“The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village” —Marshall McLuhan
In the late 1960s, Marshall McLuhan speculated that TV and other new telecommunications technologies were transforming the world into a single, “global village.” Events over the following 20 years suggested that McLuhan’s prediction was on target. An onslaught of mass media seemed indeed to be shrinking the globe into a single huge village. People were watching the same TV shows the world over, and even major metropolitan areas began to exhibit a dramatic visual sameness in their architecture. It seemed a foregone conclusion that culture was to become a global melting pot and, moreover, a melting pot dominated by first-world media.
Now however, the facts no longer seem to fit McLuhan’s observation. A newer wave of digital technologies typified by the Internet are proving to be as much a force for diversity as it is for sameness. The world may be shrinking in terms of communications accessibility, but the consequence is that the world is growing culturally larger and more complex. Not one but many global villages are emerging, as cultures use telecommunications and information technologies to reassert their identities on the world stage.
Even before the Internet’s mainstream takeoff in the last few years, there was no shortage of tantalizing anecdotal indicators:
African-Americans are rediscovering cultural roots and creating new traditions based on those roots, traditions such as Kwanzaa, a seven-day ritual alternative to Christmas. One group in the Washington, D.C., area has reestablished contact with a tribal king in its ancestral lands in Central Africa. Using a combination of telephone, videotape, and frequent flyer miles, he has become the spiritual advisor to the community, officiating over weddings and other life events, as well as offering more general guidance.
The ethnic and cultural identities of minority communities in many major U.S. urban areas have grown stronger over the past decade. For example, Los Angeles was envisioned as the ultimate melting pot, yet it houses numerous prosperous and ethnically distinct communities populated, for example, by Vietnamese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and other minority groups.
In the late 1980s, the chairman of the Nutrition Department of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, resigned to become king of his ancestral tribal group in Nigeria.
Hollywood is only the world’s third largest movie producer after India and Hong Kong, which deliver a much higher number of films to regional markets.
The Txucamarramae, Kaiapo, and other tribal groups in the Amazon Jungle routinely use personal video cams to record and share religious and tribal events as well as facilitate dialogue between tribal leaders and government officials in Brasilia.
Genghis Khan has been revived as a cultural hero in Mongolia, admired because he united all Mongols. The top rock group in Ulan Bator is named after the Khan, and its leader has declared that the group will “conquer the world with Mongolian rock music.”
The emergence of “world music” as a category in it’s own right, and a steady stream of ethnic “break-outs” from specific music traditions into mainstream rock culture underscore the importance and vibrancy of local cultural traditions. A world of global villages is quite different from the one anticipated by McLuhan and the other telecommunications visionaries of the past two decades. It is less a melting pot, more a cultural minestrone. This may have surprising and dramatic consequences in a number of areas. For businesses, it may require a fundamental redefinition of marketing strategies, as international markets become ever more fragmented into cultural units. For governments, the rise of global villages may, in the long run, lead to the redrawing of national borders along cultural lines.
Factors Enabling The Risa of Global Villages
The enabling force behind the rise of global villages is the emergence of the global transportation and communications infrastructure. In particular, the decreasing cost of personal communications technologies has allowed individuals and small groups the sort of access to channels and viewers that once was the exclusive province of major telecommunications players. The example of the Kaiapo and Txucamarramae swapping tribal tapes typifies what is possible.
The spread of TVs, radios, and telephones into the third world has contributed greatly to the rise of global villages, but except for the Internet, the tape recorder and VCR player were the most important. Unlike the first three, cassette and VCR players require no infrastructure beyond the availability of electric power, easily delivered by battery or generator. The VCR thus brings video to locations far beyond the reach of broadcast transmitters, as well as the ability to produce as well as consume media.
The effect of these two technologies has been most visible in rural areas, but their impact in urban areas has been dramatic as well, where they have encouraged a reconnection with local values. Just as VCRs in American homes led to a thriving video rental business for Hollywood, VCRs in the third world are the foundation for video sales. The difference is that the video is as likely to be a local film as Rocky II or The Godfather.
Ahead, other newer technologies will extend this trend. Cellular telephony already is growing more rapidly in the third world than in the first for the simple reason that it is a quick and inexpensive substitute for creaky and uncertain wire-based systems. The arrival of personal communications networks (low-power, low-cost cellular systems) later in this decade is likely to enfranchise third-world populations rapidly into the global voice network. The conversations that ensue are just as likely to be between locals as between distant strangers, further enhancing local cohesion.
