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The Global Village
We're all neighbors now.
We left our last post thinking about the Global Village. We talked about some of the elements of cultures without writing and alluded to how those effects are transformed into something familiar but also different in our time.
All this makes us ask: What is the Global Village?
The Global Village is a concept first introduced in the 1960s:
The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.1
McLuhan goes further in his next book to say:
Electric speed in bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion has heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree… [Various groups of people] can no longer be contained, in the political sense of limited association. They are now involved in our lives, as we in theirs, thanks to the electric media.2
So let’s think about this for a moment. Why does this happen?
Electric media (read: radio, television, the internet, iPhones) remove the distance between people.
When I say distance here, I don’t mean that we all live right next to each other, but in the sense that we can now FaceTime each other in the same fashion whether we are neighbors or we are across the world. We’ve not really talked about these ideas’ implications on physical space (our environments), but they are tremendous.
Before the rise of the telegraph, if you wanted to send a message across the country, how would you do it? It could take days (or likely weeks) to get a communication from New York to California. We can see this dynamic playing out from the rise of the nation-state (think ancient empires) through the rise of the telegraph: nations rise and fall on their roads because those roads are the primary means of their communication. How many times in history classes have we discussed how the Roman’s road systems let them control their vast empire like none before had?
With the rise of the telegraph, all that changes. First, communication across the state, then the country, then the world becomes instantaneous. Now granted, it’s not high quality, but it is instant. Our world since the telegraph has been largely marked by the increasing quality of our space collapsing media.
Now the telegraph is itself is so feeble compared to the technologies we have today. With my job, I talk with clients in the UK and the Philippines just like they were in Atlanta or down the road in Greenville.
As McLuhan puts it,
Our speedup today is not a slow explosion outward from the center to the margins but an instant implosion and an interfusion of space and functions. Our specialist and fragmented civilization of center-margin structure is suddenly experiencing an instantaneous reassembling of all its mechanized bits into an organic whole. This is the new world of the global village.3
Practically, what does this look like? If you have time, take a look at this clip of McLuhan discussing The Global Village and his ideas from the early 1960s.
This video of McLuhan being interviewed in 1960 is big on the grand ideas of the Global Village's coming. McLuhan notes:
These new media of ours … have made our world into a single unit….the world is now like a continually sounding tribal drum, where everybody gets the message…. all the time. A princess gets married in England and boom boom boom go the drums and we all hear about it; an earthquake in North Africa, a Hollywood star gets drunk…away go the drums again. I use the word tribal….it is probably the key word …
I wonder what McLuhan would have thought about the live feeds from the UK for William and Kate's wedding and our current culture’s obsession with British Royalty? (No fear and no judgment; I’m current on The Crown)
Walter Ong, writing a little more than 20 years after the McLuhan clip above, says,
Secondary orality is both remarkably like and unlike primary orality. Like primary orality, secondary orality has generated a strong group sense, for listening to spoken words forms hearers into a group, a true audience, just as reading written or printed texts turns individuals in on themselves. But secondary orality generates a sense for groups immeasurably larger than those of primary oral culture–McLuhan’s “global village.” Moreover, before writing, oral folk were group-minded because no feasible alternative had presented itself. In our age of secondary orality, we are group-minded self-consciously and programmatically. The individual feels that he or she, as an individual, must be socially sensitive. [Emphasis mine]4
So the global village, roughly put, is our new (in terms of human history) ability to be “totally aware” and “sensitive” to the happenings in our world.
As we talked about a few weeks back, McLuhan viewed the electric age as “the age of anxiety.” 5 And I think we can begin to see why. All of that awareness. All of that sense of responsibility.
Neil Postman, quoting Henry David Thoreau, notes:
“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate… We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whopping cough”6
McLuhan himself notes:
If we understood our older media, such as roads and the written word, and if we valued their human effects sufficiently, we could reduce or even eliminate the electric factor from our lives.7
This is such a quaint thought today:
McLuhan, living in 1964 Canada, was concerned enough about the effects of electric technology that he was suggesting that we might “eliminate the electric factor from our lives.”
So what are these downsides? How does our embrace of electric media as a culture have us run the risk of “amusing ourselves to death?”8
See you again next week as we continue our exploration.
Further Reading & Notes:
I love how all these authors made repeated references to the British Crown as an example of the type of information we would be getting more quickly.
In my early years, I read McLuhan as being more optimistic, Ong being very academic, and Postman as the “prophetic” voice calling for “repentance” from our electric ways. While I think Postman is still very much the prophet of the group, my re-reading of these works has changed some of that perception in my mind, especially for McLuhan. While McLuhan gets some grief in academic circles for his more bombastic expression style and short, concise saying that gets rid of any nuance, I think he saw the potential downsides and was warning about them. I also think that, when I first encountered this work in the pre-2010 era, we had seen a lot less than we’ve seen now. Funny how time and a good re-read change things.