The term “global village” first appeared in 1962 with the publication of Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. In popular usage, the expression has assumed a utopian connotation, suggesting a perpetual peace enabled by electronic communications. In the global village, diverse cultural tradition will supposedly survive—indeed, thrive—amid the transformations wrought by electronic connectivity. But McLuhan was hardly a utopian thinker, and the magic conjured by the “global village” should be treated with some skepticism. This magic, which continues to pervade techno-humanitarian discourses, was born of colonial thought, having been coined by McLuhan in reference to various devices of British colonial and neocolonial power. What the “global village” suggests is a state of political dispossession resulting from a differential in semiotic power. The global village is constituted first and foremost by a rural subaltern that—owing to its geographic dispersion—is governed largely through nootechnologies. These latter can elide geographic distances and thereby facilitate governance over a vastly dispersed population. To some extent, we are all global villagers, but given the imbalances of semiotic power (accruing to urbanites versus ruralites, to global North versus global South, and to the literate versus nonliterate), some belong more thoroughly to the global village than others.
It has gone strangely unnoted in the abundant scholarship on McLuhan that the global village seems to have been inspired by techniques of colonial rule in Africa, specifically from Britain’s brutal villagization scheme in Kenya in the 1950s, in which thousands of Kikuyu, Embu, and Meru civilians from Kenya’s Rift Valley were detained in camps. Yet McLuhan, while copiously citing colonial research on Kenya’s villagization, was clearly not depicting a future of wartime detainment camps so much as depoliticization and pacification through other means: through other media. It was not barbed-wire enclosures that would circumscribe the global community McLuhan imagined but rather feedback loops of information that were to work in tandem with spatial tactics of quasi-urbanization. The global village was modeled on colonial strategies intended to transform the semiotic, economic, and spatial fabric of the decolonizing world in such a way as to safeguard British economic and political interests in the aftermath of independence. Following the example of British strategy in Kenya, the global village can be understood as a mechanism for pacifying postcolonial agrarian society by absorbing people made landless by the relentless expansion of agrarian capital. The global village—like villagization—was intended to enfold dispossessed denizens into the incipient nation-form and into the global market, while simultaneously withholding the modes of semiotic power required to participate effectively in a public sphere.