Global village



McLuhan and Controlled Ecumenism

“The old, traditional conceptions of isolated, private ideas and actions – the patterns of mechanical technologies – are seriously threatened by new methods of managing instantaneous electrical information, by computer databases. We have already reached a point that calls for corrective control, derived from knowledge of the media and its full effect on all of us. How should the new environment be programmed when we have become so involved with each other, when we have all become unconscious taskmasters for social change?

McLuhan wrote this in his book The Medium is the Massage, in 1968. In this work of immense public success, in which McLuhan's usual oracular sentences are mixed with Quentin Fiore's graphic design, we find, in a compact version, some of his most peculiar formulations. “Ours is an entirely new world of concurrency. 'Time' ceased, 'space' disappeared. We now live in a global village … a simultaneous happening. We're back in the acoustic space. We started to structure the primordial feeling again, the tribal emotions that we were separated from by a few centuries of written communication”, he adds.

In these formulations he is whole. Emphasis on media, simultaneous happening, global village, control, programming. The only thing missing is the main idea, that the means of communication are “extensions of man” (an idea that, by the way, Walnice Galvão, in a disconcerting essay in her book cats bag, you will find it in the almost homonymous Dutch writer Hendrick van Loon, for whom such extensions are all human inventions). The rest is there, mainly the idea that electronic means of communication have a revolutionary effect. They modify the world organized in the linear and restricted pattern of writing by imposing, in place of the consecutive written line, the intricate “mosaic” of simultaneous events that connect everything with everything.

But we already see that, when speaking of the “extensions of man”, McLuhan has in mind something more than linear extensions of the eyes, ears, touch and, at the limit (reached by electronic means), of the nervous system itself. . The idea is of projections that constitute, more than media, himself environment technologically defined world in which men are wholly absorbed. Much of McLuhan's thinking is nourished by the ambiguity between friendly as a vehicle and friendly as environment. Now it is one thing, now it is another, inseparably. The solution he offers is that the vehicle, the technical medium, defines the environment.

Like all of McLuhan's, the formula “the medium is the message” (or “massage”, plastic image for this action of the media, of literally covering those involved in the communication) is strong, but imprecise. She maintains that there are no more punctual messages, what exists is the immersion in the conjunction of simultaneous events typical of electronic media. It is no longer the transmitted content that matters, but the way in which communication technologies shape the perception that men have of the world and in this form their environment, their way of life in short.

Under these conditions, the expression “global village” does not simply refer to the worldwide extension of a unified form of village sociability. This might sound like a kind of dystopia, centered on the expansion across the globe of the dark side of village life, of continuous and meticulous control of the lives of all by all. This is not a good thing, however. The reference is more specifically to the planetary reach of “mythical” forms of perception and sensation, in which everything joins everything and the discontinuities of the mechanical-linear world of written communication are abolished by electronic communication, which respects neither time nor place.

What is the meaning of this whole construction? First, it contains a caveat. “We live mythically, but we continue to think fragmentarily and on isolated planes”, writes McLuhan in Understanding Media. This indicates a mismatch to be corrected. A “linear” reading of this could lead us to a disturbing but insufficient conclusion. Namely, that we must abandon the fragmentary way of “seeing” the world and begin to mythically “listen” to it, fully involved in the saturation of time and space by stimuli, sensations and ideas. This would be insufficient, as it does not reach the fundamental issue in all of this, which is the control.

We must, says McLuhan in the quotation that opens this text, know the means to exercise “corrective control”, through the “programming” of the environment constituted by them. Difficult task, for someone who is immersed in this environment; unless there are, in spite of everything, possible controllers. Here we reach the most controversial, but at the same time, most fascinating point in this thought. (...)

To get to the hard core of McLuhan's ideas it is necessary to remember his distinction between “hot” and “cold” media. At this point McLuhan's analytical pirouette enters: hot media “warm up” users, while “cold” ones cool them down. It is as if “cold” participation (at the level of perception mechanisms, not deliberate action) consumes energy that “hot” perception makes available. This translates into the possibility of control techniques for entire populations, through the resource proper to the media, which is programming. We are approaching, argues McLuhan, an “automatically controlled world”, in which programming (more TV here, less radio there, and so on), would allow “entire cultures to program themselves to keep the emotional climate stable, in the same way that we are learning something about the maintenance of economies”.

The question remains: who will program, who will hold the power of control over the media and, consequently, over the media-created environment? One possible answer is suggested by McLuhan, implicitly: no one. There would be no controllers, the world would be “automatically controlled”, in this strange ecology of the media (by the way, an “ecological” reading of McLuhan is worthwhile).

The other side of this answer is also given, more emphatically: internally there is nothing to oppose a means. Only another medium can change the panorama. Therefore, whoever thinks of resistance to the means that are there, create others. It is true that this will lead to other automatisms, but in the technological utopia (or dystopia) conceived by McLuhan, this is not a problem. The world envisaged by McLuhan may appear to be the full realization of ecumenism, but it functions as the full realization of the “programmed” society of control.


The decades following McLuhan's writings ended up bringing to light more the involuntarily dystopian components than the supposed radiant vision contained in them. The idea of ​​the global village has always been on the verge of referring more to the somber aspect of village life than to the image of a world unified by ties that unite everyone in immersion in the warm environment of instantaneous virtual contacts. This dark aspect consists in the extension on a new scale of what is the hallmark of that way of life, the continuous control of everyone over everyone else.

The difference, of course, is that in the global village control would be concentrated in the hands of a few, holders of the technological resources to intervene quickly and efficiently whenever and wherever it was necessary to maintain homeostasis, the systemic-environmental balance, or else this would automatically establish itself, dispensing with and, ultimately, making any intervention impossible. Like any self-respecting visionary, McLuhan pushes the limits.

Not even Baudrillard could have imagined a more radically “virtualized” world than this one, in which everything is taken to the extreme, from the ethereal character of the electric environment, as was said in his time (“McLuhan is the oracle of the electric age”, proclaimed the extinct magazine Life) or digital, as it would be said now, even the rawest materiality of the means. If McLuhan were still a Protestant, perhaps he would have been more sensitive to the tension between the paradoxical dilemmas he was constructing (intentional and automatic control and so on). As a converted Catholic, however, he tries to reconcile everything, and the result is hell.

What could not be clearly perceived at the time was the unfortunate combination of factors that this brave new world would provide. For universal connection, without borders and without limits, is intimately akin to universal indifference, with the aggravating factor that the universalization of indifference advances faster than that of connection. In a world where any communication counts, none counts. A world like this is in fact an environment that permeates everything, an ether within which there are no longer properly differentiated and durable relationships, replaced by instantaneous connections.

The only defense against the omnipotence of the “networks”, as it would be said later on, ends up consisting in infinitely multiplying the global village, generating multiple local villages, not so much for the reach as for the shared contents (Facebook users know the term well). ). Virtual particularism responds to virtual globalization and the socially superseded image of the village remains, with all that is restricted, involved and controlled. On the way, he risks losing a great historical achievement of the post-village world, a precious legacy of bourgeois revolutions in the parts of the planet where they worked. It is the priceless right to privacy, trampled on by all sides. McLuhan, after all, is not exactly the name of the prophet of the digital age, it is more a dystopian warning, the name of a powerful virus that settles in it and threatens to corrode resistance to the real construction of a new world.

*Gabriel Cohn He is Professor Emeritus at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of Weber, Frankfurt (Quicksilver).


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