Global village

9 September 2016

America was a time of challenging authority and established conventions. It was into this era that a Professor of Media studies at Toronto University rose to media personality status. Marshall Mcluhan is famous for introducing society to catchy aphorisms such as “the medium is the message”. Although his theories have always been contested, they were popular at the time and are currently enjoying a revival.

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One such theory is his vision of the “Global Village” which I will discuss in this essay. To understand the term, a comprehension of some of his other ideas is necessary. Mcluhan was influenced by Harold Adams Innis who suggested that each medium of communication had a time “bias” which affected the stability of society. In short, he saw that “time biased” media such as stone carving would endure time and lead to a stable society. “Space biased” media, such as papyrus, could easily be revised and lead to an unstable culture (Meyrowitz 1985:17).

Mcluhan went beyond this to suggest that different media have “sensory bias” (Postman went beyond this to argue that the medium contains an “ideological bias”). Mcluhan saw each new media invention as an extension of some human faculty. In The Medium is the Massage he notes, “All new media are extensions of some human faculty” (Mcluhan and Fiore 1967:26). The book illustrates some examples; the wheel of the foot, the book of the eye, clothing of the skin and electronic circuitry of the central nervous system. In terms of the “global village” the last extension is the most important.

He saw us as breaking our ties with a local society and, through our new electronic extensions, connecting globally to a new world of total involvement. “We now live in a Global Village…a simultaneous happening” (Mcluhan & Fiore 1967:63). He refers to the village as a global community, existing with a level of connection associated with small rural settlings. We can see evidence for this in terms of what is sometimes termed an “always on” culture. News travels instantaneously across the globe, 1 in 6 people own a mobile phone (Guardian 2002) and the Internet smashes old barriers of communication.

However, the Internet was in its infancy when Mcluhan used the term, which was first used in response to radio. There is some debate over the origin of the term “global village”. Eric Mcluhan writes that James Joyce reffered to a similar phrase, as did Wyndham Lewis. His opinion is that his father was probably already developing the concept and found it referenced in Lewis’ work afterwards. Mcluhan’s view of the “Global Village” was positive. He saw it championing greater social involvement and wrote, “In an electronic information environment, minority groups can no longer be ignored”

This is a technological determinist attitude as it holds the medium as the single key to their involvement. Mcluhan also notes, “there is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening” (Mcluhan and Fiore 1967:25). This is rather at odds with some of Mcluhan’s other material. He often makes poetically powerful statements about our helplessness in the face of technology (“All media work us over completely” (Mcluhan & Fiore 1967:26)). Digital TV offers increasing interactivity with Internet functions such as e-mail and online banking available next to greater entertainment choices.

It is being put to an alternative use in sheltered housing by allowing residents in difficulty to contact the manager; an example of how new technology is including minority groups. However, with the advent of digital TV the Government has come under pressure to sell the broadcasting spectrum that analogue occupies and is planning to do so before 2010. The effects of this look set to create a greater divide than the one it healed. 50% of homes currently have digital TV but a third of homes are unable to receive digital TV at all.

A report by the Department of Trade and Industry found that 6% of the population are likely to object to the switch-off based on the cost of upgrading and the belief that we watch too much TV (The Observer, 2004). If the analogue signal were to be switched off, those who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) receive digital TV would have no access to TV. The gap between rich and poor would accelerate and a greater social divide would exist. Technological Determinists refer to a “technological revolution” and since the invention of this term there has been concern for those left outside.

The issue is more complex than Mcluhan presents it and subject to factors beyond that of just the medium. In Mcluhan’s time the Internet was far from the widespread facility it is today. He died in 1980, but only 5 years later the system to which the phrase “online community” is most pertinent was operational. Internet forums allow a number of people across the globe to converse in real time. The Internet seems to provide the most convincing argument for the “global village”. With broadband most actions are instant, allowing the user to converse, transfer money, view information and order products regardless of geography.

Mcluhan’s idea of electronic circuitry extending the nervous system is easier to comprehend when you consider someone sitting down at a computer. The physical action of typing becomes the cause, but the effect is realised in an electronic global network. Meyrowitz notes how “At one time, parents had the ability to discipline a child by sending the child to his or her room-a form of ex-communication from social interaction” (Meyrowitz 1985:Preface). This is no longer the case. The Internet offers the possibility of extending our central nervous system across the globe.

It is intrinsic in today’s society and much has been written over its social effects. Wellman and Gulia remark, “those on either side of this debate assert that the Internet will create either wonderful new forms of community or will destroy communication altogether” (Wellman: “The Networked Community”). The reality is unlikely to be as clear as this (although Mcluhan’s “global village” would suggest that it is). Meyrowitz has argued that new media blur the boundaries between public and private behaviour (Meyrowitz 1985:93-114).

The same headline in a newspaper and read by a newsreader are two different messages. Print media does not invite the same depth of character analysis that TV does. The public broadcast begins to merge a private situation and invites a personal reading of the presenter. The personal homepage is an explicit example of the blurring between public and private boundaries. People from all walks of life are making available to the connected world their presentation of themselves. Cheung notes how it can be emancipatory as it allows you to rehearse your presentation (Cheung 2000).

