Book Review | From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives by Jeffrey E. Garten

silk_to_siliconIn 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.

From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives Book Cover From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives
Jeffrey E. Garten
March 1, 2016

The story of globalization, the most powerful force in history, as told through the life and times of ten people who changed the world by their singular, spectacular accomplishments.

This is the first book to look at the history of globalization through the lens of individuals who did something transformative, as opposed to describing globalization through trends, policies, or particular industries. From Silk to Silicon tells the story of who these men and women were, what they did, how they did it and how their achievements continue to shape our world today. They include:

• Genghis Khan, who united east and west by conquest and by opening new trade routes built on groundbreaking transportation, communications, and management innovations.

• Mayer Amschel Rothschild, who arose from an oppressive Jewish ghetto to establish the most powerful bank the world has seen, and ushered in an era of global finance.

• Cyrus Field, who became the father of global communications by leading the effort to build the transatlantic telegraph, the forerunner to global radio, TV, and the worldwide Internet.

• Margaret Thatcher, whose controversial policies opened the gusher of substantially free markets that linked economies across borders.

• Andy Grove, a Hungarian refugee from the Nazis who built the company—Intel—that figured out how to manufacture complex computer chips on a mass, commercial scale and laid the foundation for Silicon Valley’s computer revolution.

Through these stories Jeffrey E. Garten finds the common links between these figure and probes critical questions including: How much influence can any one person have in fundamentally changing the world? And how have past trends in globalization affected the present and how will they shape the future? From Silk to Silicon is an essential book to understanding the past—and the future—of the most powerful force of our times.

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.