Not Global Villagers, but Global Voyeurs

by Randall K. Bush

Randall K. Bush is a Presbyterian minister in Shawnee Mission, Kansas.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 9-16, 1992, pps. 809-811. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The electronic media allow us to look without being touched—to watch but not react. The mass media have made us not global villagers, but global voyeurs—looking without risking involvement.

Thirty years ago, Marshall McLuhan struck the public fancy with pithy and perceptive theories on mass media. Several of his terms are still bandied about. "Global village," for example, crops up on magazine covers and in conversations among cocktail-party sociologists. Unfortunately, the "global village" does not exist.

McLuhan’s thinking on the subject began with the observation that societies are shaped more by the nature of the media through which they communicate than by the content of their communication. How we say things is more significant than what we say; hence "the medium is the message." McLuhan emphasized how the shift from spoken to written communication changed the structure of society. Early civilizations’ ability to capture words on stones and papyri allowed them to transcend the limitations of oral communication; with that transition, visual sense became more primary than the aural sense. Written words usurped the authority once reserved for the spoken command. Kings could rule their realms by decree, and specialists emerged to transmit and interpret the vast array of written information necessary for the functioning of governments and economies.

McLuhan viewed all media as extensions of basic human faculties: the wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is an extension of the eye. Modern electronics, he contended, is an extension of the central nervous system. McLuhan argued that the speed of electronic transmissions—be they telegraph, telephone or television—collapsed traditional understandings of space and time. Distances vanish as satellites allow us to speak to friends on different continents or transmit overseas film footage for the evening news. As our brains are aware of every part of our bodies at all times, so we are aware, via electronics, of the world

around us. Global transmission of President John F. Kennedy’s funeral joined much of the world in a simultaneous ritual; through telecommunications, that isolated event attracted international participation.

But being surrounded by images brought to one’s attention at the speed of electricity is not the same as being touched by them. In McLuhan’s day, television was new enough that it did seem to have a tactile quality. The images on the television screens drew us in and demanded our participation. Everyone could become involved with everyone else. McLuhan pondered this all-at-once, all-together-now quality of the modern electric world and believed he perceived a worldwide trend away from tribalization. The electronic abolition of space united separate societies into a "global village."

Much has occurred since McLuhan coined his phrase. Television has become less dominant. Often it provides merely background noise. We are also much more familiar with the nature of television. We are less surprised or shocked by its presentations. The bored viewer who’s seen it all before flips from one channel to the next. Its illusion of omniscience and truthfulness has also been exposed over the years. Quiz-show participants have been prompted with winning answers; news stories have been created or exaggerated for the benefit of the cameras and reporters. Manipulation is far too apparent in today’s commercial and profit-based programming. Though the smoke and fireworks of television’s wizardry may still be appealing, like Dorothy in Oz we have seen the human operator behind the curtain, and its effectiveness has been severely diminished.

Furthermore, developments within the electronic media have greatly altered the nature of their "message." Thanks to the expansion of cable stations and the availability of video cassettes, viewers have a myriad of electronic choices. Numbed and hardened by the barrage of media offerings before us, we now decide what we allow to touch us and with what versions of visual reality we will interact.

Unlike McLuhan’s world of the 1960s ours is verging on media saturation: we have seen it all before, and we measure newness in microseconds. Television still has the power to draw us into its world, to reveal to us what is happening to our "neighbors" in Asia, Africa and Europe. We can be moved by images of war, violence and famine. But soon we shudder and draw back from their grasp. The nearness of the images frightens and disturbs us. We turn away; we change the channel.

Though television has brought into our homes images from around the world, the shrinking globe has never become a village. In a true village, members act and react at the same time. The electronic media, however, allow us to look without being touched—to watch but not react. The mass media have made us not global villagers, but global voyeurs.

Voyeurism is linked with forbidden glances, boudoir keyholes and invasions of privacy for personal titillation. Even without its sexual overtones, voyeurism is morally and ethically questionable; it means looking without risking involvement—like the apartment dwellers who refused to respond to a rape outside their windows.

Vivid film footage and poignant interviews thrust upon us tragedies from around the globe. The bigger the event, the greater the media coverage. Famines in Africa, cyclones, war, squalid refugee camps: such global crises are turned into media dramas. In act one, the disaster is described; in act two, root causes are explored, punctuated with current updates; in act three, summaries, editorials and postmortems are delivered as the cameras recede and rush to the next scene of newsworthy turmoil. Actual crises are rarely resolved so swiftly, and urgent needs remain long after the camera crews have left the scene. But on the far side of the lens, the viewer has already switched the channel; the voyeurs have turned away.

