Thinking about global villages

Yesterday I spent some time thinking about how advances in transportation technologies affected the very fabric of village and town society, and about how advances in communications and computing technologies are helping us re-create the village structures we had lost. A number of you commented, on this blog, via Twitter, via Facebook and via Google Plus. Thank you, I appreciate the comments, they help me learn. [Incidentally, I experimented with a number of commenting systems to protect against such fragmentation of conversation, and then went through a purge some years ago after hearing that they may have inadvertently caused some of the DDoS attacks I’d faced. Any advice on what I should do? The default is I go and install disqus.]

I must have been 11 or 12 when I first heard the term “global village“. At the time, I’d just about heard of Marshall Mcluhan, but hadn’t read any of his books. And it was a good twenty years before I’d read anything of Robin Dunbar’s works. Why do I bother giving you this context? Because I hope you will understand a little more of what went on in my mind then, and how it influenced me since, and as a result your comments and opinions will be more useful to me, will help me deal with my anchors and frames.

I lived in a village for many years. That village was called Calcutta, now Kolkata. Today it is claimed that around 4.5m people live in the city proper (70+ square miles) with another 10m in the metropolitan area (700+ square miles). One of the biggest cities in the world, 7th in cities, 3rd in metro.

As I said, a village.

Let me explain why.

In the 23 years I lived in Calcutta, I knew three homes. One, where I was born, 116A Lower Circular Road. It was my home for perhaps three years. I then spent a decade at 70C Hindustan Park, Ballygunge, leaving there in 1969 to move to 6/2 Moira Street. It was from Moira St that I made my first (and last) foray abroad, in 1980.

The precise places are immaterial, unless you know Calcutta; what matters is the area and the density.

It so happens that I can be very precise about both the area and the density.

Area: My world. Density: Everyone I knew.

For 23 years my “world” could be fitted into a space that was an isosceles triangle with a height of maybe 4 miles and a base of 3 miles. In terms of the map above, my entire life in India could be mapped and documented into the red and yellow areas in the centre, and for that matter largely in the southern half of that area.


A village. My entire world, everyone I knew, largely lived within walking distance, a mile or two. The longest walks I could possibly undertake were of the order of four or five miles.

Three generations of my family spent time in that village; some still live there. It housed the buildings we were born in, the schools we went to, the businesses we were part of. Everything. All in a few square miles.

Today that family is spread across at least four continents. We use a new-fangled telephone and telegraph system to keep in touch. It’s called facebook.

When I think about my school, I think “village” again. I’m still in touch with many of the people I went to school with, in 1966. Nearly 50 years later, over 70 of us from that “batch” remain in contact with each other. And I make it that, like my family, my classmates are in at least four continents.

We lived in a village. It may have been one of the largest villages in the world, but it was still a village. Where everyone knew everyone, where they came from, what their parents did, where they lived, what they did. We knew who’d been born, who  had died, who’d gotten drunk, who’d been promoted, who’d got married, who’d got divorced.

We knew everything.

About everyone.

So when I heard the phrase “global village”, I didn’t think that suddenly I would be connected to everyone in the whole world. I didn’t even think I would be connected to everyone in Calcutta.

But I did think I could be connected to everyone I knew. My world. Regulated by Dunbar’s number.

And so it came to pass. Abu Shafquat, one of the first friends I can remember having, was in touch with me only a few weeks ago. He’d heard that a close friend, Gyan Singh, had passed away. We meet every now and then. A few months ago I met Vir Lakshman, another close friend, in Beijing. He lives in Dusseldorf now. A month ago I connected with but could not manage to see Vishnu Shahaney; he lives in Singapore now, but we both happened to be in Melbourne for a day. I’m a trustee of the Web Science Trust; there aren’t that many trustees, yet I went to school with one of them. I’ve met classmates and schoolmates on every continent except for South America. I’ve never been to any part of South America. I will, one day. And when I go there, I will go to Sao Paulo, and see another classmate.

A global village.

My global village.

Distinct and different from my local village, the one I grew up in. Distributed over time and space. Consisting of many villages, each of which I continue to belong to. My family, my friends, my schoolmates, my colleagues, my neighbours, my acquaintances. My facebook friends. My twitter followers and followees. My LinkedIn connections. My Google+ connections. Many villages.

Many villages, each of which I belong to. Villages that I live in, using different tools and technologies to support and enable that existence.

When I think of the digital world, I also try and think of the physical world that it augments. Not replaces, augments. Because I can learn from that physical world.

A world where I had a finite number of relationships with people I trusted, a world where I was free to share my likes and dislikes and preferences with the people I gave my custom to.

More later.

6 thoughts on “Thinking about global villages”

  1. Agree totally.
    Apart from the fact that you have connectivity, and probably most of your friends and family do. But spare a thought for those who can’t join you – the ones who haven’t a fit for purpose connection. A third of the UK. Sorry to crash in on your post, I really loved it – but when I see all the benefits internet can bring it immediately makes me worry about those who can’t get it.

  2. @chris I’m trying to make the same case as you, but in a tangential way. first I want to prove that what we are heading towards is something we used to have. And that the new something is an augment of the old something, not a replacement. A powerful augment, one that we need. then I want to dissect the carcasses of IP and privacy by proving they never existed in the village, and that they are holding us all up. Then I can end with the view that the second two billion might well race ahead of the first two billion, because their legacy constraints are weaker. Capisce?

  3. The more virtual we connect the more we seem to gather temporarily in local villages to connect in real-time for events, family, sporting, work, conferences, reunions…

  4. Agree JP. My memory of Calcutta includes its amazing capacity to take you to Howrah station by more than one means including a simple auto ride, a bus ride from any corner of the city, an yellow taxi ride, a ferry ride across the river, and for flavor you may now throw in a metro/tram ride with breaks in between. In all these rides I may still choose not to pay attention to any of the people around and be focused only on the grand journey outbound from Howrah. I think these types of journeys (like conduits with fconnects and oauths) are also getting manifested digitally now making you feel ‘your’ village wherever you are versus the village that you are currently in.

  5. Yes JP – I see the same trajectory as you – Going Home – and it is about knowing and being known and it is small in a big place

Let me know what you think

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.