While science fiction of the 1960s did not often accurately predict technological advancements of the 21st century, it is apparent that society had high expectations for culture. The increase of technology was to bring peace and tranquility. Fighting would ease and we would see an era of economic and social prosperity.
Philosophically, however, many were skeptical. Marshall McLuhan, one of the foremost communications theorists of the 20th century, challenged the notion that technology brought infinite growth without consequence. His prediction in the early 1960s of the Internet presented questions as to our ability to handle societal technological development. What McLuhan presented is the reality that the world is shrinking with technology. With this shrinking, it is necessary to understand the consequences, both positive and negative, of technology. As communication develops with technology, how we interact, at all levels of government, is influenced. This is most easily seen in the political arena. Currently, our culture is as divided as ever. This political divisiveness is the natural consequence of technology. If we are to remain a unified country, regardless of belief, we must be aware of these consequences of our technological culture.
The Global Village
“The new electronic independence re-creates the world in the image of a global village.” (Marshall McLuhan)
There is little disagreement over whether technology has impacted our ability to communicate. News of the Boston Tea Party in 1773 took over a month to reach the British monarch across the Atlantic. Today, technology has radically altered the scope of our world. The greatest example is the 2011 Arab Spring. Utilizing social media, people demonstrating were capable of communicating at instantaneous speeds whether they were next to each other or in another country. We, the onlookers, kept up-to-date with the action, only seconds behind, utilizing social feeds and online news platforms.
McLuhan refers to this concept as the “Global Village.” No longer are we bound to our previously-defined lines of communication and affiliation. The world is shrinking as fast as we are connecting. With this increase in speed, technology allows a more diverse audience to engage in the ‘drama’ of society. In previous generations, literacy and affluence were necessary to know what was happening in the world and what to make of it. Newspapers cost money and books were a luxury for the rich. However, learning about the world is no longer dependent upon reading and wealth: new forms of communication are present everywhere. What once was a status symbol in the United States, the smartphone has become a necessity. With this greater access to technology, an equality in the dissemination of ideas emerges. New voices are present in a discussion that once would have happened only in university halls and on Capitol Hill.
This shared experience, grown out of the increase of technology in our culture, creates an even larger community: a community that understands the same events, ideas, and concepts. The conversations that shape our day are no longer tied to local events, politicians, or attractions. While these localized conversations remain, we, with more ease, can communicate of the national and international crises of the day.
“We’re retribalizing. Involuntarily we are getting rid of individualism.”(McLuhan, 1965 Interview)
While technology has dramatically transformed society with each successive iteration, we must realize the negative consequences of technology’s rapid growth. McLuhan, in his efforts to consider the effects of technology on our society, does not make ‘value judgments’ on technology itself. Instead, he points to the consequences of our ignorance of the dangers of technology in the Global Village: unintentional, divisive, tribalism.
In the ‘pre-technological’ culture of the 18th and 19th centuries, individuality was key. Our lives operated as independent individuals who affiliated with other independent individuals towards a common goal: political party, Masonic lodge, religion, baseball team, etc. While major disagreements were incredibly divisive and split affiliations, minor disagreements were accepted and considered healthy in the culture. It was the world of parliamentary procedure: a minority accepting the will of the majority as long as they agreed on the overall mission.
However, we are seeing a resurgence of tribalism in our contemporary culture. It is reminiscent of the tribal warfare of peoples millennia ago. In that era, tribes had at least somewhat defined borders that kept peace and tranquility. However, this return to tribalism cannot maintain true borders as the lines divide neighborhoods, apartments, and even the family unit.
The thing about the Global Village is that, like all villages and tribes, it requires uniformity to peacefully coexist. The “individual” was not a concept in tribal culture. One’s worth was connected closely to what one provided with the tribe. However, we now have a society that craves individuality and attention. McLuhan, in 1964, considers the effects already beginning in the newly-tribalized world: “Tribal cultures cannot entertain the possibility of the individual or of the separate citizen. Their ideas of spaces and times are neither continuous nor uniform, but compassional and compressional in their intensity.”
Conformity to the tribe directly conflicts with our current American culture of individuality and the search for identity (whether gender, sexual, ‘work’, etc.). A tribe requires a person to fulfill the role that is expected of them. In the 21st century, we no longer accept the labels and duties given to us whether at birth or in our daily lives.
A few centuries ago, tribal cultures would have naturally found themselves within physical “camps” and literal “tribes” excluding those whose beliefs differed. It was at the geographic border of these tribes where conflict occurred. In contemporary society, it is not as straightforward. This new form of tribalism pits family member against family member, neighbor against neighbor as we are surrounded by the lines of division and, thus, conflict.
Politics in a Technological World
Since the election of Donald Trump, there has been an amplification of political division that has been present since the 2004 presidential election. Fighting and political feuds have happened before this period with much ferocity. However, the United States had experienced for many decades what McLuhan considered a relatively “polite society.” In this society, there were still disagreements, political pressure, and ideological division. However, it was also an era that that saw disagreements with civility. Politicians worked across the aisle, something that is unheard of today, as recently as the 1990s and early 2000s on tax reform, health care policy, and government spending.
This division brought to our attention during the 2016 election, mimics a return to tribalism. Amy Chua, in a lecture to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, notes that the political dynamics of the past few years are similar to those in developing countries. These cultures, often moving from a tribal culture to a global culture, face a tension in transition. The United States, returning to a tribal culture of old, faces the tension between “tribal” and “global.” Chua points to political correctness, especially on college campuses, having a negative impact on political discourse:
“But people feel this way. If you do not allow people to express it… if we say you cannot say that because if you raise a question about immigration, you are a xenophobe, you are a racist, it is just going to go underground. I have seen it with my own eyes, and underground is where it is really ugly, where you really do have terrible, the worst of America.” (Amy Chua, 2018.)
While tribalism needs conformity, pushing dissident views to the underground only creates the illusion of conformity. This underground, as Chua notes, is typically the anonymous recesses of the Internet. Even if a consensus isn’t reached, it is much more difficult to hide in the underground where true It becomes even more dangerous as people’s identity becomes confused with their political views. These people, disowned by ‘mainstream’ political candidates will look to anyone who is willing to represent them.
Here is where Donald Trump enters the picture. These disenfranchised Americans did not vote for Trump because he was their ‘top choice.’ They voted for him because he was their choice. He was the only one running that did not hide behind a mirage of glamour and showed his true face. It was the inevitable consequence of a technological culture in rebellion against itself to elect one who does not fit the mold in a world that is striving for individuality in the age of uniformity.
Drawing Technology and Culture Together
While many desire, on either end of the political spectrum, to blame the fault of the societal issues and political division on one president, candidate, or party, the reality is much more stark. We are all to blame for the political turmoil that our culture faces. Our blind, rash acceptance of technology without realizing its impact, has fundamentally altered how we operate in our culture. It is not that ideas have no meaning or consequence: we must strive to fight for the common good. However, until we recognize the division that occurs due to the technology we use daily, we cannot truly engage the political crises. While I do not propose a specific solution to this problem, it is one that must be debated and considered. It cannot be simply ignored. As the technological acceleration of society leads to increased tension, it is our responsibility, as citizens, to not let this battle control us. We must reconsider what it means to truly communicate in the Global Village.
McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962. Print
McLuhan, Marshall, and Bruce R. Powers. The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Print.