What Is the Global Village?

Term Coined by Marshall McLuhan

Portrait of Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), Canadian theorist on communications who coined the phrases "Global Village" and "the medium is the message.". Bettmann/Getty Images

Communications technologies allow us to instantly connect with others around the world. This reduction in distance and isolation theoretically gives us the ability to form one community. Canadian media studies scholar Marshall McLuhan called this effect the “Global Village.” He described the population (us) as, “Intimately involved with each other, whether they like it or not, and captives of what they hear over the grapevine, whether it is true or not."

It seems like McLuhan described the internet. In fact, the World Wide Web grew after his death in 1980. The Global Village term was actually a child of the 60s. During that time, Apollo 11’s grand lunar landing and the Vietnam War’s tragedies could be viewed in the homes of ordinary folks.

Seeing global and extraterrestrial events, widespread telephone access, and businesses’ growing use of data-processing computers was altering society, McLuhan noted. These changes propelled a book culture into an electric media culture, with the capacity to fuse humanity as never before.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

The Global Village sounds safe, even desirable. But McLuhan was cynical about the impact on us, the villagers. When asked if togetherness would ease cultural tensions, he replied, “The closer you get together, the more you like each other? There is no evidence of that in any situation that we have ever heard of. When people get close together, they get more and more savage and impatient with each other.

"[Their] tolerance is tested in those narrow circumstances very much. Village people are not that much in love with each other. The Global Village is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations.”

Global Village: A Creation Story

McLuhan invented the pithy phrase. However, the underlying idea was riffed from French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1995). As a scientist, Teilhard accepted Darwinism. But evolution challenged the biblical account of the world’s creation. To bridge science and religion, Teilhard wrote that evolution was just one step on God’s path. He believed communications inventions like telegraphy already in use when he was born, as well as broadcast media and telephones, which emerged later in his life, were the next part of a Master Plan.

Teilhard called this new phase a noosphere, or “extraordinary network of radio and television communication which already link us all in a sort of ‘etherized human consciousness.’ The technology was creating a nervous system for humanity. A single organized unbroken membrane over earth. The age of civilization had ended, and that of one civilization is beginning.”

Teilhard’s embrace of Darwinism, which seemingly contradicted church views, cast a shadow over all his work. To avoid a negative taint, devout Catholic Marshall McLuhan never publicly credited the Frenchman, but he did so privately. As Teilhard’s efforts wound down, McLuhan saved the noosphere and re-fashioned it into the Global Village.

With help from adman and McLuhan fan Howard Gossage, the media studies scholar and his familiar phrase were featured in many 1960s and 70s popular-press articles and on TV talk shows. Though the term Global Village remained in use — it’s a dictionary entry — McLuhan’s influence briefly waned.

20/20 Foresight

Without Silicon Valley, he might have stayed relatively unknown. But tech magazine Wired, who dubbed him their patron saint, and other dot-commers highlighted the link between what McLuhan imagined and the internet. One of the features of his Global Village is that it offered users the ability to get information tailored specifically to their needs — which sounds exactly like the World Wide Web.

With this rebirth in attention came a revival of critique. Detractors noted that the Global Village is a “village of voyeurs, and thus not a village in its important interactive sense.”

Others noted that the “network was impeded by the lack of shared cultural context or perhaps even desire to communicate. These connections don’t happen by just giving people the tools to communicate. And this is why, given all the contemporary tools, you still don’t see people from Idaho having much interest in people from India. It doesn’t happen overnight just by giving people the tools.”

McLuhan’s Global Village also failed to foresee the internet’s ability to offer anonymity, which fuels tribalism.

The Global Village sprang from the ideas of two compatible, but different thinkers. Teilhard viewed the noosphere as the next step in God’s plan for international unity. McLuhan looked forward and saw a tribal community, where one of the “main kinds of sport is butchering each other.” The internet is a reflection of both ideas — and a realization of both extremes.

Diane Rubino is a communications instructor and professional who seeks to make the world more healthy, humane, and peaceful. She’s working with activists, NGOs, and scientists worldwide on gender equity, international development, human rights, and public health issues. Diane teaches at NYU and runs applied ethics, facing tough crowds, and workplace advocacy programs in the US and abroad.


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