Saturday, September 12, 2015

McLuhan, the new tribalism, & the equivalence of thought and action

Umberto Boccioni, La cittĂ  che sale

I was first properly introduced to Marshall McLuhan in 2013. I already knew his name then—remembered a couple of lectures by a couple of American history and media studies instructors who informed the class that the medium was the message, and it was this cat McLuhan who said so. And we were told what this meant was that the medium by which content is delivered matters more than the content itself—but before any of us in the class could apprehend the full span of the theory's ramifications, we were already on the next topic, the Vast Wasteland, the Vietnam coverage, etc. (There was a lot of material to cover and we were on a schedule, after all.)

But in 2013 I was doing some research for a writing project and landed on McLuhan's 1969 interview with Playboy. I read it from start to finish, and then went outside and smoked many cigarettes.

It was nasty medicine, and I had a hard time digesting it. Given my situation—cobbling together a second novel, working at a Quaker library that was in the process of being dismantled, getting short story after short story rejected by literary magazines that nobody who isn't trying to get a short story published has ever heard of, and noticing that people only really paid attention to what I was writing when I was writing about video games they'd played—McLuhan's confident postmortem of literate culture and predictions of a electronically entangled global tribe seemed, on both accounts, supernaturally prescient and profoundly disturbing. I wanted to dismiss his views as the wet dreams of another smug tech millennarian, but it wouldn't make them any less right. I felt much the same way about McLuhan as I did his contemporary (and fellow Catholic) Andy Warhol—I hate Warhol's art, but can't declaim it as anything less than the pure and perfect artistic product of post-WW2 Western capitalism.

Later on, rereading the last portion of the interview and looking over some other McLuhan-related materials, I discovered that this man, the patron saint of Wired, was in fact a veritable Luddite. The very soothsayer of the digital revolution foresaw what was coming and proclaimed it to the world—though he loathed it. He wasn't a tech evangelist—he was more like a doomsday prophet. My grudging respect for McLuhan turned to admiration. Yes, as a tech skeptic, I found him at heart an unexpected ally—there was that. But here was an investigator, a seeker who wanted to understand the world, who, though the findings of his "probes" appalled him, refrained from letting personal sentiment and prejudice color his conclusions and guide his course. That kind of intellectual honesty requires great courage. (I am reminded somewhat of the theologian Nils Runeberg in Jorge Luis Borges' "Three Versions of Judas.")

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 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.)

Take for example, the Street Fighter community (a subdivision of the fighting game community, which is a subdivision of the gaming community.) Prior to the internet, you had of pockets Street Fighter fans convening at arcades or basements. For the most part, one could really only talk about and play Super Street Fighter II with however many other Street Fighter fans were in their geographic locailty. This, of course, is no longer the case. Without the internet there would still be Street Fighter fans, but nothing like the Street Fighter community we have today.

The "stranger in a new place" scenario was more or less the experience of the Web 1.0 generation during the decade or so prior to the colonization of cyberspace and the first generation of "digital natives." It was visible even during the Web 1.0 days. People who were interested in something created web content pertaining to it. Other people who were interested in the same thing viewed and passed along that content. Content creators linked to each other's work. People convened and with and linked to one another via message boards, IRC channels, webrings, and so on. (Side note: does anyone else remember guestbooks?)

This is a facet of the new tribalism: membership in communities that aren't bound to a geographic region. (Yet.)

Mat Leines, Interior 2

Between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, I was a huge Marilyn Manson fan—the only one in my school, pretty much. My classmates were often put off by how I dressed and acted. If they were the only people in my life, I might have been dissuaded against wearing nothing but black clothes, putting on nail polish, and committing gratuitous blasphemies. But my classmates weren't my only source of social feedback. On the evenings and weekends, I could go online and hop into chat rooms populated by Nothing Records devotees, follow webrings to Marilyn Manson fanpages, read the LiveJournals and Xangas of other Mansonites, leave them comments, exchange emails, etc. And it was their feedback that ultimately guided me. It didn't matter what my classmates thought—they weren't my peers. My people, my tribe, were the other maladjusted teenage goths on the internet.

This is a relatively innocuous example. ISIS's successes at recruiting people abroad via social media  are a more extreme manifestation of the social force lines generally exerted by digital tech.

