The global village

Electronic interconnectedness has transformed the world into a global village in which our lives are intertwined. "As electrically contracted, the globe is no more than a global village."8 Here McLuhan is not making the commonplace observation that: "It's a small world", but making a judgement of the anthropological effect of space and time effectively being collapsed to restore the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which, he believes, a few centuries of literacy divorced us.

The instantaneousness of communications technologies has collapsed the distance between cultures. "In the electronic age we necessarily participate in depth in the consequences of our every action...the electric implosion...compels commitment and participation."9

The contra-argument has been put by Jean Baudrillard10 and others that the electronic age which brought the Vietnam War into our living rooms has made us global voyeurs rather than global villagers. But to take this view is to mistake the content for the message, and to accept too rosy a vision of village life. Salem was a village too. Those of us experiencing discomfort at the spectacle of Iraqis burned on the road to Basra do so inasmuch as we see this happening in our global village. The concept of the global village is no less helpful when it affords a clearer picture of how monstrous some of our neighbours are.

Although reporting of the Crimean War effectively brought down a government, the Boer War was possibly the first media war inasmuch as overseas atrocities could be brought to the attention of the European public for purposes of propaganda. Awareness of the thugs in our village is merely a step towards stopping the thuggishness which we may hitherto have allowed ourselves to be unaware of, like the "good Germans" during Hitler's holocaust. The response of liberal public opinion to nightly images of the Vietnam war was encouraged subsequent US presidents to make a point of avoiding involvement in protracted conflicts.

Village life is as much about excluding strangers as including neighbours. As the electronic media continue to extend our options, many can withdraw from our closest geographical neighbours and develop relationships with individuals spread across the globe.

Neil Harris, a manager at a company that sets up computer conferences who sells information to 200,000 members, expresses the view that the internet falls short of McLuhan's vision: "At first I thought this was Marshal McLuhan's global village coming to reality. But it's not that at all. It's a lot of people connecting in hundreds of small communities based around highly specific interests."11 This objection appears to be based on a content fixation. Villages, after all, are small communities based around highly specific interests. The internet has undoubtedly facilitated a globalisation that allows a proliferation of different customised realities within the same global village.

In the Village Voice, Jeff Salamon also misses the point when he writes: "Contrary to grand predictions that the internet would open up our world, it has mostly offered people the opportunity to pack themselves into ever smaller worlds, where enthusiasms mutate into obsessions, and a reality check is a parallel dimension away"12

In an e-mail interview with Mark Dery, Howard Rheingold says: "We are far more deeply enmeshed with each other as inhabitants of this planet than ever before, as a result of the media McLuhan was discussing. But that doesn't mean the human condition has become rosier. We're all in on the action in Bosnia, but we can't do anything about it."13 But it is not true that we cannot do anything about Bosnia. To a large extent it is global concern about Bosnia that kept it on the agendas of politicians in the US and Europe despite the absence of any valuable minerals in the region.

8 Understanding Media p. 5
9 Understanding Media p. 4
10 Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil, (Paris: Verso, 1990) p. 75
11 John Markoff, 'Locking the doors in the Electronic Global Village', New York Times, July 28 1991
12 Jeff Salamon 'The Revenge of the fanboys', Village Voice, September 12, 1994
13 Mark Dery, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium's Messenger 1996 Accesssed May 10, 1998.