In his 1962 book, “Gutenberg Galaxy,” the Canadian English professor, Marshall McLuhan, introduced the intriguing idea that the methods a civilization uses to transmit ideas profoundly influence the structure and psychology of societies. His central premise was that the content getting transmitted mattered little and that the technology employed to deliver the content had a much more profound influence on society. For example, a literate society which relied heavily on printed text to communicate would be vastly different from a society which communicated via television and radio, the dominant new mediums of the last half of the 20th century. Though sometimes baffling and unscientific, McLuhan’s ideas were thought provoking and he became a pop culture phenom, even earning a bit part in Woody Allen’s, Annie Hall.
Thirty six years after his passing, McLuhan’s ideas are still being explored and debated particularly with how they might be applied to the internet and the seemingly never-ending explosion of new methods for sharing information and experiences. As individuals, we wonder about our own ability to adapt psychologically to the constant bombardment of new information available to us. We also ask how will a world where everyone can be in touch with everyone instantly be different from a world with gatekeepers and hierarchical structures?
But we no longer have to guess so much. The internet has been with us forty-five years or so, the world wide web about twenty five, and the ubiquity of true personal communication for less than ten. A clearer picture of the impact of these technologies on us is beginning to emerge. And so far, I’m afraid to report, it’s looking pretty fucked up.
Once upon a time, the dream was that the internet and the accompanying technologies built atop it would usher in something like McLuhan’s profoundly misinterpreted phrase, “global village.” We imagined people across planet would be woven into an interconnected, electronic hive mind which would amplify and transmit the greatest ideas and allow us to coordinate thoughts and actions like never before, driving civilization to ever higher heights and dwarfing the accomplishments of the past century.
What we failed to consider, however, is that the key value of the Enlightment—that reason must guide our decisions—is simply not the overriding principal most individuals strive toward. We also forgot that humans are, before all else, social creatures. We seek out and maintain relationships and form alliances with those who are most like us; we have a very strong tendency to tribalize and become more warlike. This is what McLuhan actually predicted would happen as a result of a “global village.”
And so the internet, rather than bringing people together, is having precisely the opposite effect. By making it exceedingly easy for like-minded people to find and communicate with one another in virtual spaces, the creation of tribes around any particular idea or value, even if totally baseless or detached from reality, becomes much more prevalent. Combine this with a weakening of traditional, gate keeping institutions like political parties and major news organizations, the internet has set the stage for vast political and social disruption.
Witness the rise of Donald Trump. What else can explain him as a phenomena? Political scientists are at a loss. The country is not in severe economic turmoil. Even when we were, we still turned to establishment figures like Roosevelt to lead us. Some political scientists have posited theories that Trump appeals to authoritarians. But haven’t there always been politicians that did that? I argue that what’s different today is that a huge share of the population is plugged into the internet.
As Trump demonstrates and as McLuhan taught us, content simply doesn’t matter. As we have seen, the more incoherent drivel Trump spews, the more popular he seems to become with his followers. What explains the Trump phenomena is the internet and the tribal bonds and relationships that can be built as a result of it. Websites, videos, social media are allowing members of the Trump tribe to share symbols and feel connected with one another in ways never before possible. And you could replace Trump with just about anyone. Trump is, in fact, irrelevant. He is merely scaffolding for a cultural movement made possible by the internet.
And then there’s dreck like me. Bypassing scientific journals with a Twitter account and a blog, I have been able to amass quite a following pumping out reams of pure bullshit everyday about global warming. The fact that what I say is detached from all scientific evidence is immaterial. I have successfully carved out my own little tribe of like-minded climate deniers to the point where my lunatic conspiracy theories are getting traction on alt-right websites that they can turn around and feed to their own tribe.
Rational individuals have trouble wrapping their heads around what’s happening because they make the mistaken assumption that clear, rational thought is an ideal everybody strives for and can achieve. They can’t understand how someone like me can exist. Unfortunately, the desire to belong and be part of a tribe trumps all logic. So here I am.
I believe it’s only going to get worse. As 20th century institutions continue to weaken, the internet will usher in an era of what I call hypertribalism. Each tribe will have its own set of values, worldview and established “facts” they operate from. Members of the various tribes will be ensconced in their own sub-sub-cultures to the point where it will be difficult for them to relate to members of other tribes. Perhaps economic survival and the need to create wealth is the only force strong enough to hold a complex society together in the face of such hypertribalism. Where this all might lead us is anybody’s guess. But unfortunately, hypertribalism will likely make tackling issues that require massive global coordination like climate change exceedingly difficult.
Let’s hope I’m wrong.