Marshall McLuhan's notion of the "global village" was first introduced in his typescript "Report on Project in Understanding New Media" (1960, 129) and subsequently as a chapter title in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962): "The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village" (43). From the beginning, the analogy of the global village resonated with the public, who were dimly aware how the original town criers--spreading the local news to all who could hear them--were replaced first by print, then radio, film, and television to create ever-widening circles of influence. Electronic media, McLuhan claimed, created a global "tribal echoland" of media resonance where people from nations all over the globe became our neighbours and we could listen in on their conversations.
The public's enthusiastic embrace of these new electronic realities often neglected to consider some of the key consequences of this global extension of the senses.
McLuhan's notion of the global village as a utopian return to community, stability, and interdependence--his version of the United Nations where representatives sit in a circle and listen to one another before making decisions of global import--is a compelling and reassuring vision. For many, however, the impact of global media has been a shock to the nervous system, with a resultant numbing of affect and higher degree of distraction. There's a widespread suspicion that our news media are agents of propaganda, now of global proportions. In the current "attack on Iraq," while the fighting is centered in the Middle East, the media war is global.
It took the internet, however, to put listeners and viewers back in the picture: the largely one-way communication of broadcast media which still holds for print, radio, film, and television is being challenged by the peer-to-peer and many-to-many communication of distributed networking defined by TCP/IP (Transmission Communication Protocol/Internet Protocol). To the internet has been added the use of cell and satellite phones, satellite surveillance, and digital cameras to extend the reach of our senses to seemingly global proportions. A recent story broadcast by CNN, for example, details how Anti-war protesters go digital "to organize, publicize, evade" with the use of the internet, cell phones, and digital cameras.
The internet is also proving to be a powerful source of alternate views on world events. Websites like Alternet, Indymedia, Le Monde Diplomatique, and Al-Jazeerah are dedicated to providing perspectives not seen in the mainstream media. For the student of media, there is much to explore away from television's window on the world. And it's not all to be found on the websites of the internet.
Decoding the ideologies of mediated messages--in a fair and informed way--is the first task of the student of media. Of course we will bring our own prejudices and beliefs to an understanding of global events--it's not just them who are biased in their reporting.
Do we live in a global village of interdependence, cooperation, and the rule of justice. Or is our world a global inner city marked by the control of personal freedoms; intrusions into the lifeworld and public sphere by elites of various stripes; a communications environment shaped by promotion, persuasion, and propaganda? While it is tempting to attribute responsibility for turning the globe into an inner city to hegemonic powers, it's useful to recall that their business is not necessarity truth but attracting audiences--and conflict sells. It's also useful to recall that our participation in a global community does not necessarily have to be shaped by those with the loudest, most insistent voices. Perhaps there are other ways to resonate.
While the individual citizen has the lion's share of responsibility when it comes to gaining a global perspective, most individuals have to be content to act locally in their communities, or nationally through their influence on politicians and public perception. And it is in this arena where the usual flow of media can be reversed. (See, for example, Hemant Shah's description of emancipatory journalism.) Our sense of national identity can become an important factor in determining the scope of our involvement in global affairs. In effect, we must traverse the national sphere on our way to global participation.
It is a cliché--and thus suspicious--to claim that we are in an era of globalization. It seems apparent that communications technologies have been instrumental in the growth of transnational corporations and the flow of international capital. Without the internet, email, and relational databases how could these organizations exist to the same extent? Equally, the internet, email, and relational databases have allowed anti-globalization organizations to carry out their public relations campaigns and demonstrations with much greater impact than thought possible before the digital age. The technology is there to be used by all persuasions in the globalization debate (though wealth is a factor in its availability). Core issues in this debate include wealth, power, and culture, and while the evidence shows that globalization is consolidating greater wealth and power in fewer hands, the debate over culture is far from over. Globalization has, in many respects, renewed the public's interest in uniqueness, diversity, nationalism, and tribal identity--even as those values seem in danger of being swept away. Will we see the emergence of many global villages, each with a unique culture? How should a nation respond to these calls for cultural uniqueness and diversity?
