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McLuhan coined the now common term global village early in his career. He later came to prefer the term global theatre, since it better captured the sense of performativity that was characteristic of electric media. As is generally known now, global village refers to the notion that electric (or electronic) communication shrinks distances, while increasing opportunities for talk and cross-cultural sharing. This idea is closely linked to the notion that electronic technologies produce audile-tactile environments that have the potential to return to a mode of perceiving, thinking and interacting that is more characteristic of oral cultures than print cultures.
Yet this concept is not as utopian as many believe it to be, for the global village also produces discarnate and discontinuous ways of being. 22 Despite the ubiquitousness of the term, it has been highly criticized as being apolitical. Without a political dimension, the term quickly collapses into a strictly cultural one, bereft of an account of how capital and power operate within a globalized structure. Janine Marchessault puts it succinctly: "The digital divide is alive and growing stronger. This reality has made it imperative not to lose sight of the political economic infrastructures of media technologies and certainly never to take McLuhan's metaphors too literally." 23
McLuhan's conception of the global village has failed to account for the power dynamics in a globalized media environment. Despite recognizing that media had the potential to dominate indigenous cultures, his valorization of oral culture is often Orientalist and romantic. Further, he does not elucidate key political and economic questions, such as global divisions of labour and the widening gap between rich and poor, or issues of capital flow, the environment, migration and national sovereignty as impacted by transnational corporations.
What remains interesting about McLuhan's global village is his prescience about the ways that electronic technologies would alter how we do our daily business and how we relate to other people. In a number of interviews, McLuhan made remarkably accurate predictions about how different technologies would come together, that come pretty close to describing how the Internet has developed. Despite getting much of the hardware wrong, McLuhan's amazing acuity about the possibilities inherent in electronic technologies allowed him to predict the more important effects of the Internet: the total reorganization of our economy around information. McLuhan also believed that electronic technology would lead to the loss of private identity, an effect which he recognized as detrimental. This explains, in part, his turn to the metaphor of a theatre to describe the connectedness and speed of electric technologies.
Advertisement for Berliner Gram-o-phone Co. Ltd., 1914
Marshall McLuhan, January 21, 1967, photograph by Yousuf Karsh
Marshall McLuhan, December 1972, photograph by Lou Forsdale
War and Peace in the Global Village, Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, 1968
22. Marchessault, Marshall McLuhan, Cosmic Media, p. 213-214.
23. Marchessault, Marshall McLuhan, Cosmic Media, p. 221.