Kim H. Veltman

Global Villages, Portable Internet, and Two-Way Communication: Revolutions McLuhan Could not Foresee, 10th EVA Moscow, 3 - 7 December, 2007.


A revolution in communication is underway. In the past seven years, there have been a billion new users of Internet and three billion new users of mobile phones. For the next seven years, it is predicted that one billion phones will be sold annually, i.e. more users than the world’s population. As mobile phones become third generation (3G), they will have Internet and enable recording of local content and diversity and traditions. In the past, broadcasting  was a one-way method for the centre to impose its values. Now, a new kind of two-way communication is emerging, which implicitly transforms broadcasting into a new kind of share-casting, whereby the unique expressions of all citizens can become accessible.    


Marshall McLuhan was a wonderful visionary thinker with respect to new media. He is now often credited as having foreseen intuitively the connected world of the Internet. Paradoxically the guru of new media was out of touch with many developments of his time. He did not cite the work of Otlet and Lafontaine, who were active in the vision of a world brain in the early 20th century and had described in some detail a future Internet as early as 1934. [1] While McLuhan became world famous for his Gutenberg Galaxy, he remained unaware that the invention of printing [2] and specifically moveable type belonged to Korea, not Germany. McLuhan is remembered particularly for coining phrases such as: The Medium is the Message. He rightly emphasized the importance of a shift towards an Electric Age, which described developments in the period 1800-1896. But this ignored the role of additional shifts towards the Electro-Magnetic, Electronic-Analog (1896-1947), Electronic-Digital (1947-) and shifts in scale from 101 towards 10-9 (nano-) and smaller. His explanations thus overlooked as much as they explained. [3]

McLuhan is particularly remembered for his phrase The Global Village, which introduced visions of a new interconnected world. McLuhan focussed on television and radio as instruments of mass communication. Paradoxically, this approach was again remarkably conservative. It continued to see broadcasting as a one-way process, whereby centres of power spread their ideas to the provinces and periphery. Ironically, the visionary, free thinker thus applied to mass media and broadcasting, the spirit of an earlier imperialist and colonialist mentality, whereby a centres of powers determine the content of all within their sphere of power. McLuhan applied a 19th century mindset to 20th century developments and thus could not foresee where these new technologies might lead in the early 21st century. In all fairness, almost no-one at the time appreciated the magnitude of changes that were on the horizon. In 1943, Thomas Watson, the chairman of IBM claimed:  “I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers.” [4] In 1977, Ken Olsen, the founding President of Digital Corporation, claimed that: “There is no reason why anyone would want a computer art their home.” [5] Bill Gates, who is alleged to have said that the Internet is a passing fad is cited to have claimed in 1981 that: “640K ought to be enough for anybody".[6]

When the Internet began in England in 1968 it was a secretive military operation led by Donald Davies. When the Internet began as an Arpanet project in 1969 [7] it began  predominantly as a military operation which soon expanded into the realms of high energy physics, astronomy and then to government workers and university research. In its first 20 years (1969-1989) the Internet grew to 100,000 hosts. [8] The advent of Tim Berners Lee’s HTML which heralded the rise of the World Wide Web saw a growth to 1 million users by 1992, and 50 million by 1995, which rose to over 200 million users by 2000.     

In theory, the dotcom.bust of 2000-2001 should have dampened this remarkable story of unprecedented growth. In practice, something very different happened. In the past seven years, the fixed Internet has grown to 1,244,449,601 users (as of 30 September 2007). [9] There were also changes in languages. English, which had been the predominant language of the Internet in the early 1990s, declined to c.30% of the Internet. Chinese became the second language of the Internet and, as of January 2007, Spanish became the third language of the Internet. Some have noted that there are now more persons with Spanish as a native language than English. There have been other surprises. There are now more Internet users in Brazil (39 million Portuguese users) than in the whole of Great Britain. There are now 28 million users in Russia, 10 million more than in Spain. To give an indication of the scale of growth: It took 26 years to reach the first 50 million Internet users (1969-1995). In the three months from 30 June-30 September, 2007, there were an additional 50 million new users of the fixed Internet.  

Meanwhile, the expansion of mobile phones has been even more dramatic. Cellular phones were introduced commercially in 1984. [10] In 2001, Network World reported: “In 1994, 16 million Americans subscribed to cellular phone services. Today, more than 110 million Americans are subscribers. Some experts predict that worldwide subscribership will reach 1.2 billion people by 2005.” [11] These figures proved far too conservative. By the third quarter of 2005, mobile phones reached 2 billion users. [12] Nokia, the world’s leading manufacturer of mobile phones, had predicted that there would be 3 billion mobile users by 2010. In December 2005, they revised their predictions to claim this would happen by the end of 2008. [13]  Even this was much too conservative. The 3 billion milestone was reached in June 2007. That same month, Charlie Sorrel at Wired captured the trend with a catchy title: “Half the World Will Own Mobile Phones This Year.” [14]

