When I was growing up, my only “window” to other societies and cultures was National Geographic, a magazine that arrived once a month and which contained glossy pictures of exotic foreign lands.
Like many families, we never threw away National Geographic. Years of issues of the magazine were stacked up in a bookcase, where every once I would go through them and look at pictures of places that interested me. It was an “archive” that was easy to access as the names of the places covered in each issue were printed on the binding: Lebanon, Canada, Brazil, Japan, Afghanistan.
National Geographic, of course, did exoticize the world for Americans. As Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins noted in their 1993 critique of the magazine, Reading National Geographic, the magazine promoted “a kind of conservative humanism that acknowledges universal values and celebrate[d] diversity while it allow[ed] readers to relegate non-Western peoples to an earlier stage of progress.”
That may be true, but this also made the world fascinating to its readers. It made one wonder what life is like in those “other” places. How did “those” people live? What was it like “there”? And ultimately, this led many people to seek to find out.
Today, on the other hand, those “other” places are all over the place, including on everyone’s cell phones, and as a result, there is, I would argue, less mystery.
For instance, over 26 million people have watched this moving Thai insurance commercial in the past year and a half:
But do any of those 26 million people have any desire to learn more about Thailand? To study Thai?
I have my doubts. I think they will just wipe their tears and move on to a more upbeat YouTube video from some other part of the world.
Meanwhile, National Geographic has responded to the critiques of scholars like Lutz and Collins and has moved away from portraying people in other parts of the world as at “an earlier stage of progress.”
Today it focuses on topics like “insects” and “water,” and when it does feature a society, the photographs are so stylized and artistic that they no longer seem real.
So I can’t see that National Geographic will inspire anyone to learn about another society anymore, but what will?
In Southeast Asia there has been a push in recent years to make ASEAN a more cohesive region, and for that to happen, people need to learn about each other, but. . . as far as I can tell, most people just don’t care.
After all, there’s always a video on YouTube that is more interesting than a foreign society.