The social organism of the detribalized West was the nation state; the rise of European nationalism was a direct consequence of the printing press. The nation state and the liberal democracy are social configurations whose emergence was concomitant with the mass production and proliferation of vernacular print matter and increasing literacy rates: languages became standardized across ethnic zones, expanding regional identity to national identity; literate culture reified the notion of the individual, which was a prerequisite for any consideration of individual rights.

Today, electronic media is undermining the social organization of print culture. The loose ties of citizenship are increasingly superseded by the stronger and more exigent bonds of digitally connected and reinforced subgroups. The polarization of politics is merely the surface effect of the tribalization tectonics.

("Yet post-literacy is a quite different mode of interdependence from pre-literacy," McLuhan parenthetically adds. He is, again, (mostly) correct: he predicted that the alphabet would be altogether phased out by television and newer electronic media, which obviously hasn't been the case. But hypertext is not the same as print; and the real-time global proliferation of manipulable, mixed-media digital information, and the participation it engenders, has a manifold of practical points of contact with oral/tribal social modes. Ask Justine Sacco.)

Many commentators lay the responsibility for the polarized politics of the digital century upon the filter bubble, a concept espoused by maudlin clickbait pioneer Eli Pariser:
Your filter bubble is the personal universe of information that you live in online——unique and constructed just for you by the array of personalized filters that now power the web. Facebook contributes things to read and friends’ status updates, Google personally tailors your search queries, and Yahoo News and Google News tailor your news. It’s a comfortable place, the filter bubble——by definition, it’s populated by the things that most compel you to click.
The algorithms only push us towards places and people we were probably already heading towards—but it also means you're more likely to have to go out of your way to find material that doesn't simply reinforce your worldview. We're seeing groups of people coming to inhabit narrative worlds that might be incongruous or contradictory to those of other groups, making more salient the divisions of those in a certain group and those outside that group.

The in-group and out-group are the magnetic poles of tribalism: an identity, whether of an individual or an aggregate, is defined not only by who they are, but who they are not. The Star Bellied Sneetches have stars on their abdomens, but that would mean nothing if there weren't Sneetches without stars.

In a piece examining the correlation of religious belief and violent behavior, Connor Wood writes about the role played by the psychology of groups:
We’re evolved to be tribal animals, after all——it makes sense that living in a strong tribe would make us feel warm and fuzzy. But the stronger our tribes get, the more outsiders look like aliens, or like enemies. Ritual per se doesn’t produce this effect, but instead piggybacks on it and intensifies it. The result is that religious people the world over are a bit more likely to be parochial, local-minded, and suspicious of outsiders than their non-religious peers. In its extreme manifestations, this dynamic produces religious wars – such as the 30 Years War that helped kick off the European Enlightenment.

Enlightenment and humanistic values, in contrast, tend to look askance at strong ingroup bonds and ritual, and to preference universalistic values that shatter tribal boundaries. In fact, this post-tribal value system may the knotty root of the religion-science schism; just like religion piggybacks on our tribal tendencies, science historically has piggybacked on our anti-tribal instincts, valorizing a culture-free, objective picture of reality and making many scientists coolly suspicious of ritual, religion, and most tribal identifiers. (When was the last time you saw a famous scientist wearing Denver Broncos facepaint? Never, that’s when.) But this anti-tribal worldview comes with a price, too: secular countries have much higher suicide rates on average, and many of the ills of modern society——alienation, loneliness, frayed social fabric——are good candidates for symptoms of our rejection of small groups.
Wood's observations of the dysphorias of modern life rather echo some of McLuhan's unflattering assessments of the Gutenberg human. In the first paragraph he mentions ritual as a tribal intensifier; earlier in the piece he describes in some detail what "ritual" means:
Ritual is the coordinated, stereotyped action of human bodies that demonstrates——and inspires——allegiance to a group. By participating in the ritual practices of a group, these researchers argue, you’re communicating that you accept the group’s basic moral framework, that you’re agreeing to behave according to its standards, and——perhaps most importantly——that you promise to be loyal to its members.
In the digital tribalism, this needn't be an elaborate or even a literal song and dance. A retweet, a Like, a reblog will usually do. Employing a hashtag can be the functional equivalent of flashing a gang sign.

