Do We Really Want a Global Village?
This is Chapter 9 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.
Referring to our wired planet as a "global village" makes about as much sense as calling multinational companies "global craft shops": it works fine so long as you attach meaning only to the first word of the phrase. In the case of "global village," however, nearly all the emotional freight is delivered by the second word. Given how few of us can claim any direct experience of a traditional village culture, one wonders what it is we're really saying.
No one can doubt that the world's wiring reflects the imperatives of business. To a first approximation, the global village is the global "craft shop" -- which only adds to the perplexity, since the patterns of community we have built into our corporations are not widely felt to be villagelike.
On the other hand, we have fed for some years now on certain images of electronic, transnational, people-to-people contact. A few well- publicized faxes and Internet messages from Tienanmen Square and coup-threatened Russia greatly encouraged our already eager sentiments. Somehow we can't help ourselves: all this opportunity to pass messages around just must lead to an era of peace and neighborly understanding. At the very least, we cannot deny that the communication itself is a good thing!
There are strange juxtapositions here. Many of those societies in which the village has until now remained central -- societies where networking is as easy as saying hello to a neighbor -- are busily dissolving themselves in the cauldron of their own unrepressed fury, villager pitted mercilessly against villager. Surely this is not the community we wish to globalize! Where then, one asks, is our model? Perhaps it is merely a ghastly sense for the ironic that prompts us to hail the birth of the global village just as villages around the world are self-destructing. But the unwelcome thought nags: could it be that what we so eagerly embrace, unawares, are the powers of dissolution themselves?
Legacy of the colonial village
The current ethnic strife forces at least one self-evident lesson upon us: there are ways to bring diverse peoples together -- to give them common institutions, a common currency for cultural exchange, common purposes and undertakings on the world scene -- while yet failing utterly to bridge hellish chasms dividing human being from human being. It is not just that the Soviet experiment and the colonization of Africa failed -- as they did even in their most benign manifestations. More than that, they were gigantic incubators for future misunderstanding and strife. And no one can doubt that the transcultural nature of the experiments -- the tendency to globalize and rationalize human interaction without a proper foundation within the depths of the human being, without a true meeting of persons across the superficially breached cultural barriers -- has contributed to the massive regional disasters that have afflicted former colonies in recent decades. In this context, the global village looks all too much like a convenient means for universalizing the conflicts already so evident in the "colonial village."
You may wish to dismiss ethnic hatreds as resulting from the very sort of oppressive domination our global networks will hereafter make impossible. The political power of the fax and all that. I don't doubt that particular styles of domination may eventually pass from history's stage -- or even that electronic communication may play a part in the passing. What concerns me is the likelihood of our expressing within a new social and technological landscape the same spiritual vacuity that gave rise to the old tyrannies.
Can we claim to have composed the elusive melody that brings neighbor into harmony with neighbor? Whatever that melody may be, it was woefully unsung in the villages of Bosnia, where the people had long been able to talk to each other unimpeded. The grounds are tenuous indeed for thinking that proper electronic links were the critical, missing elements in villages subsequently shattered by the shrill dissonance of a hatred long inaudible even to its owners.
Giving in marriage
These observations may seem overwrought in the context of the Internet. That, in fact, is precisely what worries me. In dealing with the titillating prospects of a new electronic culture, we naturally find ourselves talking about human beings who have become manageable abstractions of themselves. Sharing information and cooperating in purely technical undertakings too easily figures, in the electronically adapted imagination, as "village paradise regained." Yet the global peace and understanding of this levitated discourse are only pale shadows of the peace-giving powers we must summon if we are to assist the transformation of an all-too-real village where the inhabitants rape, mutilate, and kill their neighbors. Moreover, the widespread substitution of an abstract, "information-rich" discourse for a more muscular and humanly present interaction may be very much part of the formula for mutual alienation, the consequences of which we are now seeing in the world.
I am not saying it is impossible to express deep human concern to another person in an email message. There's no need to tell me how you met your spouse over the Net, or how you participated in a successful, electronic fund drive for a charity. I know about these things and am glad for them. So, too, people were happily given in marriage throughout Bosnia, until a year or two ago. But to leave matters there is to refuse to probe the subtle weave of shaping forces from which an unexpected future may crystallize.
