2012: The Year the World Moved

01/03/2013 09:36 am ET | Updated Mar 05, 2013

And so we alight upon the New Year, fiscal cliff and Mayan doomsday safely averted. So, what have we learned and what can we be sure of? Only that the media makes a great deal of money from anxiety and, doubtless, is hard at work on the next crisis. Meantime, 2012 recedes into the past. As it does, my mind turns to the quirky in 2012 rather than the querulous, those things that made 2012 interesting. For example -- a study released during the holidays by the National Intelligence Council, the product of four years of research, looked at the world in 2030 and offered a number of pronouncements. The one most quoted was that China will have the largest economy, surpassing that of the United States a few years before 2030. While the country sputtered in the third quarter, the World Bank is predicting a recovery next year as the Chinese central bank loosens credit, causing GDP to expand by more than 8 percent next year. We shall see. As Y2K and the Mayan calendar have shown us, the future is a tricky thing. But change was underfoot in other ways than economic and political in 2012 -- ways that none of the think tanks and pundits registered.

Let's start with this bit of anecdotal evidence for a new order of things: the extent to which China, and for that matter, emerging countries created worldwide cultural phenomena in 2012, even when the West was nonplussed. Consider Life of Pi, the marvelous new film by Ang Lee. To be sure, the film has done respectably in the U.S., earning $80 million since its release, but that hardly makes it a domestic hit (that's roughly what The Expendables 2 made during its run). But the story is very different in China where it grossed more than $68 million in its opening two weeks, more than The Dark Knight Rises ($53 million) and The Amazing Spider-Man ($49 million) earned in their entire runs. Reading the newspapers in Taiwan, you become aware that this film has become a cultural touchstone in much of the world with celebrities and fans tweeting and opining on its many ideas. Here is a film by a Taiwanese director with a largely Indian cast that has made double overseas what it's made in the U.S. and that will spike even more once the Golden Globes and Oscars are announced. As we look at prognostications about the economy and politics of 2030, is it possible that the axis of global culture is also moving to other places, or at least will be more evenly distributed in the decades to come?

The best example of this shift is, of course, the Korean hip-hop star Psy and the ubiquitous music video, "Gangnam Style," which has passed one billion views on YouTube, the most watched video ever. This is a musical act who didn't have a record deal in the West who bested Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. Psy's combined income, estimated by the Associated Press, just from the YouTube advertising and the singer's commercials will be just shy of $8 million in 2012. We shouldn't discount the significance of this -- it's now possible for an East Asian singing in a language spoken by 1 percent of the world's population to be a worldwide superstar. To be sure, other foreign-language artists like Kyu Sakamoto and Mocedades have made the charts but not in the dominating way that Psy has. With K-pop poised to do what Latin music did in the 1990s, could groups like Super Junior or Girls Generation or even African superstars, Akon or P-Square, be the next global megastars?

In the end, cultural memes take over the world because they transcend boundaries and remind us of the immensity of the world and that's exciting. As I watched Life of Pi, I was reminded of times when we as a country paid more attention to the world around us. I was reminded of films like Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal from Sweden, And Life Goes On from Iran and The Black Stallion from America. Like those films, Life of Pi is an old-fashioned regress to universal questions of meaning and divinity in the universe (it's also a stirring adventure tale with the greatest shipwreck scene since Titanic). These are things that all people care about. After the heartbreak of recent events in our world, Ang Lee's film dares to posit an Aristotelian God and a world that seems indifferent to human suffering and yet it offers hope in the form of the stories we tell ourselves and the insistence of meaning in our lives. Our hero loses everything and spends 227 days on a raft with a Bengal tiger and finds himself having to make sense of the ordeal. Forced to choose between a materialist, faithless reading or a gorgeous parable-like account of his adventure, our hero chooses the latter because it soothes his soul. Life of Pi is comfort at a time of flux, an idea designed to move the world.