- Editor's Preface
Are we approaching peak globalization, the high point in the dominance of this particular mode of production that also leads inextricably to its decline? If globalization does peak, will what replaces it improve the working conditions of Asian Americans, and of labor in general, or alter them in some more imbalanced way? Could the loss of globalization's dominance engender new forms of nationalism in the United States that would militate against the political, social, and cultural gains that many Asian Americans have made? What happens to the export-oriented economies of third-world countries if the market for their goods begin to dissipate in the US? What happens to the global flows of people that have accompanied, and occasionally been impeded by, these global flows of commerce? It is one of the luxuries of academic work that we can indulge in some speculation. For those in the field of Asian American studies, however, the stakes of a process like globalization reaching its peak and starting to morph into something else are high enough that such speculation might not be a luxury.
For example, consider these recent developments. Google is preparing to manufacture a line of its consumer electronics in the US. Apple has just announced it's doing the same with a line of computers. American Giant is a small start up making waves with a line of sweatshirts manufactured in the Bay Area. It's following the lead of American Apparel, which also does the same. Wild-eyed futurists are looking at the growing sophistication [End Page v] of three-dimensional printers, and wondering if they might someday replace the factory as the basis of a domestic, small-batch, on-demand manufacturing industry. And, of course, food activists have long been advocating the virtues of eating locally.
These examples are undoubtedly too few to suggest we are witnessing the emergence of a trend. The vast majority of consumer electronics and clothes, as well as so many other things, are produced abroad, and industrial food production sprawls across impressive geographic distances. All of this is the end result of decades of globalization that encouraged companies to move their production overseas and to emphasize design and marketing as their best route to outsized profits. Stan Shih, the founder of Acer computer, called this line of thought the "smiling curve." That is, if you tried to plot the lifecycle of a consumer product on a graph, what you'd find is that the value added to a product spiked during research and development, dipped to a nadir during fabrication, and then spiked again during marketing. The resulting smile that appeared on such a graph has a simple message to convey to the corporate world: focus activity where you get the most value, and profit, and let someone else take care of the least valuable part of your business.
The fundamentals of the global economy continue to favor this logic. Labor remains cheap in far off places. Regulations and safety concerns that could drive up the cost of manufacturing remain relatively lax there. And even if the cost of transportation is starting to creep upward, this cost is more than offset by the savings that making products in places like China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka enable. On the other hand, the political conditions in the United States, and elsewhere, may be changing. There is a growing dissatisfaction with globalization, and the inequalities it facilitates. Imbalances in wealth distribution in this country are beginning to capture more of the public attention, sparked in part by the recent financial crisis and the rise of protest movements like Occupy. Greater concern for environmental distress, and especially climate change, has enlivened interest in the revival of local production and local cultures. Calls for eating food produced nearby and of eschewing a consumerism based on waste are weaving a discourse that's ever more accommodating of all forms of artisanal quality-control, regional [End Page vi] sourcing, and small-batch manufacturing. It does not feel farfetched to suggest that these factors are starting to create conditions that will lead larger corporations to feel the need to offer more than nods to...