One of Marshall McLuhan’s most important theories concerns the notion of the development of society from the age of print into the new electronic epoch, and how that is having a retribalizing effect on humankind. The signs of retribalization are apparent, and the evolution from the age of print into the digital age of media means that our understandings of and need for individualism, nationalism, and privacy are changing and ultimately diminishing.
Retribalization is the process by which our electronically reawakened nervous systems and our intense, real-time, and simultaneous participation via electronic media puts us back in touch with ourselves and with each other in a state of decentralized tribal existence. What this means is that the disassociated and disconnected nature of literate man begins to unravel—with some trauma, warned McLuhan—and we will see the ultimate breakdown of political and economic systems that have been supported by 3,500 years of print culture. We are reverting, said McLuhan, to a Global Village (Norden, 1969, p.12).
McLuhan argued that only artists had the capacity to illuminate the present, whereas the bulk of society was backward-glancing—we learn from proceeding from the familiar to the unfamiliar. (Norden, 1969, p. 5) Thus, in proving McLuhan’s prophesies of retribalization and how they relate to the changing values of privacy and individualism, we begin first with pre-literate man.
The age of –isms: individualism and nationalism
McLuhan painted a romantic picture of tribal man that nonetheless provides us with a roadmap of where we began and to what we will return in the process of retribalization. McLuhan described tribal man as one who lives in a world where senses were balanced—“a closed world of tribal depth and resonance, an oral culture structured by a dominant auditory sense of life” (Norden, 1969, p. 6). He laid the blame for individualism—in which the individual rather than the collective is the focus of any related ideology—at the feet of the phonetic alphabet, which extends the eye above all other senses, creating a fragmentation of consciousness. This process reinforced classification of information and linear thought, which gave birth to individualism, nationalism, and our notions of privacy (Norden, 1969, p. 8).
Alas, tribal man was ultimately doomed by the advent of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg in the 1440s. The printing press era brought forward new ways of thinking, of doing business, and of political thought. We can thank Gutenberg for introducing the age of rationalism, the notion of causality, the mechanical assembly line, and industrialism—for, in fact, a new philosophical age. In due course, the new mass media and uniform language systems led to the development of nationalism, with the shift of the city-state being of primal importance to a more collective identification with the overarching nation (Norden, 1969, p. 9).
Excuse me—that’s private
What need did pre-literate man have for privacy? According to McLuhan (1964), very little: “Privacy, like individualism, is unknown in tribal societies, a fact that Westerners need to keep in mind when estimating the attractions of our way of life to non-literate peoples” (p. 134). There is an authenticity and openness in McLuhan’s description of tribal man that literacy subjugates. Literary man began to view his world in a more linear fashion and isolated himself in thought in an increasingly private inner world, as oral discourse became secondary to the communion between himself and the written word.
Privacy became a matter of public importance during the late 1890s when Louis Brandeis presented the “Right to Privacy” case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court (Black, 2011). Interestingly, this is near the same timeframe that McLuhan (1969) identified as the beginning of the electronic age with the development of the wireless telegraph (p. 10). Perhaps this is no accident, as the increased presence of electronic communication in our lives has made us truly aware of how exposed we really are.
However, with the steadily increasing demand for privacy, we’re also witnessing both a time of almost constant surveillance as well as unrestricted and unprecedented self-disclosure (Black, 2011). We constantly worry about being watched—thank you, Georges Orwell and W. Bush both—yet we also willingly give up vital information to corporations as a matter of course. We’re well aware of the fact that cameras are watching us disrobe in department store changing rooms, and may complain at that violation, but we’ll still happily scan a retail loyalty card in the same store in order to save money or be alerted to upcoming specials.
The discourse about the protection of privacy has increased since 9/11, but our actions tend not to match our words. We’re constantly divulging personal information to others via electronic media. Online message boards have developed into full-blown virtual communities in which over-sharing information is the norm. Blogs and vlogs serve as online diaries that are accessible to the entire world. GPS software embedded into our iPhones and cars not only tell us where we are—they tell others, too. Reality TV and talk shows celebrate the dishing of dirt—the more salacious, the better. Social media such as Facebook tends not to concern itself with protecting the privacy of its users, but with a reported 750 million accounts, the importance of privacy to those users could be questioned (Bullas, n.d., media statistics section). And instead of serving as a warning to the rest of us that our privacy is eroding, there is an ever greater willingness to participate in the public forum. In ancient Rome, the lions eviscerated the Christians for the pleasure of the slavering masses; today, we happily volunteer to do it to ourselves.
