The Retribalizing Effects of Electronic Media


“These new media of ours … have made our world into a single unit….the world is now like a continually sounding tribal drum, where everybody gets the message…. all the time. A princess gets married in England and boom boom boom go the drums and we all hear about it; an earthquake in North Africa, a Hollywood star gets drunk…away go the drums again. I use the word tribal….it is probably the key word …”– Marshall McLuhan (1960)

The Age of Connection

Anthropologists have appropriated the word ‘toolkit’ to describe the suite of technologies that accompanies a particular grouping of humans.  Fifty thousand years ago, this toolkit would have encompassed stone implements of various sorts, together with items fashioned from bone, and perhaps some early fabrics.  By five thousand years ago, the toolkit had exploded with innovations in agriculture, urbanization, transport and culture.  Five hundred years ago, this toolkit begins to look recognizably modern, with the printing press, gunpowder, steel, and massive warships.  Fifty years ago we could find much of our common culture within that toolkit, with one notable exception, an innovation that doesn’t begin to appear in any numbers until just five years ago.  Identified by the decidedly vague words ‘new media’ (justifying McLuhan’s observation that the first content of a new medium is the medium it obsolesces1, down to its name) this newest toolkit promises to restructure human cultural relations as broadly as agriculturalization, urbanization, or industrialization.

The roots of the current transformation lie within the Urban Revolution, the gathering of humanity into cities, a process nearly ten thousand years old, yet only halfway complete.  The tribal model of human organization – coeval with the emergence of Homo Sapiens Sapiens – likely began to fracture under the stresses introduced by the emergence of agricultural practices.  Agriculture leads toward sedentary populations with higher birth rates, producing greater concentrations of humanity than had theretofore been sustainable.  These population centers rapidly transcended the human capability for modeling peer behavior as expressed in Dunbar’s Number2, and in so doing drove innovations in the human toolkit intended to conserve stability and safety within an environment of strangers.  Before the Urban Revolution, human culture is ruled by custom; afterward, it is ruled by law, and all that law implies: law-giving authorities, law-enforcing police, courts, jails and lawyers.  This gap between custom and law is the most visible discontinuity between hunter-gatherer cultures and agricultural-urban civilization, forming a source of constant irritation between them.

Marshal McLuhan first noted the retribalizing effect of electric technologies3; they collapse space to a point, effectively recreating the continuous, ambient (aural) awareness of the tribe.  The tribe is completely connected.  All of its members have direct access to one another; there is little hierarchy, instead, there is an intricate set of social relations.  Everyone thoroughly understands one’s own place, and that position is constantly reinforced by the other members of the tribe.  Tribal society is static, which is to say stable, over long stretches of time – at least tens of thousands of years.

Urban society is dynamic; the principle actor is the individual (often backed by an extended family unit), who works to build and extend a set of social relations which improve his own circumstances (in the language of sociobiology, selection fitness).  As a consequence of the continuous actions of a dynamic network of actors, the history of the city is the history of crisis.  Only a very few civilizations have maintained any sort of stability for a period of a more than a few hundred years.  Egypt, China, India, Rome, Maya and Inca each experienced dizzying climbs to power and terrifying collapses into ruin.  The uncertainties of the Postmodern period, with its underlying apocalyptic timbre, reflect several thousand years of inevitable, unavoidable rise and fall.

The Age of Connection now takes its place alongside these earlier epochs in humanity’s story.  We are being retribalized, in the midst of rising urbanization.  The dynamic individuality of the city confronts the static conformity of the tribe.  This basic tension forms the fuel of 21st century culture, and will continue to generate both heat and light for at least the next generation.  Human behavior, human beliefs and human relations are all reorganizing themselves around connectivity.  It is here, therefore, that we must begin our analysis of the toolkit.

I:  Hyperconnectivity

The landline telephone provided direct, instantaneous, global connectivity, but to a place, not a person.  If you are not in range of a landline telephone, you gain no benefit from its connectivity.  Even so, the lure of that connectivity was enough that it drew the landline into nearly a billion offices and dwellings throughout the 20th century.  The landline telephone colonized all of the Earth’s surface where its infrastructure could be afforded.  This created a situation (reflective of so many others) where there were connected ‘haves’ and un-connected ‘have nots’.

The mobile telephone spreads connectivity directly to the person.  The mobile creates the phenomenon of direct human addressability.  The mobile is an inherently personal device; each mobile and SIM is associated with a single person.  With this single innovation, the gap is spanned between tribal and urban organizational forms.  Everyone is directly connected, as in the tribe, but in unknowably vast numbers, as in the city.

