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  • 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