When Marshall McLuhan first used the phrase “The Global Village” back in the early 1960s it was both a revolutionary concept and an ideal that was at once utopian and dystopian. McLuhan laid bare for us the dramatic consequences of our digital communications technologies, which have not just compressed time and space (that honour belongs to the aircraft) but annihilated it altogether. Thus today we can translate ourselves into what McLuhan called the ‘spiritual form of information’ and transmit ourselves digitally via cable and satellite to Australia almost instantaneously. We can know as much about what is happening in, say, Zimbabwe, Canada and Finland as any citizen native to these countries. We can run a business empire from a mountaintop, buy shares in a country thousands of miles away whilst on a transatlantic flight. The whole world is literally at our fingertips: a single touchscreen gesture could, in theory, precipitate a global economic meltdown.
McLuhan saw in the Global Village new possibilities for tactile interplay, for life as a kind of game in which we no longer work ‘jobs’ but perform ‘roles’ – a literal version of Shakespeare’s ‘All the Worlds a Stage’. In this sense, the Global Village is a utopian ideal. Yet there is also a darker and dystopian aspect that cannot be ignored. McLuhan depicted a world stripped of privacy and individualism, seeing these concepts as sociopolitical products of an earlier industrial era. The Global Village represents a return to a tribal past, a world in which we are all intimately interconnected with one another. We can see this dynamic at work in the proliferation of social media and our desire to share our lives with others. It is a phenomenon that many of the older generation – products of a more reserved, private and individual world – find baffling. Today, our attitude towards privacy is that of the split personality: we decry State surveillance (or at least portions of the media do on our behalf) whilst openly embracing communication media that allow our every movement to be tracked and monitored.
It would seem that all is not well in the Global Village. The early promise of the internet as a medium of openness and transparency – as an Information Superhighway – has come true, not in the manner we envisaged but as a vast network of surveillance and control. The Global Village is a world in which the games and frivolity on offer have become a part of the control system, a vast repository of information freely (or at least legally) available to the world’s clandestine services. A world in which geo-political intrigue and warfare is recreated and legitimised by games that mirror the ‘real’ and reduce it to entertainment. A world of unreal celebrity and manufactured idols. A world of simulation in which the line between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ has not just been blurred but obliterated altogether. To quote Baudrillard: “Disney is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real”.
At the same time McLuhan was writing about the consequences of technological development, a short-lived and iconic television series called The Prisoner was broadcast in Britain and America. Although it’s somewhat ironic to point to a work of fiction as a model of reality, it’s hard not to ignore the parallels between the world depicted in The Prisoner and the world we currently inhabit. The series is set in the unreal (yet real) village of Portmeirion in North Wales. Unreal because Portmeirion is itself a simulation, a reproduction of Portofino in Italy. In the series Portmeirion is referred to only as ‘The Village’ and is the reluctant home of The Prisoner, a secret service agent who is kidnapped and held there after abruptly resigning his job and refusing to divulge the reason for his resignation. The Village is an unreal multi-coloured world inhabited by equally colourful characters. It is impossible to divine who is being held against their will and who is an agent of the forces that run it. Even those who admit to being prisoners integrate themselves into the control system: it may be totalitarian but it is at least a relatively benign and not unpleasurable form of totalitarianism.
The Prisoner, however, finds his environment completely intolerable. He knows that The Village’s colour, gaiety, and mock elections serve only to mask and legitimise a system of control, to brainwash its inhabitants into accepting it. He too is a product of an earlier era, one more private and individual. He is given a number (all villagers have numbers rather than names ) but refuses to accept it, just as he refuses to divulge any information about himself. Each episode outlines his captors’ (we are never told who they are, they too are only numbers) attempts to force him (via elaborate psychological set-pieces) to tell them why he resigned, to find out if he intended to defect to ‘the other side’. Yet early on in the series we are told that his captors do not believe in an ‘other side’. They believe that the Cold War enemies of American and the Soviet Union are just mirrors of one another, and that the Village represents the new reality. We are told that once the superpowers recognise they are just two sides of the same coin The Village will become the model for everyone – that The Village and its systems of control will become the Global Village. This being the case, what exactly did they want from The Prisoner? The giveaway is provided in the words spoken in each episode’s opening credits.
We want Information! Information! Information!
The Prisoner’s infraction was his refusal to share. The actual whys and wherefores behind his resignation are unimportant. They are in fact meaningless given the nature and purpose of The Village itself. In a world predicated on openness, transparency, and interconnectedness – where everyone is expected to go with the flow and do as others do – it is refusal to share and join in that is the Great Sin. The Prisoner had to be broken, he had to be cracked – he had to accept his ‘role’ in The Village. He had to ‘fall in line’.
Like all systems of control, The Village wants everyone in formation, neatly lined up backstage, ready and willing to step forward into the spotlight, ready and willing to perform roles like an actor on stage. And in return for our obedience we are rewarded with a not unpleasant life: mildly exhausting (albeit largely pointless) ‘work’ creating, selling and sustaining unreal digital worlds, administering unreal digital ‘money’, financial ‘products’, fashions, etc., plus the enjoyment of as many unreal forms of entertainment and simulation as we care to imagine.
Where is the ‘real’ today? Does it exist? Is it possible to think philosophically without a script from a movie or book intruding to say “been there, done that”? Where exactly is ‘the real’ in a world in which, according to science, what we think of as ‘reality’ seems to depend on the presence of an observer? A ‘reality’ which, according to Oxford academic Nick Bostrom, may be no more real than a video game? A world in which even murder takes on the appearance of a video game? What if the electronic systems we have built for ourselves – and we must not forget they are also systems of exploration and discovery – are revealing that we inhabit a prison within a prison?
Are we all Prisoners in a Global Village?