The term "global village" was apparently coined by Marshall McLuhan to describe the effects of world-wide electronic communication, but if McLuhan was as brilliant a man as he is reputed to be--his works are among the many which I have never gotten around to reading, so I don't know--then it was surely a moment of weakness when he allowed himself to use this catchy but extremely misleading phrase.
No matter how many satellites we put in orbit, no matter how much fiber optic cable we bury, it will never make sense to talk of a "global village" unless we change the definition of the word "village." A village is inherently a local thing, because it is inherently a small thing. You can walk from one end of it to the other in a short time, and you can learn the names of everyone who lives in it. It is small enough that you can know it, personally and thoroughly. And, what is worse, it can know you. If you live there, it is like a family, and in fact is a sort of next step outward from the family. And, as in a family, its members may feel its intimacy as either a support or a suffocation, and may thrive in its embrace or long to escape it.l But for good or ill it is a place where people are bound to others with whom they may share little beyond their physical and social proximity, and where they know each other--their faces, their ways, their histories.
This close acquaintance is inherently impossible on a global scale--not impossible because our technolog is inadequate, but because each of us is one person in one place. We are not capable of knowing the whole world intimately, and even Padre Pio was never said to be everywhere at once. For the creation of the kind of relationships found in a village, communication is not just inadequate but an obstacle. It is a foolish, if not perverse, kind of gnosticism which wishes not to distinguish between the real presence of a person and an electronic simulacrum.
Electronic communications allow several sorts of relationships among people, but none of them ismuch like that fostered in a village. With electronic mail, computer conferences, and other media, individuals can indeed get to know other individuals, but at a distance, as with traditional correspondence; and, more importantly, these are individuals who choose to know each other because of something they have in common, not people who have to live together whether they like each other or not. When they meet for dialogue in an electronic forum, they may indeed encounter people with whom they vigorously disagree, but there is no more guarantee that they will become friends than there would be in a face-to-face meeting; in fact, they may feel more free to engage in a mode of address known as the "flame": a burst of unbottled (and occasionally creative) vituperation, delivered electronically from a great distance, and so unlikely to be answered by blows. And if the dialogue doesn't work out, one or both participants simply withdraw.
Or, by means of television and radio, one person can become known to nearly everyone, as occurs with those poor souls whom we call "celebrities." Whether pop star or politician, these people, in what seems to me a miserable bargain, pay for their power and wealth by being held up to all the world for scrutiny, analysis, praise, or denunciation, while they are separated as by a one-way mirror from those who watch them. They may please, displease, manipulate, comfort, control, or kill those anonymous masses; know them, in their individuality, they cannot.
Or individuals can learn something about distant masses of people. This, again, is not essentially different from the kinds of relationships we have had for centuries, wherein we learned of other peoples through the medium of books and pictures or simply stories. And it is certainly not necessarily the case that we learn more, or more accurately, from television. In fact there is no reason to expect anything even very close to the truth, for whatever we see is carefully selected and manipulated for political or commercial purposes.
I sometimes think it might be more accurate to say that we are creating a global metropolis, a violent one like those of the United States, where people perceive each other socially either as naked individuals in isolation from family and community, connected, if at all, by financial ties, or as anonymous components of a class or race. In these great warrens, people live in close physical quarters but without much sense of belonging to the same community; with, in fact, a dangerous sense of having tribal enemies everywhere. What this combination of proximity and anonymity has done for the great cities, television, along with increasing economic interdependencies, may perhaps do for the world at large: to increase both the level of tension and the degree of isolation.
Still, however inadequate the "global village" idea may be, I don't say that these new means of communication are useless in propagating a greater sense of solidarity among the peoples of the world. Perhaps they can help. What's important, though, is to recognize that they cannot do the work of love and justice. If world-wide peace and order ever come to us, short of the Kingdom, it will not be the product of technology, but of virtue. Even if it were in our power to create a global village, we would need to remember that quarrels and murders happen in villages, too.
--From the Fall 1993 issue of Caelum et Terra