The Global Village, Circa 2012


Earth from Space

Paulo, Palo Alto – these were the loci of global change (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Anouk Dey | January 17, 2012

2011 marked the 50thanniversary of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Marshall McLuhan’s centennial. It was also the year in which the city eclipsed the state as the unit of international relations. Tahrir Square, Tunis, Hong Kong, Sau Paulo, Palo Alto – these were the loci of global change.

Though one was an urbanist and the other a philosopher, Jacobs and McLuhan both predicted this shift. Jacobs’ urban writings and grassroots activism on behalf of the city are well documented, but McLuhan, too, took a deep interest in cities – and not just in an indirect “global village” type-of-way. McLuhan commented on the “rich community effects” caused “simply by locating dwellings in non-linear patterns” and drew parallels between a suburb killing an old city and a new medium killing an old one. In fact, Jacobs and McLuhan served together on the Stop Spadina, Save Our City Coordinating Committee and produced a short film in support of their cause (Jacobs was apparently amazed that McLuhan’s unsystematic narrative produced such a compelling visual tale).

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006)

As we reflect on 2011, and move forward into an increasingly city-dominated world (in 2007, for first the first time, the world’s population became more urban than rural, and this trend continues), it is worth considering what these two Canadians – or, more appropriately, Torontonians – taught us about global politics.

The first lesson they taught us is that national borders are quickly disappearing. In the “age of the information explosion,” as McLuhan put it, walls between nations and economies will blow out. And what will be left amid the rubble? Dense communities of individuals who have, in McLuhan’s words, “adjusted to the new proximity.” The city will become the lifeblood of the state. Canada will be nothing without Toronto (or Vancouver, or Montreal, or Calgary), the U.S. nothing without New York, and Japan nothing without Tokyo. More importantly, Haerbin, Shantou, Guiyang, and the other cities McKinsey names in its report on global cities of the future will wield far more power than many states.

In this scenario, David Cameron’s decision to place the concerns of “the City” above those of the rest of England in opting out of the Brussels Treaty seems less political, and more prescient. So, too, do the efforts of the C40, a group of cities working to solve climate change, and trade deals between Hamburg and Dubai, and Abu Dhabi and Singapore. Less so are treaties signed between nations – and not cities – such as the Kyoto Protocol, the perimeter border deal, and countless Free Trade Agreements.

The second lesson is that, without the proper governance structures, this environment of close proximity will be a scary place. Yes, “the medium is the message” – but how? McLuhan argued that the shift in how we communicate would change us neurologically – and not into David Brooks-imagined “social animals” excelling at everything in a peaceful world. Rather, we would regress to primal tendencies, devolving into bicameral humans who operate unconsciously and automatically.

When the world is a hockey rink and its inhabitants David Steckels (and not Sidney Crosbys), global governance systems are crucial. With the exception of the intervention in Libya, 2011 proved another year in the United Nations’ slide toward irrelevance. As Parag Khanna argues, we need global institutions built on “cities and their economies rather than nations and their armies.” Jane Jacobs recognized this a long time ago when she observed that democratization is no longer the purview of states, and proceeded to develop the concept of “localism.” Next week, we will have the opportunity to evaluate how a new form of global diplomacy might work when diplomats of the digital age – prime and finance ministers, but also mayors, academics, and Bono – come together at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Finally, McLuhan and Jacobs taught us to plan our cities with global visions. As Jacobs described them, cities are active urban organisms that require the proper nourishment to flourish. This may not come in the form of a gravy train, but it does require a certain amount of funding. As the Toronto City Council prepares to cut TTC services and close shelters, pools, and city programming, we should think about what this means, not just for Toronto, but for Canada’s place in the world.

2 Responses to “The Global Village, Circa 2012”

  1. Excellent piece. Thanks Alex

    Here’s a LOM for cities:
    Cities enhance new ideas
    Obsolesce nations
    Retrieve communitas
    Flip into city-states

    Communitas as defined in Wikipedia:

    Communitas is a Latin noun commonly referring either to an unstructured community in which people are equal, or to the very spirit of community. It also has special significance as a loanword in cultural anthropology and the social sciences.

    Communitas is an intense community spirit, the feeling of great social equality, solidarity, and togetherness. Communitas is characteristic of people experiencing liminality together. This term is used to distinguish the modality of social relationship from an area of common living. There is more than one distinction between structure and communitas. The most familiar is the difference of secular and sacred. Every social position has something sacred about it. This sacred component is acquired during rites of passages, through the changing of positions. Part of this sacredness is achieved through the transient humility learned in these phases, this allows people to reach a higher position.

    • On Community and Communication:
      Note that both words community and communication derive from the same Latin word “communis” meaning “in common, public, general, shared by all or many”. Also, one of the words Christians use to describe the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper is Communion.
      “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:53-58).
      In the Middle Ages, the worst punishment one could receive was ex-communication. The choice of these words has theological as well as practical implications (which are sadly ignored in many ways today). There is a distinct link between the ideas of community and communication that is acknowledged by the following quotes…….AlexK
      “There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication…. Try the experiment of communicating, with fullness and accuracy, some experience to another, especially if it be somewhat complicated, and you will find your own attitude toward your experience changing.” – John Dewey
      “Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.” – Rollo May
      “Community is the shared life of human beings. It means more than mere association. By virtue of their immediate interaction with one another, human beings are necessarily associated. But community means meaningful association, association based on common interest and endeavor. The essence of community is communication, the sharing of meanings through common symbols or language. Communication is the means of individual as well as social growth.” – Gordon L. Ziniewicz on John Dewey
      “The dissolving of older communal contexts, in which signs and meanings seemed fixed and stable, thereby making one’s self-identity more secure, has meant that individuals must now reach out through the media for information, models, norms and signs in order to get the cultural material with which to construct their lives.” (Holmes, 1997, p. 32)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: