globe.
  • Then there were signs—the idea that streets should all have uniform labels, highways should have information posted, and so on. That certainly wasn't the expectation centuries ago, and still isn't true everywhere today. It wasn't even the case just outside the city of Oaxaca proper, where I took a hike and found my way just with my (usually poor) sense of direction.
  • In addition to signs, there were prices. Not ever vendor in the world posts the prices of their goods, to be sure, (probably not even most), but many more do today than did in the past—and that really does help if you're a foreigner. Receipts, too, were all uniformly printed by most stores.
  • The natural follow-up to signs and prices is measurement—the fact that currencies are decimalized, numbers are written and math treated pretty much the same everywhere, and, of course, the near-omnipresence of the metric system, dominating the modern world despite the idiotic intransigence of a country that shall not be named with over 300 million residents.
  • Finally, and perhaps most obviously, there's language. Many people in Oaxaca spoke English as a second language due to its continental and global influence, plus its value in the tourist industry—not just because of native English-speaking tourists, but because English is the common linguistic denominator for so many other people as well, like Europeans staying in my hostel.
inside my hostel in Oaxaca
The rise of global uniformities clearly made it easier for me to get by in Mexico, despite my cultural illiteracy and linguistic ignorance. There's no way I could have adjusted or functioned as easily, or understood daily activities as readily, had I been a visitor a century ago.

Let me know in the comments what you can think of as examples of increasing similarities around the world. Whether mundane or all-important, there's no doubt that many aspects of how we live are becoming more globalized and uniform than ever before.