It took one century to reach 1 billion users of telephones around the world. In the past 7 years, there have been 1 billion new Internet users. In 2006 alone, there were 1 billion new mobile phone users. [15] By November 2007 analysts were beginning to glimpse the implications. One understood the potentials of tapping into 3 billion customers for advertising. [16] Another predicted that the market of 1 billion mobile sets a year would continue until at least 2012 and that by then “Super 3G Mobile Handsets Set to Top Global Market Share by 2012.” [17] Google’s activities with the Open Handset Alliance was another response. The world population is c.6.5 billion persons. It is predicted that in the years 2006 to 2012 over 7 billion phones will be sold. This does not include the unofficial sale of clones and copies. For the first time in history, the idea of a communication device for everyone on earth is a real possibility. Technologically, this device could be an Internet enabled phone. Economically, given costs to scale, this device could be produced for well under $10.

Other trends are also coming into focus. The United States developed a WiFi standard (80211), which began as a means of connecting interiors of buildings and spaces such as waiting rooms in airports and railway stations. In the past years, the potential range of WiFi expanded to 3km and subsequently to 50-60 km. Soon there was hype about creating WiFi connections for entire cities such as Chicago; for the whole 1500 sq. km. of Silicon Valley [18] and even a vision of a national wireless network. [19] By November 2007, these projects were faltering, not because the technology did not work, but because the players could not agree on how to share advertising and other rights. Financial greed was the stumbling block. At the same time, Google, which had made a great to do about the advent of its own mobile telephone, variously named a g-phone or Android, revealed that there was no specific phone or model that had been developed thus far. Elsewhere in the world things are different. There is less hype and more action. Writing at the end of 2005, Gil and Loraine Howard-Browne noted: “Worldwide, there are more than 2.4 billion cell phone users, with more than 1,000 new customers added every minute….59 percent of these 2.4 billion people live in developing countries, making cellphones the first telecommunications technology in history to have more users there than in the developed world.” [20]

The so-called developing world, long more than half-dismissed as a third-world, is now central to a number of pioneering developments. In 1998, China [21] had just over 1 million users. In September 2007, it reached 162 million users. It is predicted that it will have more Internet users than the entire United States by the end of 2008. [22] IPv6 was developed in the United States, but not adopted, because entrepreneurs thought that they could make more money out of IPv4. In the meantime, China is the central developer of IPv6. In terms of Unicode, China is now one of the leading countries of the world. By 2000, they had scanned in their Emperor’s Library with 800 million characters and made it accessible in eight Chinese dialects. Meanwhile, the WiFi Alliance made its debut in India in August 2006. [23] Newer hotels in Delhi are WiFi enabled. India is now talking of WiFi covering entire states such as Jaipur and of developing WiFi Ecosystems. [24]

While much smaller in size and economic power, other developing countries also have novel approaches, which are of the greatest significance. Nepal is a case in point. Electricity and Internet are slowly spreading throughout its valleys. In Nepal, entire, remote valleys are now being connected by WiFi. Mahabir Pun has won the Magasesy Award for these pioneering efforts. [25] Very simply, Nepal, in a far more demanding geography, is achieving what Silicon Valley has thus far failed to achieve. Nepal’s sherpas are famous for their Dokos (backpacks), which can carry the loads of mountain climbers, trekkers and tourists. Elsewhere in the world, there are trends towards mobile phones and mobile Internet. In Nepal, the Antenna Foundation is working on mobile radio stations. They call it Doko Radio. [26] The idea is deceptively simple. Today the minimal equipment for radio production is a portable computer, microphones for recording and software for basic editing. Hence, what once required complex equipment in radio studios and  radio stations in major stations, can now effectively fit into a backpack as a portable Doko Radio. As a result persons in remote villages can now record their stories, music and other content, that can subsequently be broadcast via other community radio stations. Culturally this is very important. UNESCO’s goal to record, preserve and foster intangible culture now has an unexpected ally. 

Socially and philosophically this is even more important, because it implicitly transforms the assumptions of broadcasting. As noted earlier, traditional broadcasting was a one-way method, whereby the centre spread its views from the centre to the provinces. Local users were reduced to passive consumers of content determined by an urban centre. Such broadcasting imposed centralized values and implicitly threatened local diversity and individuality. The Doko approach transforms this paradigm. Local users now become active producers as well as listeners. This new form of broad-casting fosters regional and local diversity as well as individual expression. Citizens create their own local content, which is subsequently shared with others through a broadcasting network of local community stations. Communication is now a two-way process, whereby content is created and shared by all players in rural villages as well as urban centres. This process brings even remote communities back into communication. Hence, this new broadcasting might more appropriately be called share-casting.