As Tom Henighan claims in the following excerpt, we are facing a challenge which will require our best ability to make subtle distinctions and to entertain apparent contradictions:
[W]hen we consider the tendencies of the new global culture and our rapidly changing technologies, specific challenges arise. Preservation of local and national identity and of treasured cultural values is only one of these. We must also ensure that the new technologies remain open to a diversity of groups and individuals, and we must not allow these technologies to obliterate live contact between cultural producers and consumers. New cultural expression through the leading edge technologies should be accompanied by the use of those same technologies to evoke and preserve the best of tradition. This in turn means educating a new generation in our cultural traditions, so that mass-produced, commercialized entertainment products are not allowed to obliterate the more characteristic, challenging or complex artifacts of our own culture.
That's where we come in as students of the media. We have begun to know ourselves through self-reflection and discovery. We understand how the media shapes opinion from the local community outwards to the globe. We appreciate the value of diverse and vibrant cultures for sustaining the spirit of the people. We can envision the role of our nation in a community of nations. And we make media ourselves--we communicate as if our lives depended on it. One channel of communication open to us is resonance.
The transmission model of communication, shown below, provides some elementary insights into how messages are sent and received. Entering into a communications environment, a sender encodes a message and directs it towards a receiver through some medium. Before the message reaches the receiver, interference related to the medium may add noise to the message. The receiver must then decode the message and, if it is understood, exit from the communication environment. Many systems accommodate feedback loops, through which the receiver may ask the sender to clarify the message in some way, thus initiating a revised message.
This model is useful when the movement of information across space and through time is a central challenge. Since the model looks at communication from a "message" point-of-view, its usefulness is limited when the information exchange is so complex that it cannot be isolated into message units. The speed of electronic communication can also radically alter relationships of time and space, so the linearity of the model is less suited to describing the actual patterns of communication. Media theorist Tony Schwartz addresses the limitations of the transportation model in The Responsive Chord: "The linearity of the print bias in communication is accompanied by a strong dependence on visual analogies to represent truth, knowledge and understanding. With the advent of electronic media, we experience a return to an auditory-acoustic communications environment reminiscent of oral cultures. In this environment, communication strikes a "responsive chord." (9)
Schwartz echoes Marshall McLuhan in this analysis of electronic communication. Both noted that the dispersal pattern of a broadcast radio signal is circular, not linear, and McLuhan made the famous pronouncement that we are not equipped with ear lids with which to filter out the sounds which surround us. Acoustic space--or the soundscape as Canadian composer Murray Schafer terms it-- surrounds us in a spherical communications environment. For McLuhan, electronic communications return us to the acoustic space of tribal peoples. Acoustic space
has no centre and no margin, unlike strictly visual space, which is an extension and intensification of the eye. Acoustic space is organic and integral, perceived through the simultaneous interplay of all the senses; whereas "rational" or pictorial space is uniform, sequential and continuous and creates a closed world with none of the rich resonance of the tribal echoland. (Essential McLuhan 240).
McLuhan argues that tribal peoples led "a complex, kaleidoscopic life precisely because the ear, unlike the eye, cannot be focused and is synaesthetic rather than analytical and linear" (240). The abstract encoding of the phonetic alphabet meant that the rich auditory and kinaesthetic experience of speech, as well as the complex social interactions that accompany it, were at least once removed.
McLuhan echoes Harold Innis in the assertion that the bias of any particular medium marks the kind of empire which may be built under that medium's ascendancy:
Only alphabetic cultures have ever succeeded in mastering connected linear sequences as a means of social and psychic organization; the separation of all kinds of experiences into uniform and continuous units in order to generate accelerated action and alteration of form--in other words, applied knowledge--has been the secret of Western man's ascendancy over other men as well as over his environment. (242)
McLuhan's gender specific language--i.e. that we use the masculine pronoun to refer to the general class of humans--may reflect just that kind of empire building which results when identities are abstracted through language and differences are ruled by convention.
However, the perspective so essential to the print bias is radically compromised with sound waves and, by analogy, with electronic and digital communication. Schwartz elaborates on this analogy in the following way:
The ear receives fleeting momentary vibrations, translates these bits of information into electronic nerve impulses, and sends them to the brain. The brain "hears" by registering the current vibration, recalling the previous vibrations, and expecting future ones. We never hear the continuum of sound we label as word, sentence, or paragraph. The continuum never exists at any single moment in time. (12)
Both Schwartz and McLuhan, as suggested above, assert that electronically-mediated information is received and processed like auditory information. And in this century, during which we have seen the proliferation of such media as telephone, radio, film, audio recording, television and computers, we have "developed a stronger orientation toward the auditory mode of receiving and processing information" (Schwartz 13).