But the Internet will have by far the greatest impact in fostering a global villages world. Of course this impact is due to the explosive growth in Internet usage around the world, but a key factor in this regard is the peculiar nature of the Internet at a medium. For most of this century, “communications” has been synonymous with “conduit.” In essence, our communications systems were mere pipes linking humans located at different points on the planet. Now with the Internet, communications-as-conduit is taking a back seat to communications as a destination in it’s own right. Mulitple participants interacting in an Internet-based multiple user dimension (MUD) are no longer simply at disparate physical locations: they are electronically co-present in a virtual space.
In essence, the Internet is a primitive emergent cyberspace whose population is growing steadily, and whose environment continues to become richer, more complex and visually more engaging. But this space has a unique quality: in cyberspace, there is no distance between two points. And it is this quality that makes the Internet so potent a medium for fostering a global villages world.
Instances of cultural groups using the net to overcome the tyranny of geography abound. Indians living abroad followed the recent national elections by dialing into a special election web page created by the Indian Expressnewspaper group. and they didn’t just read the the news, but also interacted with each other via email, listservs and even MUDs.
The Nature of Global Villages
Global villages share many qualities with more traditional communities—in fact, our collective cultural desire to participate in groups small enough to identify with is what drives this trend. However, global villages are utterly different from other communities in one very important respect: they can comprise individuals scattered around the globe who use the global communications and transportation infrastructure to remain in touch.
For the moment, this means that members of ethnic groups separated by historical migration patterns can reconnect with their roots. Afrocentrism among African-Americans illustrates this trend, but there are other examples. Americans of Scottish ancestry can visit Scottish cultural web-sites to access information and also to order cassettes and videos about Scottish culture along with kilts and family crests. Mexican-Americans in Chicago can watch Mexican news shows on cable TV and rent Hispanic-produced movies in neighborhood stores, or again dial into web pages oriented to their interests.
The same technologies are even helping to revive groups on the “endangered cultures” list. For example, in the 1960s it was assumed that Welsh would soon be a dead language. Today, Welsh is making a comeback after a concerted effort to teach Welsh in schools, an effort now being leveraged by video and cassette and most recently via the Internet Similar patterns can be observed in Quebec with the use of French; in Mexico, where Maya Indian cooperatives are using copiers and cassette tapes to teach native language literacy. Of course, this is also the stuff of revolution, as demonstrated by Sub-commander Zero’s effective use of email as a tool for communicating the aspirations of the Chiapas revolutionaries.
The most surprising consequence of the “placelessness” of these global villages may be that they unlock ethnicity and culture from individual genetic ancestries. Throughout the developed world, there are examples of individuals adopting huge chunks of cultures utterly different from their culture of origin. Zen Buddhism quickly is becoming more popular in the United States than it is in Japan, for instance. Meanwhile, more Japanese than ever are vacationing on U.S. dude ranches, dressed as tobacco-chewing cowboys. There are more Scottish highland games held in California every summer than in all of Scotland, and Pentecostal Protestantism quickly is becoming the primary religion in Brazil, displacing traditional Catholicism.
In the long run, we may change cultures the way we change TV channels today, mixing and matching discrete cultural pieces into custom-tailored lifestyles. The “typical” consumer-citizen of California in the late 1990s, for example, may be a web-surfing 38-year-old professional who does Zen meditation, listens to Celtic folk music (her grandparents were Scottish), and has begun to spend her vacations in northern Mexico to study Tarahumara culture after picking up a taste for ranchero music from a Latino friend.
A Global Culture Also Will Emerge
The world will not be composed exclusively of global village cultures. Alongside the appearance of global villages are clear signs that a true “global culture” is emerging. In the 1960s, it appeared that this global culture would be composed of first-world values and cultural products on a massive scale, but the reality of the 1990s will be rather different. The coming global culture will be an aggregate of ideas and pieces borrowed from many cultural units.
Big chunks still will come from the first world, often with unnerving effect. For example, the early-90s blockbuster TV star in Brazil is Xuxa, a 27-year-old singer, whose primary—some say only—star-making attributes are her blue eyes and blond hair. Amidst a largely dark-haired, dark-skinned population, Xuxa represents an exotic and appealing first-world cultural stereotype. In the long run, though, the role of first-world contributions will shrink dramatically. Xuxa will be replaced by more Brazilian heroines, as Brazilians rediscover local cultural values both at home and from abroad.