McLuhan’s 20th vision of a global village was of a connected world, where traditional centres still determined the content of passive listeners in the provinces and remote villages. The emerging paradigm of the 21st century enables individuals all over the world, even in the remotest villages to be active producers and creators as well as passive listeners. It potentially makes all the world a stage in a sense neither Shakespeare nor McLuhan could have foreseen. The vision of one global village that threatened to become globalized and homogenized through McDonaldization, is being transformed into myriad global villages, each able to contribute their individual and unique content to preserve and foster tangible and intangible content. Doko Radio is much more than a wild dream. It is working today and offers a new paradigm that could change forever the world of communication. 

This article was inspired by a three week visit to my colleague and friend, Madhu Acharya, whom I thank, who is now Director of the Antenna Foundation, which is developing Doko Radio in conjunction with USAID in 15 test sites. To understand this principle in action there were two brief excursions beyond the Kathmandu valley. A first took us by a small plane to the dirt runway on a hill in Phalpu in the Solukhumbu Valley near Mount Everest, where we saw the recording of a meeting with local persons and were shown a new building where 40 persons per course are being trained to use Internet and do digital editing for radio and television. A second excursion took us by motorcycle some 80 km Northwest of Kathmandu to a village near Palung set on a hilltop of c. 2,300 meters. Here we witnessed recording of a meeting, songs and local music.


1. Paul Otlet, Monde: essaie d'universalisme -- connaissance du monde; sentiment du monde; action organisée et plan du monde, Brussels, Editions du Mundaneum, 1935 :
“Man would no longer need documentation if he were assimilated into an omniscient being - as with God himself. But to a less ultimate degree, a technology will be created acting at a distance and combining radio, X-rays, cinema and microscopic photography. Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of his memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, as a whole or in certain of its parts.”
See also the author’s site on New Media under the subject heading World Brain:

2. For a standard treatment see: Michael Giesecke, Der Buchdruck in der fruhen Neuzeit. Eine historische Fallstudie uber die Durchsetzung neuer Informations- und Kommunikations-technologien, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1991.
Cf. The Invention of Printing, BBC, h2g2, 13 July 2002:

3. Cf the author’s website ( under Electric Media (1800-1896); Electronic Media-Analog and Electronic Media-Digital.

4. FHZ, 27 April, 2006:

5. Ibid:

6. Talk: Bill Gates, Wikiquote:

7. For an explanation that highlights American contributions see the Computer History Museum’s timeline for Internet History at:

8. An Internet History:

9. Internet World Stats:

9. New Trends in Consumption. The relativity of basic needs:

10. Sharon Gaudin, “Cell phone facts and statistics”, Network World, 07/02/01:

11. Worldwide cellular connections exceeds 2 billion, GSM World News:

12. Jeremy Maddock, “Nokia Expects 3 Billion Mobile Phone Users by 2008,, 5:50 am on December 15, 2005 | Category: Business, Mobile Devices:

cf. Mobile Phones, Nokia

14. Charlie Sorrel, “Half the World Will Own Mobile Phones This Year”, Wired, 28 June 2007

15. Dan Nystedt, “Sales of mobile phones top one billion in 2006. IDC: Developing nations propelled record handset sales,” InfoWorld, 26 January 2007:

16. Susan Barbo, AdSense Taps 3 Billion Cell Phones!,  Threadwatcher, 10 November 2007

17. “Super 3G Mobile Handsets Set to Top Global Market Share by 2012
2007”,, 7 November 2007:

18. WNN Wi-Fi Net News, Glenn Feischman, “Cleveland Wi-Fi Approach”, 8 November 2007;  “Metro Round-Up: Sacramento and Silicon Valley Sputter; Plano Plan Plop; Shuttle Bus-Fi”,  7 November 2007:

19. Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, “WiMAX Suffers a Setback. Sprint and Clearwire have broken off plans to develop a national wireless network. Is it curtains for WiMAX?”, Business Week, 9 November 2007:; “Sprint Ends Pact to Offer Fast
Network”, New York Times, 10 November 2007:

20. 2006 Cell Phone Statistics:

21. Officially, in terms of GDP, China is already the 4th largest richest country in the world. It is predicted to become the richest country in the world by 2020.

22. Nick Farrell, “China will soon have more Internet users than US. And they can knock out satellites”, The Inquirer, 24 January, 2007:

23. Wi-Fi Alliance debuts in Indian market, EE Times Asia, 25 August 2006:

25. India's Dynamic and Innovative Wi-Fi Ecosystem, 5 February 2007:

25. See: Nepal Wireless Networking Project:
Cf. Students using computers in Tikot Village:

26. Doko Radio - Backpack Radio Nepali Style:, Cf. Madhu Acharya, “Doko Radio, Backpack Radio, Nepali Style”, The Radio Conference: A Transnational Forum, University of Lincoln,  16-19 July, 2007:

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