There is no hyperbole here. Think about what we're doing when we use the #blacklivesmatter or #gamergate hashtags. Look above: "communicating that you accept [a] group's moral framework;" "agreeing to behave according to [the group's] standards;" "[promising] to be loyal to its members." You probably wouldn't designate these as the reasons for why you're using the hashtag; but if you asked a Christian why he gets together with other Christians and sings hymns on Sunday morning, he's just as unlikely to frame his reply in the language of group psychology. But in terms of integrating ourselves with groups by participating in activities endemic to that group, both serve the same basic purpose.

In the case of the digital group, these "rituals" consist of putting forth signifiers in an arena that is wholly and dynamically semiotic. In the digital sphere, we exist to each other as different flavors, textures, and shades of symbolic meaning. We meet and deal with each other not as corporeal human beings, but as variegated abstractions and images.

Alessandro Bruschetti, Sintesi Fascista

So I'm on Facebook. I don't like it, but that's where all my meatspace friends live now. And I use Twitter, which is where I'm made most conscious of having one foot on either side of the widening faultline between print culture and digital culture. I have very mixed feelings about Twitter, but I'm still on it. But I don't use Tumblr. I did try it; for a while I considered relocating this blog there. But I couldn't do it. Not being able to check my dashboard without being compelled to scroll through another fucking timeline seemed a bit invasive, and before long it became too stressful to keep doing.

But I often find myself directed towards Tumblr, and I'm finding it one of the most dynamic hubs of the new tribalism.

On her fourth anniversary as a Tumblr native, blogger Raisa Bhuiyan describes some trends on the platform that worry her:
Today, some parts of Tumblr have become somewhat of a base for things like groupthink, the glorification of internet celebrity culture (messiah complex as I personally refer to it) and discussions about contentious topics that can become traumatic. When described like this, it actually sounds a lot like “the real world”. But aren’t online interactions also part of the real world? How is “IRL” (in real life) any different from not IRL? Aren’t the interactions and communications that we have with people on the internet part of the same time-space plane that we are also on? I think it is problematic and telling that social groups continue to delineate a distinction between online life and the real world, as though there is a binary between an earthy, outside and a stuffy, technical-dependent inside. A binary like inside/outside needs to be interrogated because it perpetuates ideas that invalidate and undermine movements and interactions that happen online as just things lonely, friendless, going-nowhere types do to pass the time. It also uncritically lets slide a separation between nature and humans, as though both are separate things.
In the retribalizing process, the partition between "here, in real life" and "over there, out there, in cyberspace" is eroded. Retribalization is the pulling down of barriers. Detribalization entailed the erection of them—for instance, the division between "thought" and "action." We will return to this.

Bhuiyan continues:
Groupthink and the messiah complex are recent trends on Tumblr that I have seen. Groupthink refers to when members of a group begin to think the same following a domino effect spread of information. Messiah complex refers to the uncritical, goddess-like pedestal-ing of internet personalities by fans and admirers to the point where one person’s voice becomes stronger than other voices and they take up a lot of space. Combined together, both effects can often lead to some exclusionary tendencies, like being banned or side-eyed from anti-oppressive groups for not liking BeyoncĂ©. Other times, the combined effects can lead to the hypervisibility of certain topics of discussion over others. For instance, despite the circular and insular nature of discussions about cultural appropriation, they are currently a hot topic discussion on Tumblr. Talking about cultural appropriation always generates thousands or clicks and comments whenever mentioned, often getting more airplay than other social justice issues.
"Messiah complex" is probably overblown, but it is true that the digital tribes' hierarchies—while decentralized—are structured around personality and personal capital. The chieftains are those who, on Twitter or Tumblr, have a followers:following ratio in the double or triple digits. They set the agenda. Their voices are amplified. When they make an enemy, that person becomes their followers' enemy. (McLuhan spoke of "an age where the collective tribal image and the iconic image of the tribal chieftain is the overriding political reality.")

Then we come to groupthink.

A prime example of a digital tribe is to be seen in the ideologically-united diaspora of "Social Justice Warriors." It is a vast, diverse group, and its members rarely identify themselves as such (in fact "SJW" is an epithet), but they do tend to be on the same page: they follow the same people on Twitter and Tumblr, read the same blogs, watch the same YouTube clips, employ the same hashtags, use the same jargon, Like and Share the same Facebook links, despise the same enemies (many of whom are demographic abstractions). And I only single them out because they're the tribe I have any real familiarity with: due to my own political prejudices and filters, I rarely have occasion to view, say, Gamergaters or men's rights "activists" in their natural habitats. If we're speaking about ideological tenets per se, I'm very much more aligned with the Salon clan than the Breitbart horde. But here I'm less interested in beliefs than in behavior.