The last decade has seen an accelerating deployment of direct human addressability.  As of June 2011, there are roughly six billion mobile subscribers5.  Roughly ten percent of these individuals have more than one subscription, a phenomenon becoming commonplace in the richer corners of the planet.  This means that there are roughly 5.4 billion directly addressable individuals on the planet, individuals who can be reached with the correct series of numbers.

The level of direct human addressability of the species in toto can be calculated as the ratio of total number of subscribers versus the total world population: 5,400,000,000 / 6,900,000,000 or 0.7826.  As we move deeper into the 21st century, this figure will approach 1.0: all individuals, rich or poor, young or old, post-graduate or illiterate, will be directly connected through the network.  This type of connectivity is not simply unprecedented, nor just a unique feature in human history, this is the kind of qualitative change that leads to a fundamental reorganization in human culture.  This, the logical culmination in the growth in human connectivity from the aural tribe to the landline telephone, can be termedhyperconnectivity, because it represents the absolute amplification of all the pre-extant characteristics in human communication, extending them to ubiquity and speed-of-light instantaneity.

Every person now can connect directly with well over three-quarters of the human race.  We may not choose to do so, but our networks of human connections overlap (as Milgram demonstrated), so we always have the option of jumping through our network of connections, short circuiting the various degrees-of-separation, to make contact.  Or we can simply wait as this connectivity, coursing through the networks, brings everyone in the world to us.

[That website is no longer there, but the article appears in “A Companion to New Media Dynamics,” John HartleyJean BurgessAxel Bruns, Published by John Wiley & SonsJun. 2, 2015]

5 Responses to “The Retribalizing Effects of Electronic Media”

  1. 1 Mark Stahlman

    Sorry, this post is FUNDAMENTALLY wrong. The primary effect of the FORMAL CAUSE that is “social media” is to put people back to work socializing with their “friends” and to separate people into small cliches, not to “re-tribalize” them into an imaginary global human tribe.

    Since we aren’t selling them Coca-Cola, we have nothing to say to “everyone in the world.”

    The GLOBAL VILLAGE was 1) a joke 2) a statement about the ambitions of television and 3) an indictment of the neo-Pagan (i.e. “tribal”) attitudes that were replacing Christianity. McLuhan as not a fan of these trends.

    The Internet is NOT a mass medium, as illustrated by the money-losing attempts by advertisers to use it that way. While certainly different from television (i.e. making all McLuhan’s observations about television, er, obsolete), it is also radically different from the Gutenberg Galaxy. It’s a whole new ballgame!

    The Internet means the *death* of GLOBALISM — which is why NATIONALIST revolts are spreading in the Middle East and our equivalent, the TEA PARTY, has taken over so many statehouses.

    We are now unmaking the social changes wrought by ELECTRIC MEDIA — a fact that is unlikely to be celebrated in this centennial year, festooned with so many rear-view mirrors.

    Mark Stahlman
    Brooklyn NY


  2. Ah to be a Cyber 60, another century ago;)
    Alone -together…

    with our hand.


  3. 3 Shiv Satchit

    The topology of the Internet, which is interchangeably referred to as the New Media is fundamentally neutral. We as social beings are necessarily subjective by nature and value-laden individuals who have our own dreams and vision which we choose to pursue it specifically, so do it rationally others think they do it rationally.

    From dark ages man has acted through history dictated by his needs, others by greed depending upon his perceptions of the world. Irrespective of ones motives his action is purely determined by his own interests, not the interest of the welfare of the world. In so doing he begins to explore resources, which in the old days where different to the ones we have at our disposal now but nevertheless were used to enable man to live or survive. What was most important factor in the relationship between human and physical resources was the way he used his tool. Now in the post-modernist world he is doing no more than extending himself in Marshall McLuhan’s sense.

    Landline phones, superseded by cellular phones, PDAs, Ipads, radio and television are simply modes of communication deployed as tools for communication. How you want to harness the technology which is now influenced by digitalisation depends on what are your motives. The process of deployment either for social media, commercial communication or purely for hedonistic purposes resulting in media segmentation, audience fragmentation or cliquish development of factions determined by their interests is apparent.

    Whatever you may want to call it is totally irrelevant. The term internet tribalisation does not have to be a physical or regulatory or legal segmentation of people like what the British did by creating Apartheid in South Africa. It refers to like minded groups of people sharing clannish behaviour or characteristics. The concomitant evident from this consequently and indisputably, is that the Internet has been used as a divisive tool to further our own personal goals and the Internet failed to transplant the traditional broadcast channels. I am not saying it will continue to be marginalised in the future. The game continues.

    Shiv Satchit


  1. 1 In the Global Village Media World of the Internet, All Events Occur in Real Time « McLuhan Galaxy
  2. 2 Interview with an Academic Apparition, week 4 | tscroggins

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