For McLuhan, a key feature of audiovisual media such as television was the “participation” or “involvement” they supposedly demanded of viewers. The fact that the global village has been so frequently cast in a utopian light, interpreted by media enthusiasts as a burgeoning global democracy, surely owes something to the equivocations of terms such as “participation,” which are often associated with forms of democratic discourse. Majid Rahnema has shown how the term has operated in global developmental discourses where often no distinction is made between transitive and intransitive forms of participation, the latter category including “teleguided” and “manipulated” modes of participation. True to Rahnema’s analysis, in McLuhan’s usage participation through audiovisual media comes as a form of pastoral power, a form of cognitive involvement underlying the notion of the global village.
The psychological nature of participation appears in McLuhan’s description of social clubs, which he saw as an antecedent for participatory media, insofar as clubs and media both entailed forms of political censorship. “British clubmen,” he writes, “for the sake of companionship and amiability, have long excluded the hot topics of religion and politics from mention inside the highly participational club.” Speculating then on the effects of “participatory” media in Africa, McLuhan displaces the British clubmen’s mechanism of internal self-regulation with governance by electronic media:
“We can program twenty more hours of TV in South Africa next week to cool down the tribal temperature raised by radio last week.” Whole cultures could now [with television] be programmed to keep their emotional climate stable in the same way that we have begun to know something about maintaining equilibrium in the commercial economies of the world.
In other words, to participate is to give oneself over to prevailing programs, whether dictated by club etiquette or by apartheid-based mass media. For McLuhan, the “we” who “have begun to know something” about global economic governance are also the same “we” who “can program . . . TV.” Economic knowledge and media programming are linked by an epistemic disposition that allows the self-regulating subjects of typographic culture to create self-regulating systems through which to govern. Programming provides a code according to which things can autonomously operate, can run their course without direct interference. As we will see in the case of British colonial rule, villagers’ participation in a feedback loop of information was established as a precondition for the transition from barbed-wire fences to postcolonial independence, in which the nation would be allowed to run its course.
Techniques of communicative participation, first developed during Britain’s war against the Malayan Communist Party, served as the key precedent for techniques later adapted to Kenya. It was in Malaya in the late 1940s that General Harold Briggs conceived the plan for villagization now referred to as Briggs’ Plan, which would become a model for Kenya. The “new villages” (kampung baru’s) were originally constructed to contain ethnic Chinese civilians so as to curtail the leakage of food and information to Communist militias. In tandem with villagization, vans and airplanes equipped with audio speakers extended a Hearts-and-Minds campaign into arboreal areas, attempting to surmount the communicative limitations imposed by rural dispersion and widespread nonliteracy.
At first glance, Psy-Ops appear to have consisted of little more than crude technological improvisations, such as outfitting automobiles and airplanes with radio-broadcast technologies and, later, with film projectors. However, the honing of propaganda techniques by the British and Americans during the Cold War involved epistemic as well as technological innovations, namely a convergence of three noopolitical methods developed through the social sciences: assessing public opinion, psychologically diagnosing large swaths of population (often along ethnic-linguistic and racial lines), and crafting propaganda in response to these social-scientific findings. In other words, governance was to operate as a never-ending, communicative feedback loop between public opinion and propaganda. The enforcement of communicative participation—and the information it yielded—would render barbed wire unnecessary once practices of information exchange were well established. “Participation” was therefore required of village detainees as a way of rehabilitating them, preparing them for integration within a soon-to-be capitalist, postcolonial state.
A distinct concept of “democratic” participation thus becomes legible here, perhaps more legible still if one considers that, prior to staging “village” elections in the kampung baru, a similar procedure was enacted for gathering military intelligence. Routinely, detainees were queued up and required to anonymously deposit a slip of paper into a collection box. The paper might be blank or might reveal information about other villagers’ suspicious activities. Only after villagers had thereby learned anonymous, participatory practices of policing their co-villagers, only after a self-governing polity emerged from processes of collective self-reporting, were villagers prepared to queue up for the ballot box. In voting, villagers also revealed their political tendencies to their British administrators in an act of self-reporting. Democracy was established as a form of exchanging information, of replacing the enclosures of barbed wire with the enclosures of feedback loops between administrators and electorate. Participation signaled one’s willingness to enter into the circuit of information, as both consumer and provider.
During Kenya villagization, radio was the privileged means of colonial transmission. The Kenya Broadcasting Corporation was expanded in 1953 (in direct response to the war against the KLFA) to include programming in numerous local languages. It was only in 1962, on the eve of independence, that television broadcasting was established—tellingly, not in the cities but in a small agricultural town in the Rift Valley. In the research of Leonard Doob, whose Communications in Africa McLuhan cites, electronic media furnished means not only of disseminating Euro-American messages among black Africans but also of gauging responsiveness to a widely circulated message. Both television and radio allow political views or consumer habits to be measured and compared en masse before and after a relevant transmission. Participation, in McLuhan’s thinking, essentially comprises an electronic version of pastoral power in which audiences commune voluntarily and actively with authority, rather than simply listening.