In her wonderful essay "'Everything is problematic,'" the pseudonymous Aurora Dagny addresses some of the more troubling (to the non-tribal mind) dynamics of this group. Though she is referring to her experiences as part of a radical anti-oppression clique on a college campus—a geographical and social filter bubble of a sort—in the internet age, such a group is merely a local concentration of a scattered tribe.
There is something dark and vaguely cultish about this particular brand of politics. I’ve thought a lot about what exactly that is. I’ve pinned down four core features that make it so disturbing: dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality, and anti-intellectualism. I’ll go into detail about each one of these. The following is as much a confession as it is an admonishment. I will not mention a single sin that I have not been fully and damnably guilty of in my time.

First, dogmatism. One way to define the difference between a regular belief and a sacred belief is that people who hold sacred beliefs think it is morally wrong for anyone to question those beliefs. If someone does question those beliefs, they’re not just being stupid or even depraved, they’re actively doing violence. They might as well be kicking a puppy. When people hold sacred beliefs, there is no disagreement without animosity. In this mindset, people who disagreed with my views weren’t just wrong, they were awful people. I watched what people said closely, scanning for objectionable content. Any infraction reflected badly on your character, and too many might put you on my blacklist. Calling them ‘sacred beliefs’ is a nice way to put it. What I mean to say is that they are dogmas.

Thinking this way quickly divides the world into an ingroup and an outgroup——believers and heathens, the righteous and the wrong-teous. “I hate being around un-rad people,” a friend once texted me, infuriated with their liberal roommates. Members of the ingroup are held to the same stringent standards. Every minor heresy inches you further away from the group. People are reluctant to say that anything is too radical for fear of being been seen as too un-radical. Conversely, showing your devotion to the cause earns you respect. Groupthink becomes the modus operandi. When I was part of groups like this, everyone was on exactly the same page about a suspiciously large range of issues. Internal disagreement was rare. The insular community served as an incubator of extreme, irrational views.
We might substitute "sacred beliefs" for "tribal beliefs."

"Groupthink" can only have meaning when individual "thought" has become normative; and that can only happen in an environment where cells of thought can be safely individuated from the tribal tissue.

Let's come back to McLuhan. From The Gutenberg Galaxy:
[J. C.] Carothers reiterates that the Westerner depends on a high degree of visual shaping of spatio-temporal relations without which it is impossible to have the mechanistic sense of causal relations so necessary to the order of our lives. But the quite different assumptions of native perceptual life have led him to ask (p. 311) what has been the possible role of written words in shifting habits of perception from the auditory to visual stress:
When words are written, they become, of course, a part of the visual world. Like most of the elements of the visual world, they become static things and lose, as such, the dynamism which is so characteristic of the auditory world in general, and of the spoken word in particular. They lose much of the personal element, in the sense that the heard word is most commonly directed at oneself, whereas the seen word most commonly is not, and can be read or not as whim dictates. They lose those emotional overtones and emphases which have been described, for instance, by Monrad-Krohn … Thus, in general, words, by becoming visible, join a world of relative indifference to the viewer – a world from which the magic “power” of the word has been abstracted.
Carothers continues his observations into the area of “free ideation” permitted to literate societies and quite out of the question for oral, non-literate communities:
The concept that verbal thought is separable from action, and is, or can be, ineffective and contained within the man...has important sociocultural implications, for it is only in societies which recognize that verbal thoughts can be so contained, and do not of their nature emerge on wings of power, that social constraints can, in theory at least, afford to ignore ideation. (p. 311)
Thus, in a society still so profoundly oral as Russia, where spying is done by ear and not by eye, at the memorable “purge” trials of the 1930’s Westerners expressed bafflement that many confessed total guilt not because of what they had done but what they had thought. In a highly literate society, then, visual and behavioural conformity frees the individual for inner deviation. Not so in an oral society where inner verbalization is effective social action:
In these circumstances it is implicit that behavioural constraints must include constraint of thought. Since all behaviour in such societies is governed and conceived on highly social lines, and since directed thinking can hardly be other than personal and unique for each individual, it is furthermore implicit in the attitude of these societies that the very possibility of such thinking is hardly to be recognized. Therefore, if and when such thinking does occur, at other than strictly practical and utilitarian levels, it is apt to be seen as deriving from the devil or from other external evil influences, and as something to be feared and shunned as much in oneself as in others. (p. 312)
Elsewhere McLuhan cites sociologist David Riesman, whose bias as a "highly literate man" leads him to conceive that the mark of a culturally-developed human being is their "having a private point of view."

