Before anything – before any opinion on Trump, before any notion of any media one might read through the medium of their smartphone, one must first try to read themselves and their relationship with their medium, and contemplate what their medium is doing to them, their day-to-day, themselves.
All the commentary, all the trusted and not-trusted news sources that invade the space of the smartphone are secondary to the overall impact of the smartphone upon the way we are as human beings. And the main current of this impact, according to McLuhan, is retribalization.
It is an odd paradox that the most avant garde of electric technology will return humanity to tribal times – but the leaders of the times reflect the people and with guys like Trump and Boris Johnson running a big chunk of the world today, McLuhan’s astonishing insight is hard to dispute.
McLuhan’s observation that the content of the newest communication medium is alway that of previous mediums is exemplified with astonishing exactitude in this electric era of the smartphone, whose content consists of basically all of the media that came before. The smartphone is capable of serving as a wristwatch or clock, a camera, a radio, a television, a (very tiny) movie screen, a newspaper, a photo album. It is also even occasionally, a telephone.
The smartphone can broadcast, record, send and receive information – it is a new medium that, thanks to electricity, enables a simultaneous involvement with all previous media. A user can become both producer and consumer of content and, even – in the case of, say, a live gaming broadcast, both at once.
Such simultaneity erodes the linearity that centuries of print-based, visual dependency has brought to Western civilization. Smartphone users must make sense of the non-sequential chaosmos of information that emanates from and draws them into their devices, constantly.
Via the smartphone, information arrives and is sent without introduction or connection, disparate texts, tweets, stories, phone calls, alarms, news items, ads, letters, tags, selfies arrive the speed of light from anywhere on earth – even from outer space (via folks like Chris Hadfield).
The linearity of a print civilization is further disrupted in that the barrier between receiver and sender of information is totally eliminated. In the not-so-long ago age where newspapers dominated – a person bought a newspaper, read the words on the page, and the transaction of information was complete.
If print had lifted humanity out of tribalism, the electric technologies were ‘retribalizing’ societies inside the thing that McLuhan called the “Global Village”.
Even with television and radio, two older forms of electric media, the linear mode of communication is preserved. There is a broadcaster and there is an audience. The broadcaster sends the information, the audience receives it. With the smartphone, everyone is a participant, and all at once. The exchange is so non-sequential that there are not even such things as ‘turns’. Anyone with an internet connection can broadcast video, audio or print to the world, or comment on previous broadcasts or on previous comments on previous broadcasts. To call this ‘dialogue’ would be to misrepresent the nature of social media. It is more like a democracy of communication, where everyone can have a say, can continue having a say until such a great degree of everything is said that it becomes almost equivalent to nothing.
As with Poe’s malestrom, McLuhan gained his appreciation for the simultaneous nature of the electric age from literature. In this case the writer was James Joyce, probably McLuhan’s favourite of the many he cherished in the realms of literature, philosophy and poetry.
McLuhan often declared that all his media investigations were nothing more than “applied Joyce”, and again we experience the remarkable irony that McLuhan, such a linear and print-based man himself, was able to experience the end of this medium via the medium itself.
This, if course, is one of the great achievements of Joyce. On the printed page Joyce finds a way to transcend the limits and linearity of the print medium. Reading Ulysses ( and, to a much more baffling extent, Finnegan’s Wake) the reader is confronted with an ‘acoustic’ environment. Even though the action is chronological, and the words run across the page in a linear fashion, the narrative consists of a mosaic of disconnected snippets of information, conversations overheard, songs sung in pubs, advertisements, scents, sights … random thoughts confront the reader in the same manner that they confront the protagonists Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus as they stroll the streets of Dublin. Just like the protagonists, the reader must find some sense, some purpose inside the vortex of information that swirls from the page in the same sort of total surround that Dublin speaks to Dedalus and Bloom in Joyce’s first great work.
It is up to the reader to piece the information together, and without this active involvement on the part of the reader, both of Joyce’s great works would fail to achieve the impact of their grand designs. In his letters, McLuhan refers on more than one occasion to Joyce’s remark: “My consumers, are they not also my producers.”
McLuhan regarded artists as the DEW lines of the civilized world. In another example of McLuhan’s love of borrowing from ostensibly separate disciplines, ‘DEW’ is a military term that stands for ‘Distant Early Warning’. By following the most ‘tuned-in’ artists of the era, McLuhan believed, to a very real extent, one could see the future coming.
Perhaps in Television, the newest medium of his day – an incorporation of both acoustic and visual mediums – McLuhan experienced a glimmering of Joyce. The advent of television certainly brought epiphanies and elucidations to McLuhan’s vision. Through television, McLuhan saw that the era of visual space was coming to an end. If print had lifted humanity out of tribalism, the electric technologies were ‘retribalizing’ societies inside the thing that McLuhan called the “Global Village”.
In his letters to Trudeau in 1968 McLuhan is already insisting that the retribalization is underway.