Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, the fringe culture newsletter where we try to unpack the suitcase rather than burning it.
I’m Stephen, your host and research monkey.
Today we’re going to tackle a bit about McLuhan’s most well known prediction for electronic communication technologies (what we now call information technology) to remake the world from a provincial world separated by distance, geography, and the armed borders of nation states into a digital commune of shared culture.
Since McLuhan was calling this shot in the 1962 it must be admitted that he was pretty staggeringly on point. In broad terms he was pretty much right.
Now we live in a world where an uprising in Hong Kong can inspire similar tactics in protests in Spain, Indonesia, and Chile. High Finance has grafted itself around the world so commodity shifts in Asia can tank or skyrocket prices in South America.
Ehhh…. it’s complicated. Literally.
But before we praise Marshall too much we should probably acknowledge some basic facts. First, while 1950 might seem early to recognize the increasing global economic and cultural interconnection there were a lot of people who recognized the broad pattern way earlier. And more than that, long-distance trade has just always been a thing.
What’s shifted since the European Age of Discovery isn’t the fact of a globalizing world, but the ease of doing so. It’s become vastly more cost effective to trade between Pipa, Brazil and Vladivostok, Russia. But that doesn’t mean that such connections were as much impossible before as much as difficult and without a ton of practical benefit.
We pretty much know that various Pacific Islanders made it to the west coast of both North and South America. From both physical evidence and DNA testing we know of at least a few such voyages that long preceded Columbus and some that even preceded Viking explorers like Lief Erikson.
And the landmass of Europe, Africa, and Asia has always had various long trade routes even through its difficult terrain, the most famous being the Silk Road.
Point is, we’ve never been as disconnected as we might imagine.
What’s changed is the ease, speed, and volume with which we do so.
I can pick an argument with someone anywhere on earth easier than I can walk to buy a cup of coffee.
Let’s pick at some of McLuhan’s quotes on the subject because we might find the sound bite that’s survived in pop culture doesn’t fully express what he was trying to say.
What began as a "Romantic reaction" towards organic wholeness may or may not have hastened the discovery of electro-magnetic waves. But certainly the electro-magnetic discoveries have recreated the simultaneous "field" in all human affairs so that the human family now exists under conditions of a "global village." We live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums. So that concern with the "primitive" today is as banal as nineteenth-century concern with "progress," and as irrelevant to our problems. (The Gutenberg Galaxy, pg 32)
This is a fascinating counterpoint to Terence McKenna’s thesis of The Archaic Revival, but that’s perhaps a conversation for another day.
Here’s an understatement:
The global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations.
So, we see here from a dip that McLuhan didn’t see this so much as a kind of utopian situation as much as a disoriented magnification of conflict.
I’d like to say more but I need to lay down for the moment. We’ll pick this up another day.