And here we come to the aspect of the new tribalism that I find the most fascinating. In the revised social physics, opinion has become equivalent to action.

I'd like to peer at a couple of paragraphs from an 1833 document titled Principles of Government; a Treatise on Free Institutions, authored by United States Senator and Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice John Chipman:
A private opinion, while confined to the breast of an individual, does not belong to the cognizance of human laws, or of human tribunals. It is a matter between the individual and his conscience, and is cognizable only by the Great Searcher of the human heart....

I shall, therefore, assume it as an incontrovertible position—as a first principlethat the right of private opinion, which is, in fact, no other than the right of private judgment, upon any subject presented to the mind, is a sacred right, with which society can, on no pretense, authoritatively interfere, without a violation of the first principles of the law of nature. But when a man extends this right, and assumes the liberty of acting upon it, his actions become subject to human control, as they may be injurious to others, injurious to the community...

By the liberty of the speech and of the press, is to be understood what is substantially expressed in the foregoing definition, the right of every citizen freely to express, either in conversation, or by means of the press, his opinions in relation to the constitution of the government, its administration, and laws, the conduct, abilities, and integrity of the officers and functionaries, and the tendency, whether good or bad, of the laws pursued...
These are hardly revolutionary statements, and this is a fairly unremarkable document. But we can treat it as a representative fossil from a stratum of social history. Chipman is more or less expressing the assumptions of early nineteenth-century American democracy, particularly the secular sanctity of private opinion and free speech. (Remember: the theoretical framework under which a liberal democracy makes any sense was devised prior to the proliferation of electronic media.) Central to these are the distinctions between thought, speech, and action. To the Gutenberg mind, actions can be sanctioned, but thoughts cannot. Saying something is not the same as doing something.

In the emergent tribalism, this is no longer the case.

Primo Conti, Profughe alla stazione

We've already looked at the Indiana pizza parlor that was swarmed by an outraged internet mob for merely saying they would not cater a gay wedding in the event that maybe, someday, a local gay couple might ask them to. And before that was the Brendan Eich spectacle. Memory refresher: Mozilla founder and CEO Brendan Eich donated money to a pro-Proposition 8 political fund. Proposition 8 flopped. Despite having no record of mistreating gay employees, despite an apology, despite a promise to consult with LGBT groups on how to create a more inclusive workplace, despite pledging his "personal commitment to work on new initiatives to reach out to those who feel excluded or who have been marginalized in ways that makes their contributing to Mozilla and to open source difficult," Eich was railroaded from his position under tremendous external and internal pressure.

Blogger Andrew Sullivan (himself a gay man, but with pre-digital politics) wrote:
Eich begged for mercy; he asked to be given a fair shot to prove he wasn’t David Duke; he directly interacted with those he had hurt. He expressed sorrow. He had not the slightest blemish in his professional record. He had invented JavaScript. He was a hero. He pledged to do all he could to make amends. But none of this is ever enough for Inquisitions——and it wasn’t enough in this case. His mind and conscience were the problem. He had to change them or leave.
In the new tribalism, thought, expression, and action are identical. Indeed, we've arrived at a point where words—a nonpreferred pronoun, a passage or sentence of "triggering" material, an assertion of a contradictory or negatory ideology—are no longer simply rude, offensive, or contentious. They are violent. To the pre-digital mind, this is preposterous. To the digital native it is obvious. When so much of our total selves have been angelized as discourse to a sphere composed of discourse, any discourse that would undermine the discourse that we are (or the discourse that our friends and allies are) can be nothing but a real attack.

It is of supreme importance to note that Eich, the O'Connors, and Sacco were targeted by internet users to whom they were nothing more—nor less—than noisome abstractions. Shrill notes in the vibrations of the digital membrane.