The first signs of this global culture appeared in the entertainment industry. The single best-selling music group of the late 1970s and early 1980s was Abba, a collection of artists from several European countries. Abba routinely recorded their songs in English, a language that few of them spoke at the time. In the late 1980s, “world music” emerged as a distinct product category in music catalogs and CD shops. Today, best-selling gamelan albums or recordings by Bulgarian women’s choirs in U.S. music shops hardly raise an eyebrow.
Today’s teenagers may become the first citizens of both the emerging global villages and this new global culture. A teenager in Singapore is steeped in a local cultural milieu quite distinct from that of a counterpart in Beverly Hills, yet both will have more in common in terms of interests, such as taste in music, than either may share with his or her parents.
But this global culture will exist in parallel with the many global villages. As they grow up, neither teenager will abandon his or her local cultural values, but both will become more immersed in the global continuum. Depending on the context, each will switch repeatedly between local global village worldview and global culture worldview.
Impact On Governments and National Boundaries
Visionaries assumed that McLuhan’s global village world eventually would cause national boundaries to dissolve, replaced by a new kind of world government. Events in the recent past suggest that at least half of the vision is coming to pass—national boundaries are looking more permeable and uncertain than ever, but a global government seems no less remote than it did during the Cold War.
Indeed, the first-order consequence of the rise of global villages may be the redrawing of national boundaries and even the disappearance of some national governments as populations around the world shift their primary loyalty from national to cultural units. The weakening of communist power in Eastern Europe led to a revival of old cultural loyalties-and rivalries. These rivalries broke up Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union. Even staid Canada is flirting with breakup as groups from the Quebecois to the Mohawks flex their cultural muscle. Communication of similar events occurring elsewhere on the globe helped inspire local action. Similar patterns can be discerned all over the world. In Africa, where national borders arbitrarily drawn by European monarchs at the turn of the century cut across cultural boundaries, the result is likely to be especially dramatic in the next decade or two.
Telecommunications technology itself is clearly the stuff of revolution. The Ayatollah Khomeini began his revolution from a chateau in France by smuggling audio cassette tapes of sermons into Iran; that revolution reversed Iran’s three-decade-old march into first-world culture and values. In Poland, the VCR became a tool of cultural as well as political change; individuals swapped and shared samizdat videos, reinforcing Polish culture at the expense of Russian-style communism. And in China, fax machines, E-mail, and still-video cameras were instruments of change wielded by Chinese student revolutionaries. The fact that the Chinese government has cracked down on Internet usage merely underscores the Internet’s potency as a medium for fostering revolutionary change.
But is the Nation-state dead? Hardly. The current trend of creating new nation-states will continue, and we will end up with more nations than ever. But two seismic shifts will occur: first, the end of the Nation-state’s monopoly on power in the international arena, and secondly the break-up of the Nation-state as a unitary assemblage of obligations and sovereignities.
Taking the second shift first, what seems like a unitary notion of “the” nation-state is really an assemblage of sovereignties and obligations—for example, a military sovereignty, an economic sovereignty, a cultural unit, and so on. This once-unitary assemblage is now being unbundled, and unbundled to a point where though the Nation-state will still exist, it may become a mere line on a map. Consider, say, Belgium. It’s unit of military sovereignty is defined by NATO. Its economic sovereignty is defined by the EEC. Culturally, half the country looks to France, while the remainder looks to other low countries or internal cultural units.
The first shift—an erosion of the nation-state’s monopoly on power in the international arena—merely accelerated this second change. Once upon a time, states were the exclusive “persons” at international law. No more—depending upon circumstances, a wide range of other entities, including individuals can have standing in international law. Add in the new and growing territory of cyberspace, and what constitutes a “person” could become quite metaphysical indeed.
We even may see some “global villages” emerge with more than simple cultural identity drawn along geographical lines. As the line between East and West Europe fades, a population of several million Gypsies across Europe may discover that increased discrimination will lead to long-elusive political clout. A Gypsy political party already exists in Czechoslovakia. On a larger scale, the many Muslim populations spread around the globe may find sufficient common ground to become an even more potent force on the world stage. One scholar estimates that, at current birth rates, one-quarter of the world’s population may be Moslem by the year 2020. Now imagine these groups beginning to link-up via the Internet or other digital media. Perhaps a new kind of nation is created in cyberspace, a “nation” with no physical territory at all, but enormous social and economic clout.