Marshall McLuhan Predicted Digital-Mediated Tribalism



Primo Conti, Profughe alla stazione (Refugees at the Station)

By Patrick Roesle

While McLuhan was the person who coined the term “global village” to characterize of our new wired world, today we often load the phrase with idyllic or utopian connotations that McLuhan did not intend. Quite the contrary. During a 1977 interview on TV Ontario’s The Education of Mike McManus (incidentally McLuhan’s final television appearance), the host asks: “Way back in the early fifties, you predicted that the world was becoming a global village. We’d have global consciousness. And I’m wondering now, do you think it’s happening?”

After getting a couple of cryptic answers from McLuhan, McManus tries to bring his guest to terra firma.

McManus: But it seems, Dr. McLuhan, that this tribal world is not friendly.

McLuhan: Oh no, tribal people, one of their main kinds of sport is butchering each other. It’s a full-time sport in tribal societies.

McManus: But I had some idea that as we got global and tribal we were going to try to——

The closer you get together, the more you like each other? There’s no evidence of that in any situation that we’ve ever heard of. When people get close together, they get more and more savage, impatient with each together….The global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations.

Central to McLuhan’s scheme are “tribal” and “literate” social modes. Preliterate cultures were tribal: they inhabited a sensual, dynamic, nonlinear world—the “implicit, magical world of the resonant oral word, [encountering] not efficient causes but formal causes of configurational field.” Reality was taken in through all five senses (with emphasis on oral communication), and concepts such as individualism and privacy were not merely foreign, they were inconceivable.

But then the phonetic alphabet and the printing press detribalized Western culture, imposing linear thought, a reliance on sight at the expense of the other (more interactive) senses, individualism (and its corollary, isolation), and a kind of emotional anesthetic upon “civilized” humanity—creatures “crude and numb in their perceptions, compared with the hyperesthesia of oral and auditory cultures.” Over the centuries, “tribal man” became “Western man.”

Electronic media, McLuhan argued, were having a retribalizing effect on culture. From the Playboy interview:

The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems, which I spoke of earlier, are immersing us in a world-pool of information movement and are thus enabling man to incorporate within himself the whole of mankind. The aloof and dissociated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new, intense depth participation engendered by the electronic media and bringing us back in touch with ourselves as well as with one another. But the instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing——rather than enlarging——the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences. Particularly in countries where literate values are deeply institutionalized, this is a highly traumatic process, since the clash of the old segmented visual culture and the new integral electronic culture creates a crisis of identity, a vacuum of the self, which generates tremendous violence——violence that is simply an identity quest, private or corporate, social or commercial….

McLuhan was saying this twenty years before the invention of the world wide web. And he pretty much nailed it. “Western man” is metamorphosizing into “electronic man.”

When a person finds herself alone in a strange town or a new city, she will be drawn towards places that interest her, to people she finds amicable or fascinating. We do this in most any scenario. We know it practically a priori. But this tendency takes on a new social dimension once we eliminate distance as a factor.

A “community” once necessarily had to refer to a group of people living in (reasonably) close proximity to each other. Today any group of people, regardless of geographic dispersion, with a shared interest and a spot in cyberspace where they can relay and receive messages can become a community. Thus, a hundred people, with a mean distance of 250 miles between them and a mutual interest in, say, artisanal dental floss or the cartoon BraveStarr can now become the “artisanal dental floss community” and the “BraveStarr fandom.” (Fans have been around for decades. The advent of the fandom, however, was contingent upon the internet.) Read the rest of this article at .

“Identity Is Always Accompanied by Violence” — Marshall McLuhan on Globalism and Tribalism


2 Responses to “Marshall McLuhan Predicted Digital-Mediated Tribalism”

  1. 1 Glennford Roberts

    Reblogged this on Metaphysics of Politics.


  1. 1 Las promesas rotas de los youtubers e influencers - Tercera Vía

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