In the early days of Twitter, career tech skeptic Nicholas Carr wrote:
The great paradox of “social networking” is that it uses narcissism as the glue for “community.” Being online means being alone, and being in an online community means being alone together. The community is purely symbolic, a pixellated simulation conjured up by software to feed the modern self’s bottomless hunger. Hunger for what? For verification of its existence? No, not even that. For verification that it has a role to play. As I walk down the street with thin white cords hanging from my ears, as I look at the display of khakis in the window of the Gap, as I sit in a Starbucks sipping a chai served up by a barista, I can’t quite bring myself to believe that I’m real. But if I send out to a theoretical audience of my peers 140 characters of text saying that I’m walking down the street, looking in a shop window, drinking tea, suddenly I become real. I have a voice. I exist, if only as a symbol speaking of symbols to other symbols.

It’s not, as Scott Karp suggests, “I Twitter, therefore I am.” It’s “I Twitter because I’m afraid I ain’t.”
As the physical world takes on more of the characteristics of a simulation, we seek reality in the simulated world. At least there we can be confident that the simulation is real. At least there we can be freed from the anxiety of not knowing where the edge between real and unreal lies. At least there we find something to hold onto, even if it’s nothing.
Carr's biases are clear: what is "nothing" to pre-digital sensibilities might well be "something" to the discarnalized digital native. "Alone" and "together" have different meanings too, as do "here" and "anywhere."

We'll wrap this up with another prophecy from the mouth of McLuhan:
The world tribe will be essentially conservative, it’s true, like all iconic and inclusive societies; a mythic environment lives beyond time and space and thus generates little radical social change. All technology becomes part of a shared ritual that the tribe desperately strives to keep stabilized and permanent; by its very nature, an oral-tribal society——such as Pharaonic Egypt——is far more stable and enduring than any fragmented visual society. The oral and auditory tribal society is patterned by acoustic space, a total and simultaneous field of relations alien to the visual world, in which points of view and goals make social change an inevitable and constant byproduct. An electrically imploded tribal society discards the linear forward-motion of “progress.” We can see in our own time how, as we begin to react in depth to the challenges of the global village, we all become reactionaries...

I’m saying that the result, not the current process, of retribalization makes us reactionary in our basic attitudes and values. Once we are enmeshed in the magical resonance of the tribal echo chamber, the debunking of myths and legends is replaced by their religious study. Within the consensual framework of tribal values, there will be unending diversity——but there will be few if any rebels who challenge the tribe itself.

The instant involvement that accompanies instant technologies triggers a conservative, stabilizing, gyroscopic function in man, as reflected by the second-grader who, when requested by her teacher to compose a poem after the first Sputnik was launched into orbit, wrote: “The stars are so big / The earth is so small / Stay as you are.” The little girl who wrote those lines is part of the new tribal society; she lives in a world infinitely more complex, vast and eternal than any scientist has instruments to measure or imagination to describe.


  1. There's a part of this I want to comment on a bit. Not exactly a disagreement, more of an observation on the larger implications.

    "And I only single them out because they're the tribe I have any real familiarity with: due to my own political prejudices and filters, I rarely have occasion to view, say, Gamergaters or men's rights "activists" in their natural habitats. If we're speaking about ideological tenets per se, I'm very much more aligned with the Salon clan than the Breitbart horde. But here I'm less interested in beliefs than in behavior."

    I'm not sure you can separate the behavior from the beliefs. At least not this easily. Granted I understand what you mean here, you're focusing on awful behaviors that are common with the tribal mindset regardless of their stated ideology. Still, even with that said there are assumed beliefs within these behaviors that rationalizes the online mob's quest for punishment. Ways that these leaders ought to treat others if they are to remain - or become - leaders. But how you treat others that you disagree with (or, more importantly, treat those society finds to be genuinely criminal or deviant) is an important belief question in of itself - one that informs our real and common law, the mobs we form and what we do with them. If we share the belief in the glories of the Communist State but you disagree on the utility of the gulags, by choice or by force you will be an outcast precisely because they're violating a higher belief of yours - that mass murder and imprisonment is bad.

    This is important too because it reveals another kind of split beyond the most zealous examples of feminists vs. MRAs, SJWs vs. Gamergate - that split being the more moderate voices in many of these groups. With social justice especially there are no shortage of think pieces on their recent rise and their chilling effect across universities. That their actions have become so alien that previous allies who, on paper, ought to agree simply don't identify with them anymore. How you treat others does, in fact, become a real division in belief. Spaces where dogma is debunked are carved out and the rebels come out in force, at least once a moment presents itself. And while there are certainly many awful examples of this tribalism at work (especially if we're throwing Isis into the mix, though that's a more complicated example I feel like specific to the failures of the Iraq War and the collapse of Syria), adjusted to scale I'm still not sure how uniquely powerful it is yet to this time period.

