Marshall McLuhan's 'Global Village'

Benjamin Symes

In the introduction to McLuhan's Understanding Media he writes: ‘Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned’ (1964: p.3). Like much of McLuhan's writing this statement is vast and poetic, with its strength of conviction making it quite persuasive. But if we are to be believers in this rhetoric we must have an understanding of what he means.

The underlying concept of McLuhan's view of electr(on)ic technology is that it has become an extension of our senses, particularly those of sight and sound. The telephone and the radio become a long distance ear as the television and computer extend the eye by projecting further than our biological range of vision and hearing. But in what way does McLuhan suggest how this has happened?

The basic precepts of his view are that the rapidity of communication through electric media echoes the speed of the senses. Through media such as the telephone, television and more recently the personal computer and the 'Internet', we are increasingly linked together across the globe and this has enabled us to connect with people at the other side of the world as quickly as it takes us to contact and converse with those who inhabit the same physical space (i.e the people that live in the same village). We can now hear and see events that take place thousands of miles away in a matter of seconds, often quicker than we hear of events in our own villages or even families, and McLuhan argues that it is the speed of these electronic media that allow us to act and react to global issues at the same speed as normal face to face verbal communication.

The effect of this McLuhan suggests is a new ability to experience almost instantly the effects of our actions on a global scale, just as we can supposedly do in our physical situations. Consequently he concludes we are forced to become aware of responsibilty on a global level rather than concerning ourselves solely with our own smaller communities. He writes: ‘As electrically contracted, the globe is no more than a village. Electric speed at bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion has heightened human awareness of responsibilty to an intense degree’ (1964: p.5).

Before I consider whether any justification lies in McLuhan's view I need to distinguish between two different meanings in the metaphor of the 'village'. In one sense the village represents simply the notion of a small space in which people can communicate quickly and know of every event that takes place. As he writes: ‘“Time” has ceased, 'space' has vanished. We now live in a global village... a simultaneous happening’ (1967: p.63). McLuhan is suggesting that through our 'extended senses' we experience events, as far away as the other side of the world, as if we were there in the same physical space. Watching the television premiere of the Gulf War and seeing the pilot's eye view of missiles reaching their targets, it would seem that McLuhan is right, but we do not experience the events around us solely through our ears and eyes. There is a large space between watching a war on the living room TV and watching a war on the living room floor. Our biological senses involve us in our situation whereas there is a sense of detachment in our 'extended senses' echoing the detachment of the afore-mentioned pilot. Through technology we bring the action closer to us, so the pilot can get a better shot, but it also enables us to stay at a safe physical distance, so our plane does not get shot down. Is there not a sense then that we are communicating through technologies that allow us to remain physically isolated?

In a broader and more ideal sense the village represents community and the idea that we can all have a role in shaping our global society. Mcluhan writes:

The image is of 'one being' connected by an electric nervous system within which the actions of one part will affect the whole. This idea seems apparent in both the workings of the global economy and our increasing awareness of the fragile eco-system. With the moon- landing came the first definate image of the globe and captured its fertility and beauty against the dark void, suggesting perhaps that the whole was alive. James Lovelock, the author of Gaia, said that it seemed ‘to scream the presence of life’ and as television brought us those pictures it strengthens the idea of communications technology creating this sense of oneness and potential harmony. As McLuhan writes:

It is with this idealistic view that McLuhan has gained prominence again amidst the emergence of the 'Internet', a medium that seems to promote the idea of an integrated global community. One of the major claims for the 'Internet' lies in the belief that it has the potential to break down centralized power, and help form a community that lives on a more integrated basis, with more shared responsibilty. This is the sense of McLuhan's 'interdependence', as he writes: ‘Electric technology... would seem to render individualism obsolete and... corporate interdependence mandatory’ (1962: p.1).

Is McLuhan suggesting that this web of communications technology spun itself catching individualism unawares? Is is not because of our individual differences that we communicate and look for community? Perhaps it is we as individuals who are looking for more inclusive ways of communicating and using these technologies to do so. Bell surely must have had some dream for what he wished his telephone to be. It seems we are often striving for some feeling of unity.

Looking back through other cultures and religions there has long been a sense of all connectedness between people and nature in both a spiritual and material way, with Buddhists believing in the oneness of everything, and Native Americans believing that if you take from the earth you must give something back. In this context the earth seen from space was not a new symbol but more a confirmation of some feeling that already existed.