With film, for example, the illusion of movement is created by projecting a series of still pictures in rapid succession. Each still frame is projected for approximately 1/50th to 1/75th of a second; following each frame, the screen is black for a nearly equal length of time. The brain "sees" motion by registering the current still picture, recalling previous frames, and anticipating future frames that will complete the movements. Our unmediated visual experience is quite different: the eye is bombarded by a continuous stream of (analogue) visual information. This experience is fractured by film, where the brain must function in a new way to reconstruct a continuous visual image. With film, the brain does not "fill in" the image on the screen--it fills in the motion between the images.
With television, the analogue visual image is fractured even more radically. The image we "see" on television is never there. The cathode ray gun of the CRT directs a beam of charged electrons at the back of the screen, illuminating dots of light one at a time, and zigzagging down the screen along alternate lines. (NTSC TVs have 525 such lines.) The scanning process completes one sweep every 1/30th of a second, two sweeps for a complete frame every 1/15th of a second. Schwartz comments:
In watching television, our eyes function like our ears. They never see a picture, just as our ears never hear a word. The process differs from film in that it requires much faster processing of information and more visual recall. With film, the brain has to process 24 distinct inputs per second. With television, the brain has to process thousands of distinct inputs per second. Watching television, the eye is for the first time functioning like the ear. With television, the patterning of auditory and visual stimuli is identical. (16)
While McLuhan calls TV a tactile medium---since the skin and retina of the viewer are "tattooed" with an electronic beam---he agrees with Schwartz in concluding that the viewer is immersed into a more involving, simultaneous environment: "The essence of TV viewing is, in short, intense participation and low definition--what I call a 'cool' experience, as opposed to an essentially 'hot,' or high definition-low participation medium like radio" (246).
Schwartz developed his insights regarding the impact of media stimuli on the brain into a theory of resonance which he applied in his career as a master of persuasion. He recommends that, when discussing electronically based communications, we use auditory terms such as feedback, reverberation, tuning, overload, regeneration and fading. "In electronically mediated communication, the function of the communicator is to achieve a state of resonance with the person receiving visual and auditory stimuli."
Decoding symbolic forms--signs--is no longer our most significant problem, since the message transactions are occuring so quickly or so continuously we simply don't have time to decode the messages. Many of our experiences with electronic media are coded and stored in the same way they are perceived. We hear a series of sounds or see an image which we register without thinking about its meaning. Since these messages do not undergo a symbolic transformation, the original experience is more directly available to us--and others, such as advertisers--when it is recalled. Also, since the experience is not stored in symbolic form, it cannot be retrieved by symbolic cues. It must be evoked by a stimulus that is coded in the same way as the stored information is coded. The critical task for the Schwartzian communicator is to "design stimuli so that it resonates with information already stored within an individual" to induce the desired learning or behavioural effect.
Resonance takes place when the stimuli put into our communications evoke meaning in a listener or viewer. What we say in the communication has no meaning in itself. The meaning of our communication is what a listener or viewer gets out of the interaction with the stimuli. The receiver's brain is an indispensable component of the total communication system. The content of the communication is content-specific, and largely shaped by the receiver. As McLuhan noted, the audience becomes the work force.
A listener or viewer brings far more information to the communication event than the communicator can possibly put into the program, commercial, or message. In communicating at electronic speed, we no longer direct information to an audience, we try to draw stored information out of them, in a patterned way. The contemporary person has a huge psychic reservoir of impressions that can, in effect, be played like an instrument.
Following the resonance theory to achieve a behavioral effect, whether persuading someone to buy a product or teaching that person history, one designs stimuli that will resonate with stored impressions to produce that effect. The traditional communication is thus reversed. A message is not the starting point for communication; it is the final product arrived at after considering the effect we hope to achieve and the communication environment where people will experience our stimuli. The resonance theory has profound implications for all persuasive communications, including propaganda. Here's how to use it:
For further illustrations of these principles, see the videos Guerrilla Media and Secrets of Effective Radio Advertising, both of which are based on the resonance theories of Tony Schwartz.
In Acoustic Communication, Barry Truax explores the ways in which sounds--including noise--construct both a soundscape and a sense of community.