    1. The ISIS situation is born of geopolitical and historical circumstance, sure. But the thing is that it is now much more possible to have person X identifying more with a group across the ocean than with the community in which he is corporeally present.

      This might account for some of what we're seeing in the Big Sort: a red person who feels out of place among all the blue people in his environment now has the information tech to communicate with red people elsewhere, disengage with the blue people around him, and then pack up his things and go somewhere to be with other red people. Blue people become irrelevant, nonexistent in his physical space, but irritating abstractions in his digital space——which is becoming the arena for all politics, local and national.

      These pretty graphs and charts show that the political middle is shrinking. This is tribalization: people in one group are having less communal and ideological overlap with people from the other group, and it's looking like people are becoming more and more likely to be drawn into one side or the other.

      Digital participation might have something to do with this. Again, ritual. When you author a tweet condemning police brutality, Like and Share a Bernie Sanders .jpg on Facebook, you're not just transmitting a message: you're reinforcing that message in yourself.

      Not that people didn't talk politics in the past—it's just never been done with the same SPEED. In the time it would have taken somebody to write a letter to the newspaper objecting to the language Teddy Roosevelt used to describe Filipinos or start a conversation about McKinleynomics at the barbershop, the digital native can tweet, retweet, tumbl, and reblog scores of messages and receive near-instantaneous feedback from all over the world. This in itself is more important than the ideological flavor of the messages being dispatched and reinforced. The rapidity of communication has the broad effect of a political centrifuge, separating and concentrating the elements within the mixture.

      And while there are certainly many awful examples of this tribalism at work (especially if we're throwing Isis into the mix, though that's a more complicated example I feel like specific to the failures of the Iraq War and the collapse of Syria), adjusted to scale I'm still not sure how uniquely powerful it is yet to this time period.

      YET is the operative word here. There's certainly the possibility that the terrain of digital space will change, that the next generation(s) will traverse it differently. But I don't think we can expect the centrifuge effect to decelerate, let alone reverse any time soon.

      I mean, there's no immediate danger of a civil war or national dissolution, but we shouldn't expect the federal government to attain functionality, unless some existential exigency arises. But as long as we have electricity, cell towers, coffee, Google, car dealerships, Wal Mart, and ballsy new HBO series, we'll keep it together. THESE things are holding us together more than any shared ideas of national purpose or identity.

      ...Unless, somehow, the act of choosing to buy a cup of coffee at either Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks assumes a political/tribal dimension. And it could! The more that, say, hip liberal people visibly fawn over Trader Joe's, the more of a tribal connotation Trader Joe's assumes.

      If it's not obvious, all I've been doing here for the past two days is throwing ideas around. I figured if I was going to write about McLuhan, I might as well write in the spirit of McLuhan.

  2. Well I'm just bouncing ideas a bit too. Or perhaps rather just questioning some of the longer term implications. I recognize what you mean, that politics have gotten more polarized, that online journalism (and social media/forum communities) have become less diverse and more reflexively ideological (or at least more prone to signal their ideological allegiance), and that even the simple act of a message board thread linking the 100th example of how liberals/conservatives/etc. are dumb feels less and less like a discussion point and more and more like an attempt to contribute (deliberately or not) to the larger narrative.

    And hell I won't act like I don't have these concerns myself. It's pretty easy to watch, year after year, family members and friends you knew on facebook, reposting and liking political memes and slowly rallying themselves against their political enemy. Every image showing those 47 traitors in the Senate, or every picture celebrating our troops that also reminds us of those unAmerican draft dodgers back in Vietnam. It's demoralizing, especially from people you know and believe can be more thoughtful and accepting than that.

    But here's what I'm trying to get at, in a kind of bullet pointy way:

    - We can agree that the Internet has helped people find and associate with other people in ways that was not possible before (and for that matter give visibility to interests that people didn't even realize existed before, like furries). Yet not every group doxxes, or harasses, and certainly doesn't pack it up to fight and build a new Islamic Caliphate. Even with political polarization, it's certain aspects of political identity that form the greatest hostility. This is what I mean about the beliefs rationalizing the behavior, and why they can't be easily separated. What is it about the groups that do adopt an us against them mentality, or bunker against inconvenient facts, that makes them special?