Perhaps, in western civilization, it was the circumnavigation of the world that first planted the seeds of a global community, for a flat world has margins whereas the model of a globe suggests that there are no edges and that we are all connected by its very geometry. There is a sense then that we have always wanted the world to be a global village and that McLuhan is working within this ideal of community himself. Mondo 2000 says of McLuhan: ‘Reading McLuhan is like reading Shakespeare - you keep stumbling on phrases that you thought were cliches, only this guy made them up’ (1992: p.166). It could be argued that far from making it up, McLuhan is simply naming an already present concept. By writing about a global village he is creating a greater awareness of that concept and this in turn stengthens the ideal in people's minds. It seems that it is the ideal that is the 'message' and McLuhan's statements that are the 'massage'. As he wishes: 'The electronic age' has sealed 'the entire human family into a single global tribe’ (1962: p.8).

But if we disentangle ourselves from the way that McLuhan would like to see the world, it seems likely that the world was circumnavigated with a more imperial purpose in mind. Technology is still used today to help us understand our environment and in doing so makes us more able to predict it and control it. Just as the discoverers of the new world brought back their own accounts, the media through which we hear of events and the way in which we hear and see them is mediated by those who run the corporations that pay for these technologies. We see that which is considered 'important' for us to see, and these decisions are often far from in our hands. McLuhan writes: ‘Today,electronics and automation make mandatory that everybody adjust to the vast global environment as if it were his little home town’ (1968: p.11). But 'little home towns' still have sheriffs who 'don't want no strangers in town' and there is a sense that the technology that is used to connect people together is also used to exclude people who are seen as not being able to give anything to the community or who perhaps do not share the 'right' values (i.e. those of the greater community). If the 'global village' is run with a certain set of values then it would not be so much an integrated community as an assimilated one, and this carries with it a reflection of the 'Big Brother' society.

Again the claims of many of those that use the 'Internet' are that as information becomes freely accessible we break down centralized power and mediation. However, information is not simply a package to be collected and shown on screen, for we all interpret the information relative to our individual experience. In order for communications technology to build an all inclusive global village surely everyone has to want to live in that village. People will only communicate what they wish to communicate and governments are hardly likely to do a 'Top Secret World Wide Web Home Page'. We are only able to access certain sites on the net which are placed there for us to see and there are only as many sites as there are people with computers. This leaves much of the developing world outside the village walls.

McLuhan seems to assume that the entire population of the globe is plugged in to communications technology to the same extent. That we can hear of any single event at any time we choose. Indeed it is increasingly difficult not to hear of world events, for even if, as individuals we choose not to turn on the television or answer the phone, we are informed by others who do, but we cannot yet connect with anyone we wish anywhere in the world.

Perhaps we are laying the foundations of the global village and eventually everybody may be connected through an inclusive web, but even if we were all connected and aware of our interdependence would not mean we could all instantly get to know each other and solve our problems. We have trouble enough living together harmoniosly in cities and as humans there is a sense that we can only know a limited number of people well - in The Human Animal Desmond Morris suggests the number as around 150 - and so although our personal tribe of friend may be spread across the globe, how can we possibly feel a strong sense of community with all the millions of us on this earth? Besides can we have as intimate a relationship with people through a telephone line? I personally do not believe we can.

McLuhan writes: ‘The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village’ (1962: p.31) His 'image' is a reflection of the way he interprets the world and wants it to be, and in a 'post-modern' sense, it could be argued that his view is thus justifiable as we all see the world through our own eyes based on our own values and beliefs. There is some truth in what he says in the sense of a greater awareness of global responsibility and his belief in closer analysis into the effects of these media, but he falls in his sweeping generalisations about the nature of mankind. Perhaps my essay should be entitled 'Understanding McLuhan: the Generalisations of Man.'

It is easy to see why McLuhan was popular in the counter culture of the sixties and is again today amidst the computer revolution, for his ideas encompass a an ideal that has perhaps always been with us. Is there not a possibility that if we place too much importance in achieving an idealistic unified global village, we perhaps risk losing a sense of our physical humanity and our identity and thus forget why we are communicating at all. I do not believe that we are anywhere near a global village in the sense of an integrated community and I'm not certain that as humans we could ever reach it. To achieve it we would have much communicating to do, and by that time we may had made the first tentative contact with extra-terrestrial life and so begin the long journey towards a 'universal hamlet'.

26th May 1995