...[T]he term "soundscape"...refers to how the individual and society as a whole understand the acoustic environment through listening. Listening habits may be acutely sensitive or distractedly indifferent, but both interpret the acoustic environment to the mind, one with active involvement, the other with passive detachment. Moreover, listening habits create a relationship between the individual and the environment, whether interactive and open-ended, or oppressive and alienating. (xii)Individual listeners may have contrasting relationships with the same sound environment because the patterns of communication are different in each case. In his comprehensive analysis of the acoustic environment, Truax suggests that we can radically shift the patterns of communication by active listening, and by becoming aware of the powerful impact sound has on the formation of community.
The acoustic community may be defined as any soundscape in which acoustic information plays a pervasive role in the lives of the inhabitants....Therefore, the boundary of the community is arbitrary and may be as small as a room of people, a home or building, or as large as an urban community, a broadcast area, or any other system of electroacoustic communication. In short, it is any system within which acoustic information is exchanged. (58)
Consider the remarkable shift in the construction of acoustic communities enabled by the digitization of music and its distribution on the internet, or the use of streaming audio to provide internet radio. We will, no doubt, see the formation of some fascinating acoustic communities on the internet, some of which may have the ability to influence the business of the music industry. In addition, the widespread distribution of digital sound will be found in close proximity to the text of the internet--they will co-exist to some extent--thus producing a new synaesthesia of sight and sound. Skilled media designers will explore the equilibrium between word, image, and sound in their communications, seeking the best resonant chords with which to move their audiences.
McLuhan’s commentary on the media is characterized by an irrepressible playfulness and creative manipulation of ideas. He conveys a sense of optimism in the face of confusing sensory overload. He constantly uses analogy, metaphor, and other poetic figures to communicate his ideas about the media. For McLuhan, "The artist is the person who invents the means to bridge between biological inheritance and the environments created by technological innovation" (Laws of Media, 98). The artist connects linear, analytical left-brain activity with analogical, holistic right-brain activity. The trickster is the cultural archetype who mediates between these two functions--to keep society in balance--and McLuhan fashioned himself after the trickster with his "media probes" and provocative statements. His work constantly asks us to abandon our fixed points of view to perceive what we take for granted in new ways.
In the "Preface" to The Mechanical Bride (1951), McLuhan proposes a strategy for counteracting the concerted effort of advertisers and media strategists to "get inside the public mind." He takes his analogy from the Edgar Allan Poe story, "Descent into the Maelstrom":
Poe’s sailor saved himself by studying the action of the whirlpool and by cooperating with it. The present book likewise makes few attempts to attack the very considerable currents and pressures set up around us today by the mechanical agencies of the press, radio, movies, and advertising. It does attempt to set the reader at the centre of the revolving picture created by these affairs where he may observe the action that is in progress and in which everybody is involved. From the analysis of that action, it is hoped, many individual strategies may suggest themselves. (Essential McLuhan, 21)
It is this strategic stance which distinguishes McLuhan from many media critics--like those associated with the Frankfurt or Birmingham Schools, or like Neil Postman, Mark Crispin Miller, Stewart Ewen, and others--whose views imply an idealized literate culture corrupted by popular, commercialised, and manipulative media. McLuhan used his training as a literary critic to engage in a dialogue with the media from the centre of the maelstrom.
