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The Turn Within: The Irony of Technology in a Globalized World

From: American Quarterly
Volume 58, Number 3, September 2006
pp. 619-638 | 10.1353/aq.2006.0057

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

It is the first decade of the twenty-first century. The homes of millions are pulsating with some combination of advanced communication technologies: satellite dishes or cable TV, DVD and VCR players, desktop computers, laptops, modems, CD players, streaming video, cell phones, palm pilots, instant messaging, voice mail. Supposedly we are now part of a "global village": all these technologies compose a new, electronic nervous system that radiates out around the world, connecting people and cultures in unprecedented and more intimate ways. A jolt to this nervous system in one part of world can now be felt instantly halfway around the planet. Marshall McLuhan, who coined the term "global village" in 1964, argued that these new sensory linkages, these "extensions of man," were destined to bind the world together. But McLuhan's assertion was not just about the flow of information. Embedded in it were assumptions about the emergence of a new subject position, one enabled by technology, in which people possessed (and welcomed) a more curious and empathetic global awareness of other cultures and people. "It is no longer possible," insisted McLuhan, "to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner" because the new communications technologies have "heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree."

But if you were a resident of the United States in the early twenty-first century, did television, with its technically enabled global reach and instantaneity, hail you as a member of this so-called global village? Is the subject position this webwork of satellites, videophones, cameras, and cables seeks to constitute a globally empathetic one? After 9/11, when one would have expected the nightly news programs to provide a greater focus on international news, attention to the rest of the world was fleeting, with the exception of the war in Iraq. After a precipitous decline in celebrity and lifestyle news in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 catastrophe, a year later the percentages of these stories in the nightly news were back to where they had been pre-9/11. In 2004, despite the war, the percentage of stories about foreign affairs on the commercial nightly news broadcasts was lower than it had been in 1997. In the print media, there has been an explosion in the number of celebrity magazines—here the technologies of telephoto lenses and cell phone cameras are used to capture television stars walking their dogs or taking out the trash.

In entertainment programming, the proliferation, especially after 9/11, of nonscripted television has brought viewers into private realms—apartments, houses, resorts, or made-for-TV camps set up on remote islands—where dramas about relationships, personal behavior, and people's "confessions" urge viewers to look inward, not outward. On ABC, a bachelor sampled the wares of twenty-five very pretty women over a period of weeks before he decided which one he liked best. On MTV, five buff twenty-somethings in a preposterously swanky apartment in Las Vegas or San Diego obsessed about which one of them was inconsiderate, "a bitch," or a lout. On The Learning Channel, couples redecorated each others' houses: here people lived for window treatments and flooring options. On the Food Network, we zeroed in on the deep fulfillment that comes from mincing, dicing, and pureeing. From The Swan to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to The Apprentice, the cameras zoomed in on narcissistic, consumerist obsessions in which the contestants, and we, were to focus on our bodies, ourselves. Here was the antithesis of the global village.

Because McLuhan was a technological determinist, he envisioned only a one-way trajectory for the media, independent of economic or corporate constraints. He failed to anticipate that technologies that enable us to look out beyond our borders can also encourage us to gaze at our navels, and it has turned out that the latter use is more profitable and cost effective than the former. All communications technologies are scopic technologies: as instruments of viewing, listening, and observing, they can slide our perceptions outward or inward. But they do not, cannot, do so on their own.

This essay argues that, at least in the United States, these new communications technologies have not...



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