The Global Village, Circa 2012

What Marshall McLuhan and Jane Jacobs tell us about International Relations in a globalized age.
By: /
January 17, 2012

2011 marked the 50th anniversary of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Marshall McLuhan's centennial. It was also the year in which the city eclipsed the state as the unit of international relations. Tahrir Square, Tunis, Hong Kong, Sau Paulo, Palo Alto – these were the loci of global change.

Though one was an urbanist and the other a philosopher, Jacobs and McLuhan both predicted this shift. Jacobs' urban writings and grassroots activism on behalf of the city are well documented, but McLuhan, too, took a deep interest in cities – and not just in an indirect “global village” type-of-way. McLuhan commented on the “rich community effects” caused “simply by locating dwellings in non-linear patterns” and drew parallels between a suburb killing an old city and a new medium killing an old one. In fact, Jacobs and McLuhan served together on the Stop Spadina, Save Our City Coordinating Committee and produced a short film in support of their cause (Jacobs was apparently amazed that McLuhan’s unsystematic narrative produced such a compelling visual tale).

As we reflect on 2011, and move forward into an increasingly city-dominated world (in 2007, for first the first time, the world’s population became more urban than rural, and this trend continues), it is worth considering what these two Canadians – or, more appropriately, Torontonians – taught us about global politics.

The first lesson they taught us is that national borders are quickly disappearing. In the “age of the information explosion,” as McLuhan put it, walls between nations and economies will blow out. And what will be left amid the rubble? Dense communities of individuals who have, in McLuhan’s words, “adjusted to the new proximity.” The city will become the lifeblood of the state. Canada will be nothing without Toronto (or Vancouver, or Montreal, or Calgary), the U.S. nothing without New York, and Japan nothing without Tokyo. More importantly, Haerbin, Shantou, Guiyang, and the other cities McKinsey names in its report on global cities of the future will wield far more power than many states.

In this scenario, David Cameron’s decision to place the concerns of “the City” above those of the rest of England in opting out of the Brussels Treaty seems less political, and more prescient. So, too, do the efforts of the C40, a group of cities working to solve climate change, and trade deals between Hamburg and Dubai, and Abu Dhabi and Singapore. Less so are treaties signed between nations – and not cities – such as the Kyoto Protocol, the perimeter border deal, and countless Free Trade Agreements.

The second lesson is that, without the proper governance structures, this environment of close proximity will be a scary place. Yes, "the medium is the message" - but how? McLuhan argued that the shift in how we communicate would change us neurologically – and not into David Brooks-imagined “social animals” excelling at everything in a peaceful world. Rather, we would regress to primal tendencies, devolving into bicameral humans who operate unconsciously and automatically.

When the world is a hockey rink and its inhabitants David Steckels (and not Sidney Crosbys), global governance systems are crucial. With the exception of the intervention in Libya, 2011 proved another year in the United Nations’ slide toward irrelevance. As Parag Khanna argues, we need global institutions built on “cities and their economies rather than nations and their armies.” Jane Jacobs recognized this a long time ago when she observed that democratization is no longer the purview of states, and proceeded to develop the concept of “localism.” Next week, we will have the opportunity to evaluate how a new form of global diplomacy might work when diplomats of the digital age – prime and finance ministers, but also mayors, academics, and Bono – come together at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Finally, McLuhan and Jacobs taught us to plan our cities with global visions. As Jacobs described them, cities are active urban organisms that require the proper nourishment to flourish. This may not come in the form of a gravy train, but it does require a certain amount of funding. As the Toronto City Council prepares to cut TTC services and close shelters, pools, and city programming, we should think about what this means, not just for Toronto, but for Canada’s place in the world. 

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.