In From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives, Jeffery Garten offers a brief history of globalization over the course of humanity’s history. It’s an enjoyable jaunt through the last thousand years, and while Garten’s approach is less that of a historian and more of a layman’s, his broad strokes make the book accessible.
In contrast to other books on globalization, which focus on the forces of war, trade, and migration, From Silk to Silicon examines ten individuals of whose “heroic deeds” gave globalization a “gigantic boost” towards interconnectedness. Each individual is chosen for their role in making the world smaller and more interconnected, spanning a period commencing with Genghis Khan in the twelfth century up until the present. Each individual was transformational, were “first movers” in their field or arena and thus had an outsize impact, and was a doer (in contrast to a thinker). None were particularly saints, but Garten sees their impact as, in totality, unambiguously positive.
Without a doubt, the stories he tells–the lives he describes–are fascinating. Here is Genghis Khan, who rises with ruthless brutality and genius to dominate the steppes and then the entire landmass from China to Iraq, followed by Henry the Navigator, a desperate royal son without a kingdom to inherit, the first to begin to explore the coast of Africa (and to introduce slavery of its population to the world). Robert Clive ekes out the British Empire almost single-handedly from India, while the Rothschilds rise from the Frankfurt Jewish to become the first international bankers. Then there’s Cyrus Field, who lays the first telegraph across the Atlantic, shrinking the world from the distance crossed in weeks by sail-power to just the minutes necessary for semaphore to travel telegraph lines. John D. Rockefeller creates the modern energy industry, while also becoming the archetype for modern philanthropy, and Andrew Grove, a Jewish refugee from war torn central Europe, goes on to make Intel the most influential creator of chips that drive the Information Age. Garten’s group isn’t complete without politicians, either: Margaret Thatcher is here, as well as is Jean Monnet and Deng Xiaoping.
Anyone of them could, and has, spawned their own biographies, and Garten makes no attempt to pose as a replacement for these. Rather, From Silk to Silicon feels like an entry-level examination of the impact an individual can have on the future of human endeavor and the increasingly interconnected world. No, they weren’t validations of the “great man theory of history,” says Garten. They were as much a product of their time as they were influential in shifting the course of events. “The people in this book were of their time and they made their time,” Garten writes. “They steered history only insofar as they seized the opportunity that contemporary circumstances afforded them.”
In closing, Garten asks whether the world is becoming too complex for a single individual to continue to make the kinds of contributions that the ten individuals he discusses have made. He sees the challenges faced by his ten protagonists as no less formidable than those we face today. They, like us, lived in revolutionary times. And yet, the complexities of the modern world are not too much for the emergence of another in the types of Khan, Thatcher, or Rockefeller. To each, their age must have been complex to the time, and it is the ability to take advantage of shifting circumstances, identify a major problem, and attack it at the weakest point that will create the next transformational leaders.