Light Through McLuhan

The acoustic values of electronic communications technology, McLuhan says, herald a return to tribalism.

He says: 'Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. "Time" has ceased, "space" has vanished. We now live in a global village...a simultaneous happening. We are back in acoustic space.'1

He dates this process from the invention of the telegraph.

'Once linked to the telegraph,' he says, 'the press achieved the speed of light, as radio and TV have done since then. Total global coverage in space, instantaneity in time.'2

By 'juxtapos[ing] news items from Tokio, London, New York, Chile, Africa and New Zealand', '[e]verywhere and every age have become here and now.'3

The 'simultanous sharing of experiences as in a village or tribe' through telegraph, newspaper, radio, telephone and TV, 'creates a village or tribal outlook,' McLuhan says, 'and puts a premium on togetherness' and 'mediocrity as a means of achieving togetherness'.4

The confused values of the electronic age are an effect of 'living simultaneously in two contrasted forms of society and experience': contemporary art and entertainment are tribal and inclusive, while the fragmentation of functions that is characteristic of civilization persists in politics, law, education and commerce - 'a formula for complete chaos'.5

McLuhan detected the 'retribalizing' effects of electronic media in the communist movement, existentialism, psychoanalysis, modernist literature, atonality in music, jazz, rock music, beat poetry, recreational drug use, hippie culture, cubism, and the popularity of Eastern mysticism, all of which McLuhan saw as examples of how teenagers and artists were developing tribal forms of social ritual in response to the electric environment.6

While the phonetic alphabet and the printing press led the 'explosion' of mechanical technologies in the Renaissance, today we face the 'implosion' of cultures through electronic media.

As McLuhan says in a TV clip of 1960: 'the world is now like a continually sounding tribal drum .... 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.'7