    - Related, I feel like many of these political issues are specifically American examples of gridlock. One common counter point to the idea that Washington is inevitably gridlocked is that with certain incentive changes you could change the culture. Having a filibuster that actually requires endless talking would remove the incentives to use it so freely. Efforts to reduce pork may have had the unintended side effect of reducing cross-party cooperation. And of course the impact of gerrymandering in encouraging more polarized candidates shouldn't be understated. And so on. Note that I'm not convinced that this entirely true (or entirely good), or that it is a full corrective. But I do believe that policy changes can impact the incentives, and would have an impact on Washington (and certain state government) culture.

    - I also wonder, as a longer term point, about the viability and power of online news media, where places like Gawker, Breitbart, Salon, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, etc. are among the most visible in this kind of tabloidy journalism. It's blatantly oversaturated, and not as clearly profitable as I think people believe. I can imagine a culling where many of these sites - and certainly lesser examples - either die off, rebrand, or lose legitimacy. I know David Auerbach suggested one potential model for change (with a curiously clickbaity title). Of course that change may not be for the better...

    1. I think the digial tribalism is most apparent where mainstream politics are concerned—the already existing ideological groups in opposition to each other arrived on the scene with a head start. That's the most visible manifestation, but not the whole animal. Not to cop out, but I don't know what the whole creature might look like. I can imagine a constellation of insular cultural bubbles that mostly ignore each other, but don't take kindly to interlopers from other bubbles. (See: the boy's club of gamers losing their minds when people of other stripes started making games and getting vocal about the sorts of games they wanted to see.)

      Also: I hope Slate is right.

    2. It's also worth considering this argument as well, that's been recently propelled by Jonathan Haidt. Shares a lot of overlap with your argument (at least in regard to the US and call-out culture), but offers a different explanation. Assuming you haven't seen it anyway.

    3. Thanks! I just read another take on it in the Atlantic.

      I don't see why the two explanations are incompatible—although, yes, one was rigorously researched, and one was just a wad of ideas thrown against the wall like so much pasta.

      I have to admit this was the first thing that came to mind when I read the title:

    4. Sorry I didn't get back sooner, but I just wanted to say thanks for the link. And for the conversation too. If I didn't know better, I would have assumed that comic was an edit.

  3. "This is a relatively innocuous example. ISIS's successes at recruiting people abroad via social media are a more extreme manifestation of the social force lines generally exerted by digital tech."

    While the ISIS is, indeed, an extremely negative application of the idea you are arguing, I'd like to propose that your little teenage goth community, rather than being "relatively innocuous" was an example of a positive development. You argue that were not for this virtual community of maladjusteds, you probably would have got quickly shaken of that phase to better obtain the approval of your geographic peers, thus, "adjusting". But since when it's adjusting and conforming a desirable thing? Why did sullen teenage Pat needed to be constantly impressed on that his way of being, the things he liked (or rather, disliked) were objectively wrong?

    Virtual communities have become the haven of kids who needed to be told that being different was not synonymous with being wrong. Goths, emos, Japanophiles, metalheads, gays, fetichists, aspiring poets, musicians and writers of various levels of talent and a long list of etc. found kindred souls that offered a hand and validation when their corresponding geographical peers offered scorn and judgement. Sure, it also has become a den for gamergaters, misguided SJWs, violent anarchists, pickup artists and even terrorists, but it seems to me that the amount of evil generated and endorsed by these communities is not particularly higher than the one that would naturally blossom and find a way into the world, if our history is any indication.

    1. I think you're mistaking an observation for a value judgement. There's nothing WRONG with people of different popular subcultures banding together over cyberspace; it's just historically unusual. (Pop subcultures were predicated on twentieth-century mass media, for one thing. How would anyone in the suburbs know what "goth" was if it weren't for television, the internet, and glossy picture magazines?) In the past, if one wanted validation from a community, he either had to conform to whatever group of people he found himself in—or go somewhere else.

      You ask when adjusting and conforming is a desirable thing. The answer is: for most of human history. There are very practical reasons as to why the ancient Greeks often regarded exile as worse than death, or why shunning remains the ultimate punishment within Amish communities.

      In a technologically advanced civil society, this is no longer the case—for better and worse. There's something to be said for being engaged with one's neighbors and local community, as there's something to be said for our new power to reach out to people who share our hobbies, kinks, and beliefs, wherever on the planet they might be.