Book Review: FROM SILK TO SILICON and a Brief History of Globalization

Last week, I caught up with some history reading, which is always fun.

From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives tells the stories of ten people who somehow pushed the boundaries of globalization and whose impacts we still feel today.

This is a sort of pop history book, with a lot of narration about the lives of the people that Garten covers. However, he uses each historical figures’ achievements (or otherwise) to explain how they changed the world around them and brought us closer to the globalized reality we now live in.

Such figures included Genghis Khan, Henry the Navigator, Robert Clive, Cyrus Field, Mayer Amschel Rothschild, John D. Rockefeller, Jean Monnet, Margaret Thatcher, Andy Grove, and Deng Xiaoping.

Garten’s book is simultaneously a fascinating overview of the lives and achievements of 10 immensely influential historical figures, and a salient argument for the ultimate good that globalization can bring.

I was particularly struck by the stories of Jean Monnet, the visionary who laid the groundwork for the European Union, and Deng Xiaoping, who brought capitalist principles to Communist China and opened it to global trade. Most popular history of the post-war period focuses on the Marshall Plan or the rise of the Soviet bloc. But Garten provides a perspective of post-war Europe that is Euro-centric, and of midcentury China that explains its seemingly shocking economic rise.

Garten’s summary of each protagonist’s globalist legacy helps frame their lives info terms of their longer term impact, which he then summarizes again at the end.

It’s clear that Garten sees globalization as an ultimately positive force in the world. However, he does not shy away from the faults and often brutal tactics used by some of them. Yes, Prince Henry opened the West African coast to trade, but he also essentially created the European slave trade.

Garten also readily acknowledges the big challenges that globalization has brought, not only in the twenty-first century, but well before: a widening gap between the very rich and very poor, an interdependent economy that is more susceptible to widespread crises, and concerns over cultural identity being subsumed by larger political forces.

Still, Garten seems to believe that the interdependence of countries within a more globalized economy will ultimately lead to greater stability. I tend to agree with him, but that is likely personal bias being reinforced by a book that doesn’t dig too deeply into economics.

I think this is a great intro to the concept of the global economy. It’s also a solid history book. Overall, I enjoyed this listen and now have a few people I want to learn more about.

Steve D

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