McLuhan is especially insistent that an analysis of media content is meaningless--misses the point--since it is the medium which carries the lion’s share of the communication. Simply put, the medium affects the body and the psyche in relatively unconscious ways; thus it is more powerful than the message, which largely appeals to the conscious mind. In their "Introduction" to the Essential McLuhan, Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone write:
The perception of reality now depends upon the structure of information. The form of each medium is associated with a different arrangement, or ratio, among the senses, which creates new forms of awareness. These perceptual transformations, the new ways of experiencing that each medium creates, occur in the user regardless of the program content. This is what the paradox, "the medium is the message," means. (3)
Speaking of paradoxes, McLuhan was untroubled by them. He reveled in paradox, much to the annoyance of his critics. His method as a media critic was to launch what he called "probes" and hope that when they landed they would generate more light than heat. For example, McLuhan illustrates the concept "the medium is the message" as follows in Understanding Media:
The instance of the electric light may prove illuminating in this connection. The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name. This fact, characteristic of all media, means that the "content" of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph. (151)
This passage is often quoted to demonstrate that either (1) McLuhan was a genius, or (2) that McLuhan was an intellectual quack. However, a reading of his work, especially his earlier books, reveals that McLuhan held to a relatively coherent set of principles for approaching the media, and that he was ultimately in the enlightenment business. In his interview with Playboy, McLuhan seeks to clarify some of the misunderstanding of media that has resulted from his work:
By stressing that the medium is the message rather than the content, I’m not suggesting that content plays no role--merely that it plays a distinctly subordinate role. Even if Hitler had delivered botany lectures, some other demagogue would have used the radio to retribalize the Germans and rekindle the dark atavistic side of the tribal nature that created European fascism in the Twenties and Thirties. By placing all the stress on content and practically none on the medium, we lose all chance of perceiving and influencing the impact of new technologies on man, and thus we are always dumfounded by--and unprepared for--the revolutionary environmental transformations induced by new media. (247)
I’m quoting McLuhan at length in these last two passages because they illustrate his characteristic intellectual style of juxtaposing ideas in close succession. He was a student of the symbolist poets and James Joyce, he was adept at the use of analogy to illustrate his ideas, and he cultivated an impression that he was comfortable with non-linear thinking. Reading McLuhan, we are impressed or not by the way he approaches media--using the vehicle of his mind, if you like--more than what he has to say.
Central to McLuhan’s method was the conviction that communications media alter the equilibrium of our senses. Media, in extending the senses, emphasize certain ones at the expense of others. To maintain a sense of balance, the psyche therefore alters in a corresponding way. McLuhan owes the idea of media as extensions of the body to Edward Hall: "Today man has developed extensions for practically everything he used to do with his body. The evolution of weapons begins with the teeth and the fist and ends with the atom bomb...Money is a way of extending and storing labour..." (Silent Language, 79) In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, and The Medium is the Massage McLuhan elaborated on this central premise: the wheel extends the feet, the automobile the whole body, writing the eye, clothing the skin, satellite the planet, radio the ear. If the mechanical/industrial age extended the limbs and external organs, the electronic age extends the central nervous system.
McLuhan extended Hall’s concept with his insistence that the extension of one or another of the senses disturbed all the other faculties as a result. His books of the early 1960’s--The Gutenburg Galaxy and Understanding Media (1964)--struck a resonant chord with readers because McLuhan traced the psychic disturbances of the electric age to a global level of consciousness:
But the price we pay for special technological tools, whether the wheel or the alphabet or radio, is that these massive extensions of sense constitute closed systems. Our private senses are not closed systems but are endlessly translated into each other in that experience which we call consciousness...Now, in the electric age, the very instantaneous nature of co-existence among our technological instruments has created a crisis quite new in human history. Our extended faculties and senses now constitute a single field of experience which demands that they become collectively conscious. (EM,101)
Written in the early 60’s, these words seem strangely prophetic of the networking of computers into the Internet. In 1971, McLuhan suggested that "with the computer there has risen the possibility of extending consciousness itself as a technological environment. If this is to be done, it cannot be done on the basis of any existing notion of rationality."While the computer imposes a rigid dialectic of 1’s and 0’s onto all of knowledge, the human psyche, in its search for balance, seeks the reassuring inclusiveness of community. I think McLuhan felt he was on a mission to extend the notions of rationality to better fit us for the shock of transformational media.
Towards the end of his life, McLuhan and his son Eric embarked on a project to update the 1964 Understanding Media; the unexpected result was Laws of Media: The New Science (1988), published after McLuhan’s death (in 1980) by his son. Laws of Media seeks to answer the following questions:
These questions resulted in the formulation of the following four laws of media:
This tetrad of the effects of technologies is not sequential, but rather simultaneous. All four aspects are inherent from the start, and all four aspects are complementary.
The following table illustrates how the laws of media might be applied to the impact of the internet on culture:
speed of access
access to information
Reverses (Into)obsession with data
loss of affect (feeling)
loss of private time
Retrieveswriting and correspondence
tribes and villages
Al-Jazeerah Broadcasting: Reporting from an Arab perspective
Journalism in an Age of Mass Media Globalization: Hemant Shah
Mass Media, Globalization, and the Public Mind: An Interview with Noam Chomsky, Radio Ouverture, Canada
Crossfade: Sound Travels on the Web
Acoustic Communication, Barry Truax