Unlike face-to-face communication you can refine your presentation until you are content. Mcluhan envisaged the “global village” as creating a greater level of social involvement and to some extent we can see this happening with the personal homepage. Individuals are reaching out to a global mass audience to say, “this is me”. Grosswiler notes that Mcluhan “would have agreed with the idea that electronic media increase the desire for closeness and intimacy in the Global Village” (Grosswiler 1998:118).

However there is a problem in defining what we mean by “closeness and intimacy”. A personal webpage is more personal than the BBC homepage but not as personal as face-to-face communication. Mcluhan would argue that the “closeness and intimacy” on the personal webpage is the only type that exists as we live in the “global village”. For Mcluhan there was no other village and intimacy could be with anyone, anywhere. There is a tendency by those who consider the Internet in a technologically determinist way to view it in isolation.

The Internet is for most people not the totality of their social interaction, although it is becoming increasing possible to live your life without human contact. It is possible to order almost everything you could need using the Internet, yet town centres still exist. I may talk to friends online but the majority of communication with them will be face-to-face. Mcluhan is often accused of exaggerating his conclusions and this is evident. While the personal webpage is popular it doesn’t provide a substantial system of interaction.

It also clear that while a minority of people make friends online, face-to-face interactions comprise the majority. Mcluhan’s famous aphorism “the medium is the message,” represents the belief that the medium itself has social impact of which the masses are usually considered to be unaware. If the power of the media is so great, how is it that determinists such as Mcluhan can stand outside of it to comment? Furthermore Mcluhan thought that as soon as we are aware of something as environment, a greater process must be in effect (Mcluhan, Eric).

However, Mcluhan was considered knowledgeable enough to sit on a board set up to examine “the totality of communications problems in modern society” (McBride cited in Briggs and Burke 2002:258-260). The outcome of this report would have made interesting reading but unfortunately political conditions halted proceedings. Maybe I would be discussing a different concept if the report had gone ahead. Mcluhan once remarked that the one thing a fish is not aware of is water. The water determines everything the fish does yet the fish is blissfully unaware.

The point is that we are the fish and technology our water. However this doesn’t prove the argument, it simply explains it. At first glance the phrase appears clever yet contains no empirical evidence and is typical of Mcluhan’s inventive and persuasive useful of language. Mcluhan’s global village is perceived as optimistic. Yet a Marxist interpretation offered by Ang notes that “the making of the “global village” can be rewritten as the transformation, or domestication, of the non-Western Other in the name of capitalist modernity” (Ang 1996:150-180 cited in Grosswiler 1998:142).

While the idea of the spread of communication remains constant, it is seen to destroy individual non-western cultures to make way for capitalist exploitation. The sociologist Tom Nairn argues that while Mcluhan’s “global village” could be reality, it is prevented from being so by the social forms of capitalism” (Nairn 1968:150 cited in Grosswiler 1998:34). He is not denying that it is achievable, but notes, “The potential of electric media is, in fact, in contradiction with a great deal of the actual social world”. He accuses Mcluhan of creating myths and ignoring the contradictions of his theory.

The graphic below compare the distribution of Internet routers and the global population. (Soon-Hyung Yook, Hawoong Jeong, and Albert-Laszlo Barabasi at http://www. cybergeography. org/atlas/geographic. html) It is obvious from the map that the majority of the world is not connected. According to this the “global village” is made up of a minority of the worlds population. This is a model far from creating greater social involvement and has the potential to create a global divide between the connected and the unconnected.

In my introduction I cited a statistic claiming that 1 in 6 people own a mobile phone in support of the “global village” concept. As with Mcluhan’s aphorisms this initially seems persuasive but closer inspection reveals the truth. The statistic suggests proportionality. As Briggs and Burke explain, “While there were 600 million telephones in the world in 1982, half the world’s population lived in countries which together had fewer than ten million”. Again this undermines the “global village” vision and adds empirical weight to Nairn’s criticism that the potential of the media is in contradiction with reality.

As with the Internet, the “global village” is presented here as almost exclusively existing between developed western countries. Mcluhan’s vision dictated that minorities couldn’t fail to be incorporated, yet they have been excluded by virtue of being unconnected. Furthermore the Marxist view upholds that where third-world nations are included, it is only as means of stripping them of identity for capitalist ends. These points considered, it seems that Mcluhan’s vision is not a reality. Much of the world is unconnected and I need cite no evidence that it has not led to world peace.

However, it should be noted that Africa is currently leading the way in the realms of mobile phone ownership. It has become the first continent in which the number of mobile phone users exceeds that of landline subscribers. A report “has estimated that there will be 60 million people using mobile phones by the end of the year – more than double the 27 million who have a landline” and mobile phone ownership is growing at an annual rate of 65%, double the global average (Guardian, May 2004).

It seems that we may be fast heading toward a “global village”. However even with Africa’s growth in mobile phone ownership, this still only brings the total to 6% of the population (Guardian, May 2004) and Internet access is considerably lower. While it may be true that a virtual village has been created, it is far from the all-inclusive global vision that Mcluhan prophesised.

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