ON several evenings recently I counted the languages spoken at the playground where I take my daughter. English and Spanish were constants, French and Chinese were frequent, and on various nights I could hear Dutch, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, and Russian -- just what one would expect in Silicon Valley, which is a magnet for engineers, designers, managers, and other professionals from all over the world. Many of the families here maintain traditional customs and active ties to the countries where they (or their parents or grandparents) were born, but also deal easily with American institutions and culture. Several children at the playground were of mixed ancestry, like my daughter (and me). There's no commonly accepted term for people like us: our lives cross too many boundaries -- racial, ethnic, national -- that are usually (and erroneously) regarded as fixed and all-important. Call us hybrids -- or, a cruder term, mongrels. Hybrids today are growing in numbers, public prominence, and economic importance: they jump-start regional and national economies, give industries a critical edge, strengthen states, and diversify the intellectual capital of corporations. Indeed, according to G. Pascal Zachary's new book, The Global Me, hybridity is the modern philosopher's stone, the key to economic vitality among global corporations and advanced nations.
Institutions and nations that know how to intermingle traditions have been around for a good while. Cross-cultural trade has long been a part of world history, and the leaders of the early and medieval Christian Church came from all over Europe and the Mediterranean. In the modern era skilled migrants have energized European cities -- such as seventeenth-century Amsterdam and nineteenth-century London -- that needed outsiders to develop local industries and global connections. What's different today is the degree to which such mixing produces a new kind of people, and to which hybridity's benefits translate into significant economic advantages. Many factors now favor hybrids, who are more numerous and visible than ever: transnational, interracial, and multi-ethnic marriages are at an all-time high. Civil-rights activism over decades has created an atmosphere in many advanced nations in which discrimination is discouraged (if it hasn't been eliminated) and mixed social identities are possible. Transoceanic telephone service, e-mail, and international flights have made it easier to maintain strong, real-time ties around the world. Disney and Nike are global commodities, but so are Hong Kong action films, African music, and Brazilian soap operas (this kind of globalization has been accelerated by the Web). Transnational careers and reverse migration are more common. Finally, a greater consciousness of the "invention of tradition" has made it easier for people to see conventional ethnic and racial categories as resources, not restrictions, and to define themselves not just by what they "are," or what others say they are, but by work, passionate interests, and experiences. Such people aren't rootless cosmopolitans or eternal outsiders, Zachary argues; it's now possible to have both "roots" and "wings" -- to develop meaningful affiliations without renouncing one's origins.
ADVANCED nations welcome such people in part because their information-intensive economies need them. Hybridity -- whether in the boardroom, on the project team, or in the regional office -- hardwires creativity into an enterprise. It provides access to a distinctive expertise that can help to serve local markets without resorting to the insulting tactic of race-based marketing. "Rather than try to pigeonhole its customers," The Global Me argues, "the hybrid enterprise acts as if they are all mongrels." In other contexts hybridity permits a measure of ethnographic distance that is valuable in asking basic questions and challenging convention. Multinational corporations use people with mixed backgrounds to find their way in local markets, customize standard products for new circumstances, and finesse international tensions while maintaining their own technical standards and practices. Indeed, work emerges as one of the new critical sources of identity: in many of the case studies of individuals that are scattered throughout The Global Me (some first written about by Zachary in his capacity as a Wall Street Journal reporter), professional ability or devotion to work is as defining as nationality. Even sports teams benefit from mixing it up. European soccer teams now combine German offensive strength, Brazilian flamboyance, and English long-ball handling. The 2000 U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team includes racers from Belgium, Britain, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, and South Africa, as well as the United States.
Nations themselves benefit from the commingling of races and ethnicities. Ireland recently began to welcome foreign immigrants and descendants of the Irish diaspora, and this has resulted in a resurgent economy and the beginnings of a more expansive Irish identity. (In contrast, Germany and Japan, two nations notable for their arm's-length official attitudes toward foreigners, are heading into economic and demographic trouble.) Despite the growing importance of trade organizations and multinational corporations, nations continue to play a critical, sometimes slighted role in the global economy. If they guarantee individuals' rights and punish discrimination, set economic and immigration policies that encourage foreign investment while limiting exploitation of labor and the environment, and use history and national symbols to promote social cohesion and inclusiveness, they can contribute to global development and reap benefits locally. Alternatively, they can promote suspicion of outsiders, cast minorities as villainous strangers, and consign themselves to the world's backwaters. This also means that traditional ethnic-based politics, whether played out in cities or in national assemblies, is economically unaffordable: leaders will have to learn how to cross gerrymandered ethnic boundaries and deal with people as -- well, as people, rather than as members of manipulable groups.
T is enthusiastic about hybridity, but Zachary has no illusions about the difficulty of developing and sustaining a mongrel identity. Doing so requires a knowledge of the limits society places on the process, a large measure of self-consciousness and honesty, and a refusal to choose sides or give up when asked what you really are. But rather than focus on the problems, Zachary wisely -- and, I think, rightly -- is fundamentally upbeat about the enterprise: it's a trial, but a trial of faith. Built into this perspective are assumptions that will infuriate liberals and conservatives alike. Some left-leaning readers will dismiss the book's view of corporations as creative, changeable enterprises that are "hybrid hothouses," rather than monolithic, rapacious entities (The Global Me focuses on high-tech and consulting companies, not agribusiness or apparel). They may also reject its claim that multiculturalism can be a competitive advantage in the marketplace, as an attempt to make global capitalism hip. But the idea that racial and ethnic backgrounds can actually be useful in the workplace (even in unpredictable ways) will draw fire from conservatives. Anyone who believes that race and ethnicity determine world views (or that multiracial classification is the enemy of traditional racial politics) will be challenged by Zachary's existential, make-your-own view of identity and his rigorous insistence on the instability of racial and ethnic categories. This ideological eclecticism and the array of sources on which the book draws shows that The Global Me is itself a hybrid, a work that crosses boundaries and eludes academic classification.
The author of two earlier books (the underappreciated about the development of Windows NT, which combined The Soul of a New Machine's inside view of high-tech innovation with Quake's high body count; and a biography of the American science czar Vannevar Bush), Zachary is making a bid to become a serious public intellectual who can combine familiarity with the scholarly literature and contemporary politics and economics with firsthand reporting. His account of the trials of multiracial, multinational identity is so good that I'll give it to my daughter when she starts asking the hard questions.
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is a historian and a Web developer for the Stanford University library.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 2000; Mongrel Capitalism - 00.11; Volume 286, No. 5; page 118-120.