Following the fallout from the release of classified documents by Wikileaks in 2010, the debate began to turn from how to keep our information safe to wondering who we are trying to protect and why we are providing cover for activities designed to reinforce notions of nationalism. Internet groups such as Anonymous paradoxically cloak their identities while exposing the secrets of corporations, religious organizations such as the Church of Scientology, individuals with whom they disagree, and recently, the Mexican drug cartel, Los Zeta (Schiller, 2011, para. 1). For all of our talk about privacy and the need to protect it, in a retribalized society, we recognize that it has no place.
O solo mio
At the same time, the ideology of individualism is beginning to collapse, and with it, nationalism. True to McLuhan’s (1969) prediction, we are witnessing the early stages of the disintegration of the United States, which is arguably the most nationalistic and individualistic country in existence (Norden, p. 14). Racial and religious chaos—particularly with Muslims becoming the new boogeyman—and states’ rights and fundamentalism are tearing the union asunder.
Some of the most organized manifestations of individualism include the democratic political system and the capitalism-based economy—and these foundations of the U.S. and the Western world are starting to crumble in the age of retribalization (Norden, 1969, p. 17). Evidence of this can be seen in the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movements, with an increasingly direct, participatory engagement that is more organic and more immediate. McLuhan (1969) believed “(t)he tribes and the bureaucracy are antithetical means of social organization and can never coexist peacefully; one must destroy and supplant the other, or neither will survive” (p. 14). This would certainly seem to be the case, as OWS in particular is driving a wedge into the business-as-usual mentality, challenging the idea that the individualistic American pursuit of happiness necessarily means profiting at the expense of the 99 per cent.
Nor is this phenomenon restricted to the Western world. In early 2011, the Arab Spring rocked governments in the Middle East and in North Africa, and change was backed by global pressure from an Internet-connected tribe. The Internet has encouraged participation to challenge governmental power and resist the dominance of corporations that dictate the government’s actions (Meyrowitz, 2001, p. 11). Globally, what McLuhan called decentralized mini-states are also increasing (Norden, 1969, p. 14). National borders are an ineloquent and increasingly obsolete means of defining groups that identify their own tribe by ethnicity, language, or religious beliefs. We witnessed that during the collapse of Yugoslavia and we’re witnessing it with the Kurds in the Middle East. In a much less violent way, we can see it at work in Canada as aboriginal groups begin to once again reclaim and reestablish their nations and identities.
Growing pains or the end of the world?
And this is where we find ourselves now, living in the tension between the dying age of print and the emerging dominance of electronic media. As the debate around privacy continues at a time of increased surveillance and voluntary self-disclosure, we are bearing witness to the death throes of the old epoch, and the inevitable collapse of individualism and nationalism. Innis (1947) reminded us that such a tremendous shift is painful, but to remember that it is also a time of great growth.
Cultural disturbances are accompanied by periods in which force occupies an important place and are followed by periods of quiescence in which law establishes order. The disturbances of the Macedonian and Roman wars were followed by the growth of Roman law, the end of barbarian invasions by the revival of Roman law, the end of the religious wars by the development of international law under Grotius, and the end of the present wars of ideology by a search for a new basis of international law. (p. 17)
So rather than viewing the destruction of privacy and individualism through a dystopian lens, we can instead give the final word to McLuhan, who offers us a rather more pleasant prediction—and since he’s been right about so many other things, we’ll take it: “Literate man is alienated, impoverished man; retribalized man can lead a far richer and more fulfilling life—not the life of a mindless drone but of the participant in a seamless web of interdependence and harmony” (Norden, 1969, P. 15).
Black, D. (2011). Week 9: surveillance, privacy and terrorism. PCOM 640 Communication Policy and Politics (PPT).
Bullas, J. (n.d.). 20 stunning social media statistics plus infographic. Retrieved from http://www.jeffbullas.com/2011/09/02/20-stunning-social-media-statistics
Innis, H. (1947). Minerva’s Owl. Project Gutenberg Canada ebook (92), 1-22. Retrieved from Project Gutenberg Canada ebook database.
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: the extensions of man. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994.
Meyrowitz, J. (2001). Morphing McLuhan: medium theory for a new millennium. Proceedings of the Media Ecology Association (2), 8-22.
Norden, E. (1969, March). The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan. Playboy Magazine, 1-23. Retrieved from University of California Davis database.
Schiller, D. (2011). Online hackers threaten to expose cartel’s secrets. Retrieved from http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Online-hackers-threaten-to-expose-cartel-s-secrets-2242068.php