The Era of the Global Village

What is the global village? It’s interesting to watch this clip exploring this idea in this interview with the man who first coined the term ‘global village’ back in the sixties, Marshall McLuhan. It explores the effects of various media on the way we relate to our lives, each other and our place in the world. McLuhan chose the insightful phrase “global village” to highlight his observation that an electronic nervous system (the media) was rapidly integrating the planet — events in one part of the world could be experienced from other parts in real-time, which is what human experience was like when we lived in small villages.

Marshall McLuhan’s insights made the concept of a global village, interconnected by an electronic nervous system, part of our popular culture well before it actually happened. He was the first person to popularize the concept of a global village and to consider its social effects. His insights were revolutionary at the time, and fundamentally changed how everyone has thought about media, technology, and communications ever since. McLuhan’s ideas have permeated the way we think about technology and media to such an extent that we are generally no longer aware of the revolutionary effect his concepts had when they were first introduced, so that when the Internet finally arrived in the global village it seemed no less amazing, but rather in the natural order of things.

Of particular note is the idea presented here that individualism would fade away to a global tribalism, where a person would accept the collective experience of the broader community, because now through the common media of the time, people experience the available information collectively as opposed to the previous media, namely books that were mostly an individual experience. This is a particularly interesting observation because at the time this was shot, roughly fifty years ago, the dominating media were radio, news media, telephones and television. And of these media there were not only few individual choices but they were mostly passive, one way information delivery mechanisms. Contrast today in the age of the internet and the reverse is true. With the advent of the internet, and social media in particular, we not only have easy access to extraordinary volumes of information that we choose, we have the ability to engage with it and redistribute it, both as an individual experience and as a collective one.

McLuhan’s second best known insight is summarized in the expression “the medium is the message”, which means that the qualities of a medium have as much effect as the information it transmits. For example, reading a description of a scene in a newspaper has a very different effect on someone than hearing about it, or seeing a picture of it, or watching a black and white video, or watching a colour video.

McLuhan was particularly fascinated by the medium of television, calling it a “cool” medium, noting its soporific effect on viewers. He took great satisfaction years later when medical studies showed that TV does in fact cause people to settle into passive brain wave patterns. It has even been called by some ‘the opiate of the masses’, referring to this sedative and possibly even addictive type quality. It is perhaps this effect he observed that led him to be concerned about the possibility for the abuse of this power for manipulating perception.

This is of course, still of concern, where the historic holders of power are keen to maintain that power and traverse into the medium of this era by attempting to control and criminalise the flow of information. While this may start out seemingly benignly, by protecting copyrights for example, the ramifications of this kind of attempt to clamp down on the freedom of accessing and disseminating information are large and have far reaching effects. As Aaron points out in the video below the nature of the internet is things get copied all the time, even the senator in favou of the copyright law had code copied on his own website, it’s up to us whether the internet will remain open and free for the benefit of all or whether the powerful few will have laws introduced to tip it in the direction of increasing levels of spying and control.