Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Retribalization of Man

According to McLuhan, the electronic media – in particular, radio and television – are bringing about the retribalization of man. Prior to the medium of print, man was tribal in the sense that the identity of the group, or village was paramount. It was paramount to meaning, and it was paramount to survival. But man also lived in an “acoustic” environment, as McLuhan would say. Man’s engagement and interaction, as a way to find meaning and understanding, was through the telling of stories and the oral traditions in the context of their impact on the village. His survival was also linked to his environment, and with that environment, a heightened acuity in all his senses.

The invention of the printing press initiated the shift in man's identity as a tribal being to one of singular identity - an explorer, a frontiersman, a thought-leader - an individual. The printing press brought literacy, and literacy brought the dissolution of the group, as the medium of print engendered a new-found sense of individualism. However, in becoming literate, we also lose this sense of the 360 environment – a surround sound view of life, where all the senses are equally engaged.  The notion of reading and understanding through print is both serial and personal. Through literacy, the search for meaning was found in the lonely process of reading and thinking, and establishing identity as an individual with a personal interpretation of the words and concepts delivered one at a time through sense the of sight. 
In this new literate world, in McLuhan’s terms, we traded an ear for an eye. What was once a community storytelling experience, became a private and image-rich experience of reading a book. While literacy for the common person took decades to accomplish, the printing press nevertheless set in place the medium through which individual literacy would come to modern, pre-industrial man. Orated stories may be subject to change and embellishment over the generations, but with books, the story stays fixed. The concepts and interpretations understood in the context of the time in which they were read.
McLuhan makes the point that the concept for the words “to read” means “to guess”.  He further explains that reading, then, is a process of rapid guessing. Picking the right meaning of words – especially words with multiple meanings – in the context of the other words around them, requires rapid guessing.  As a result, he says, “that is why a good reader tends to be a quick decision-maker; and a good reader…..tends to make a good executive”.  Carrying this concept further, good executives are needed in organizations and bureaucracies, for their ability to make decisions and for their leadership. This is a very individualized function – as is reading. Groups don’t lead, individuals do. Our organizational constructs of legal entities such as governments and companies are built around the decisiveness of leaders maximizing the productivity of individuals in collections. But this is not the same as the group. Sure, there are elements of group – people may be proud of where they work or feel a sense of camaraderie with their fellow workers. But to be sure, promotions, recognition, pay and rewards are all at the individual level. And when the workday is done, people retreat to their individual homes, each “worlds” apart from the workplace. Clearly, the work of Edward Demming has had a mitigating effect on the role of the individual in organizations over the last half-century, as his teaching elevated the goals of the “village output” over the individual’s goals by way of his “Quality” measurements. Interestingly, Demming’s work was first accepted in the East, as the management teams of the industrialized West saw no need for his concepts of quality. The West had cornered the market of consumerism, and saw no need for change from the rugged individualism which had gotten it to that point.
Individualism is still the cornerstone of modern, western, industrial and post-industrial society. Those who work hardest get ahead. Those who are appealing to voters get voted into office and control bureaucracies. Correspondingly, the role of government in western society has had a long, slow, shift from being the protector of the group – with certain inalienable individual rights – to the elevation of protection of individual’s rights over that of the group. To wit, 76 of the 85 cases before the Supreme Court this year concern the rights of the individual.
With the advent of electronic media, the literate man began to re-engage with his other senses again – more than just his sense of sight.  The purely visual media, such as print and the visual arts, can be viewed with a sense of detachment, but the aural media and acoustic media – and McLuhan counted television among the acoustic media – are engaging, and enveloping media. In McLuhan’s words, “they work us over”, “they bump us up”, they interrupt us and get our attention; they engage us. We become immersed in this new media, and through this immersion, there is a loss of individual identity, and a new search for meaning in the group; in the “village” which is attached to that particular medium. While the content may shape one’s path for that search, it is the medium, itself, which is the message – that we are a product of our village, first and foremost, and our identity is part of the larger identity of our group.