A global electronic culture can, in one sense or another, bring about a union of peoples. The question is whether this union only offers a less visible -- and therefore more insidious -- communal dissociation than was effected by the failed political unions of the past. Recognizing such things is painfully difficult; how many Yugoslavs in 1990 could have looked into their own hearts and the hearts of their neighbors and descried the conflagration to come? And it may be precisely this sort of recognition that an online culture suppresses more effectively than any external authority possibly could. Many indeed -- by their own testimony -- have seized upon the Net as an opportunity, not to face what they are, but to live out their fantasies.
The global village is by all accounts a technological creation. Many would-be village architects are inspired by the endless potentials they discern in a satellite dish planted among thatched-roof houses. This techno-romantic image calls up visions of information sharing and cooperation, grassroots power, and utopian social change.
What it ignores is the monolithic and violently assimilative character of the resulting cultural bridges. Jerry Mander and many others have given us a hair-raising account of the effects of technological imperialism upon native peoples around the world. /1/ A global village that leaves no place for native or alternative cultures seems uncomfortably like the old colonialism in a new guise. But this statement requires some elaboration.
Sources of satisfaction
We in the West have distilled the abstract essence of logic and mathematics from our former worlds of interest (for example, from the behavior of the night sky). Unfortunately, we have proven less adept at recovering the possibilities of meaning in the original subject matter once we have conformed our thoughts to its abstract distillate. The light of mathematics may have descended into our minds from the circling stars, but how many students of mathematics still look to the night sky with wonder?
Our loss becomes an acute problem for others when we apply our now disembodied rationality (often in the form of computer programs such as expert systems) to the concrete needs of developing nations. This rationality, detached as it is even from our own former sources of meaning, is doubly alien to the people we would help. And what meaning we do invest in software and technology remains, for the most part, unconscious.
Doris M. Schoenhoff, in The Barefoot Expert, points out that expertise -- the kind we export to other nations -- is always "embedded in a community and can never be totally extracted from or become a replacement for that community. /2/ When we attempt the abstraction and apply the result across cultural boundaries, the logic and assumptions of our technology can prove bitterly corrosive. Worse, the kind of community from which Western technical systems commonly arise is, for the most part, noncommunity -- typified by the purely technical, one- dimensional, commercially motivated, and wholly rationalized environments of corporate research and development organizations.
Within our own society, even food is subject to technological manipulation. We can produce various artificial foods, supposedly nourishing, and the inevitable temptation is to bring such products to bear upon the problems of hunger in the world. But this meets surprising resistance. As Jacques Ellul puts it,
We must not think that people who are the victims of famine will eat anything. Western people might, since they no longer have any beliefs or traditions or sense of the sacred. But not others. We have thus to destroy the whole social structure, for food is one of the structures of society./3/
What has for us become a merely technical problem may well remain for other cultures an intricate nexus of profound meanings. The wonderful rationality of our solutions easily destroys the only things that really count. "It is discomforting," writes Denis Goulet,
for a sophisticated technical expert from a rich country to learn that men who live on the margin of subsistence and daily flirt with death and insecurity are sometimes capable of greater happiness, wisdom, and human communion than he is, notwithstanding his knowledge, wealth, and technical superiority./4/
This is not to justify the continued existence of poverty, but only to point toward the inner world from which alone meaning can arise. When technology arbitrarily destroys inner worlds, its logically compelling aspect begins to look like a grotesque, mechanical sneer. And given the aggressively self-driven, uncontrollable nature of Western technology today, it almost certainly will destroy the inner world -- which is to say, the culture -- of the recipient societies. It will likely do so much more rapidly, even, than it has been uprooting the culture of the originating nations.
Technology in place of culture
Schoenhoff remarks that what we export today is no longer simply the various products of Western expertise. "Western expertise itself has become the [exported] technology" -- for example, in the form of expert systems. /5/ But this holds true for much more than expert systems. The entire technical infrastructure, including the computer networks upon which everything is increasingly founded, enforces an imperial "wisdom" of its own. Ellul speaks, for example, about the centralizing character of even the most distributed networks. It is a centralization without need of a center: a governing logic, a systematic requirement for interaction, a necessary rationalization of all the parts within a huge, incomprehensible, but perfectly coherent and compelling totality. This rationalization is just "in the nature of things." The uncounted fragments of logic continually being added to the system through millions of separate processes that no one can fully comprehend or even know about -- all these demand their own, mutual rationalization, and we ourselves are unavoidably pulled along by the grand pattern. /6/
In this sense, even if in no other, the global village is a kind of global totalitarianism. And one thing it asks of us is clear: in attacking any local problem we must yield first of all, not to the meanings inherent in the problem, but to the constraining necessity of the global system itself. The village farmers in Nepal may not feel any need of a satellite dish, but they will receive one nevertheless; it is a prerequisite for "development."
