More from Australian (ABC) Radio: Backtracking to the Global Village

25Jul11

FutureTense | ABC National Radio
‘Global village’ or global delusion? It was a nice line but how real was the notion the ‘global village’? And can technology change things in and of itself? Ethan Zuckerman and Tom Standage, two leading thinkers and writers, give us their take on the work of Marshall McLuhan today and where we may be heading in today’s inter-connected digital world.

Hear the audio here: http://tinyurl.com/3fvwozu .

1950s TV

1950s TV: photo by Hartman045 (Flickr.com/ Creatve Commons)

Here is part of the transcript of the discussion, the rest of which can be read at the above URL:

Transcript

This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers.

Marshall McLuhan [archival]: The global village is a world in which you don’t necessarily have harmony, you have extreme concern with everybody else’s business, a sort of Ann Landers column writ large. So the global village is as big as the planet and as small as the village post office.

Antony Funnell: Sounds a lot like the age of the internet doesn’t it? The late Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan.

Hello, Antony Funnell here and welcome to Future Tense. And for our contribution to Radio National’s McLuhan Week we have a discussion to bring you with two of our favourite thinkers about technology and the digital age: in London, Tom Standage, the Digital Editor for the Economist magazine and author of the book The Victorian Internet; and in the US, Ethan Zuckerman, the incoming Director of the Centre for Civic Media at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The discussion is wide-ranging, but we begin with a look at McLuhan’s legacy. He’s famous for the phrase ‘the medium is the message’ and the term ‘global village’, but more than three decades after his death, how relevant is his work today? First off the block, Ethan Zuckerman:

Ethan Zuckerman: I think McLuhan was incredibly influential, first of all in the ’60s when people were paying a tremendous amount of attention to his work. I think he became quite important again in the early days of popularising the internet. If you look at something like Wired magazine where he was posthumously on their masthead for the first couple of years, he was clearly influencing some of the early thinkers about the internet. But I think we’ve gone through a shift. McLuhan is really a theorist who thought very deeply about the effects of the broadcast media and media that was reaching a lot of people, but not so much about media that we were producing.

And as we have shifted into a participatory media age, or, as Tom might argue, as we have returned to a participatory media age, I’m not sure that he is the first thing that everyone reaches for. It’s good fun to come back and look at him because there are certain aspects of his thought, particularly notions like the global village, that are still quite intriguing. But it is very interesting to think that he has gone from being one of the dominant thinkers in the space to being one who maybe is not invoked nearly as often these days.

Antony Funnell: Tom Standage, he became a celebrity, didn’t he, and I read an interesting review from 1967 of his work in which the reviewer said one of the things about McLuhan is that he is almost impossible to understand. So he is interpreted by people in all sorts of different ways, they interpret him the way they want to. Is that your feeling about him?

Tom Standage: Yes, there is a sort of element of scripture to his work. I remember when I was very young my parents had one of his books and I found it very strange. There were photographs and there were these sort of aphorisms that he had, rather like a religious text, you really can read into it whatever you want to read into it. But what I’ve always felt about him was that, yes, he did make this point about the global village, but people made that point before. I have a quote from 1846 where somebody who was advocating the construction of the telegraph wire from Europe to America said that if it was built that all the inhabitants of the world would be brought into one intellectual neighbourhood. And in fact when the telegraph was completed between America and Europe in the 1860s, people said all sorts of things which sound very much like the kind of thing that McLuhan said 100 years later. So in a sense I think other people got there first, and I also think that some of the things he said haven’t maybe stood the test of time quite so well because he was in this world of mass media, and, as Ethan has pointed out, we are now back in a world of participatory media where there isn’t so much of a distinction between the people producing and consuming the information that is being passed around as there used to be.

Antony Funnell: That idea of the global village, that makes sense to a lot of people when you look at the connective nature of our world today. But, Tom, you’ve written quite a bit in recent times about what you say is the Balkanisation of the internet that’s going on. Could I get you to explain that to us? Are we less a global village and more going back to a period of being a series of villages?

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