In that sense, we have come full circle from being tribal in our relationships and search for meaning to being individual in our pursuits, to once again becoming tribal in our search for meaning and context. The new media and social media, however, take this concept of retribalization to whole new levels. Our village cuts across geographies, political boundaries, and cultures, instantaneously; and it can grow to a population of over 50 million in less than a year, as it did for the video-sharing site, ViVo.  But there’s another dimension of retribalization. We are now engaged, not just aurally, but tactilely – and this is the essence of what McLuhan calls “acoustic”. Our senses are engulfed as we participate in and create our own media. Where radio and television are one (or few) to many, social media are anyone to any; and messages we create can be delivered on many media at one time. Television may or may not retribalize us. But the medium of TV was an important stepping stone to bring the immersive senses back into play with new media and social media – away from the singularity of the sense of sight. 
This move to retribalization, however, does not mean we become illiterate, in the sense that we return to the tribal man of pre-printing press. Rather we adopt a new literacy – one which is poorly understood in the context of our current individual structures. The futurist, Alvin Toffler said “the illiterate person of the twenty-first century is not someone who cannot read and write, but the person who cannot learn, un-learn, and relearn”.
Now, here is the rub. We live in a world where political, industrial, and even post-industrial organizational and bureaucratic structures are stuck in the literate world of individualism. Eddie Obeng, in his June, 2012 talk at TEDGlobal, in Edinburgh, Scotland said, “We spend our time responding rationally to a world which we understand and recognize, but which no longer exists”.  Perhaps our most important work as media psychologists comes in helping public and private organizations and institutions understand the dramatic shift in society from individualism back to tribalism and its implications on our systems of education, enterprise, and governance.  These are all structures we respond to rationally, because we understand them and recognize them; they are so familiar to us that they are part of the “ground” of our western society – but they were built for a world which no longer exists. However, as Ohler sees it, these individual structures are giving way to older structures as man becomes more tribal and less a being of solitude. It’s as if we’re returning to the pre-industrial family dinner-table discussion; bringing the “front porch” back to the position of figure in our culture. The car, the freeway system, the airplane, the telephone, and the computer allowed us all to maintain our extended family while the individual and frontiersman in all of us caused us to move physically further and further apart. The new media work not because they somehow bridge the gulf that we’ve created by our distance, but because they return us to something very familiar – something old and comfortable. Bringing meaningful understanding to society is to bring these old structures to the position of “figure” in our culture, where the issues and options are debated, researched, discussed and analyzed. In helping create this tribal discussion, we help create a platform for safe change as we replace old structures with new ones –or older ones, as the case may be.  The implications for education, enterprise, and governance are enormous with this facilitated shift in identity.
The Arab Spring gave us all a glimpse of what happens when the individualism of totalitarianism - with no prospect for change and no willingness to understand - runs afoul of the tribal man of social media. Malcolm Muggeridge observed that both capitalism and totalitarianism have the same end in mind; just different means of achieving it. We have a worthy task in helping society understand through learning, un-learning and relearning the message of the media, else capitalism and democracy, as we know them today, will become unwitting victims of the impatience of tribal man, as well. 
Covey, Stephen M. R. (2006). The speed of trust. (p.177). New York, N.Y. Free Press.
Hunter, Ian (1980). Malcolm Muggeridge: A Life. New York, N.Y. HarperCollins.
McLuhan, Marshall (1979). The medium is the message.  ABC Radio National Network, Australia. Retrieved on 10/15/12 from
McLuhan, Marshall; Fiore, Quentin (1967). The medium is the massage. Berkeley, CA. Gingko Press.
U.S Supreme Court, 2011-2012 cases. Retrieved on 10/17/12 from
Wolfe, Tom (1968). The pump house gang.  What if he is right? (pp. 119-154). New York, N.Y. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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