But, as I have already pointed out, this willy-nilly imposition of technology destroys the fabric of meaning by which communities are knit together. Our bafflement over conflicts in the global village reflects a forgetfulness of the fact that human life can be sustained only within a sea of meaning, not a network of information. When we disrupt this meaning with our detached logic and unrooted information, we cast the villagers into the same void that we have been able to endure only by filling it with endless diversions. Not everyone has access to our diversions -- and many of those who do are not so quickly willing to sell their souls for inane stimulations. Religious fanaticism -- to pick one alternative -- may prove more meaningful.
Our rush to wire the world will some day be seen to have spawned a suffering as great as that caused by this century's most ruthless dictators. There is no doubt about what we are up to. Our quest for a global village begins with the implementation of physical networks and accompanying technology. Then, of course, the local communities must adapt to this global, culture-destroying machine they have suddenly come up against. This sequence is vivid proof that the global village has absolutely nothing to do with culture, value, or meaning -- nothing to do with the traditional significance of community, with democratic values, or with anything else that grows up from the healthy depths of the human being. It is, purely and simply, the extension of a technical and commercial logic implicit in the wires already laid down.
If we really wanted a global village, we would start with the local culture, learn to live in it, share in it, appreciate it, begin to recognize what is highest in it -- what expresses its noblest and most universal ideals -- and encourage from within the culture the development and fulfillment of these ideals. Only in this way can any culture enlarge itself.
Technological change should be introduced only so far as it serves the natural, consciously chosen evolution of a people. "What is important," says Schoenhoff, "is that development, including technological and economic development, must proceed from a vision of the human person and the purpose of life and not simply from a theory of production and consumption /7/ -- not even, I might add, from a theory of the production and consumption of the empty commodity we now call "information." In a healthy society, technology would emerge from the cultural matrix; it would not arbitrarily destroy that matrix.
We can hardly play a positive role in the development of other cultures without first ennobling our own behavior to the point where we are no longer content to exploit those cultures for a strictly economic benefit. The real "meaning" of the world's wiring is in fact little more than the exploitation of commercial opportunities -- the purest philistinism -- in which nearly all of us are implicated. Enabling cultures around the globe to transform themselves from within is hardly part of the picture.
When cultures collapse instead of transcending themselves through their own best elements, only chaos can ensue. This is the whirlwind we have been reaping for some time. The current, furious attempts to assimilate every society to the inhuman imperatives of the information age will only intensify the maelstrom.
It wasn't long ago when we smiled to ourselves at the reports of Russians and Chinese buying up blue jeans and dancing to rock music. Somehow we knew that this meant we were winning. No doubt our confidence was justified -- and all the more as we penetrate our "enemies" by means of commercial television, cinema, and, finally, the fully integrated logic and the virtually real images of a brave new world. And yet, we are only now beginning to sense, with a restless foreboding, the slowly emergent effects of these images upon our own culture. What if it turns out that "winning" is the worst possible outcome?
The obvious lie should already have alerted us to the dangers. A culture that has largely succeeded in eradicating the last traces of its own village life turns around and -- by appealing to a yet further extension of the eradicating technology -- encourages itself with Edenic images of a global village. This is Doublespeak. The television, having helped to barricade the villager behind the walls of his own home, will not now convert the world into a village simply by enabling him to watch the bombs as they rain upon Baghdad. Nor will we suddenly be delivered from ourselves by making the television interactive and investing it with computing power. (Interactivity allows, among other things, the hand to guide the bomb to its target.) In none of this do we see a healing of the terms of human exchange. Nor do we see evidence of escape from the inexorable, despotic logic already responsible for the fortification and isolation of our own inner-city "villages."
1. Mander, 1991. Also see chapter 5, "On Being Responsible for Earth."
2. Schoenhoff, 1993: 115.
3. Ellul, 1990: 53.
4. Quoted in Schoenhoff, 1993: 80.
5. Schoenhoff, 1993: 75.
6. Ellul, 1990: 162-63.
7. Schoenhoff, 1993: 82-83.