Social service organizations and their donors complain about "compassion fatigue." The world’s disasters are not as tidy as the evening news’ format would suggest. Relief efforts take months or years. In the electronic age, those needs quickly become old news. In fact, persistent reminders of them border on bad taste. Not only have we seen the starving children and the bloated cattle on typhoon-wrecked beaches before, but we have also donated to relief efforts after such events before. So fatigue sets in. We discard the fund-raising pleas in the mail, skip the newspaper feature articles, and switch the television channels to something else.

Even if we could somehow construe today’s world as a "village," we would probably conclude that somebody else must be responsible for those disaster laden parts of town. Whenever our conscience is pricked enough to think someone ought to do something about the crisis, we are tempted to believe that someone already is doing something. Everyone else is aware of what we are aware of; therefore someone must be working on the problem. Thus the voyeur can safely watch the drama until it is no longer entertaining or titillating, and then switch off the TV set. But no one has done anything.

We would like to believe the global village theory, for the term is comforting. A village is self-sufficient and caring, an archetypal home. To reject McLuhan’s theory is to realize that we are not "at home" and not necessarily even heading that way.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote that "with every day it becomes a little more impossible for us to act or think otherwise than collectively," a view that coincides with McLuhan’s notion about the shrinking distances between people and nations. But even were this the case, "collectivization" is not necessarily positive or advantageous. The loss of individuality also entails a loss of privacy and identity. Computer strips and identification cards give officials access to a person’s name, address, income, religion and criminal record. Evoking Orwellian predictions is not out of place in discussing McLuhan’s theories; recall that in 1984, special TV sets gave Big Brother access to every home. Today it is not that the medium is the message, but rather that the use of the medium is the message. If an electronic global village were to emerge, someone would be mayor of that village—and who is to say this mayor would be benevolent?

Or let us look at this from another angle, a bit less Orwellian yet still disconcerting. Most of the wars today are civil wars, violence arrayed not against the demons without but those within a nation’s borders. In the Christian Science Monitor, David Newsom has commented that "conflict in the decades ahead is likely to center not so much on disputes among states as on efforts within states to find a balance between national cohesion and an honorable recognition of the separate characteristics of groups within the society." Every nation suffers from some form of civil unrest: ethnic groups, linguistic groups and economic groups battle one another. Media bring these civil wars into everyone’s home and suddenly they echo in our streets and neighborhoods. Rather than rejoicing with McLuhan over the diminution of space and distance between nations, people are fighting against collectivization by loudly asserting their own uniqueness.

Ralph David Abernathy told how even the squatter camp called Resurrection City, erected on the Washington, D.C., mall during the Poor People’s March of 1968, failed to achieve a peaceful plurality. African-Americans and Hispanics wanted separate neighborhoods in the village. The same holds true for McLuhan’s global village. Like children fighting in the back seat of the family car, we find that as the quarters (even global ones) grow more compact, the more we insist on drawing territorial lines and forbidding each other to cross them.

A third complication is the social stratification that modern technology has created. Who we are as individuals is often determined by what we do: doctor, lawyer, butcher, baker, candlestick maker. But thanks to computers, satellite connections and fax machines, the simplest small-town operation can have national or even international influence. Prophets of the "global village" describe how this electronic expansion has helped erase regional and national borders. Government monopolies over information and technology are being broken down as scientists, engineers and visionaries share their dreams and discoveries via the global network of modern communication.

Yet something fundamental may be lost in this process. These transnational groupings of people sharing common interests are not true "villages" but simply expanded versions of what Robert Bellah has termed "lifestyle enclaves"—the linking of people who are socially, economically or culturally similar, sharing patterns of leisure and consumption. Even worse, some of these community substitutes are interpersonal networks established purely for utilitarian reasons—an electronic version of making contacts for business or career advancement.

The concept of village evokes images of commonality, relatedness. The prophets of the media-created global village assert that the electronic age has returned us to a more integrated, primitive awareness. Yet the source of this awareness is not a rediscovered communal spirit but rather a reversion to our basest level of egocentrism. Unlike villagers, we can sit in isolation at the helm of our media devices, peering into other lands and other lives in a voyeuristic fantasy. Like security guards seated before consoles of 20 or more video display terminals, we see what is happening around us without interacting or getting involved, unless we feel personally threatened by what we see or think we can use it to our advantage.

The biblical perspective sounds a clear warning against the glib acceptance of the "global village." That modern technology has wrought revolutionary changes and mass-media omnipresence has shrunk the planet is undeniable. But sheer speed and close proximity are not the same as relatedness. And faith is, by definition, about relatedness. Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.

Isaiah’s prophecy continues to be true. People hear but do not understand; see, but do not perceive (Isa. 6:9). In our world there is much that we see and hear and experience, but we simply do not dwell in a village of commonality and compassion. Inasmuch as we long for such a global village to emerge around us, we must refocus our eyes. For there is only One whose presence and grace and clarity of vision can help us see and perceive those around us as our neighbors in God’s global village.