It can take a long time to sift through all of the ideas presented by McLuhan in his 1969 interview with Playboy. To respond to everything he said would take more than a mere blog post, so I’m only going to touch on three of his observations: the relation of the artist to media, impact of the alphabet, and the “retribalization” of youth.
First, McLuhan talks about the artist as the one who is able to grasp how media is affecting society:
“…inherent in the artist’s creative inspiration is the process of subliminally sniffing out environmental change.It’s always been the artist who perceives the alterations in man caused by a new medium, who recognizes that the future is the present, and uses his work to prepare the ground for it.”
Apart from the artist, McLuhan attributes to the rest of humanity a rear-view perspective of the world. He means that many people are indignant to the ways that new media is impacting their lives until that media is replaced by something else. For example, few people in the 50s would have identified their generation as the television generation. The effect of television on the youth at the time was not fully understood until decades later. However, the pop artists of the 50s and 60s at least cognizant of TVs impact on society. Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych is a good example because it mimics television’s mass production of images.
Moving on, McLuhan states that the invention of the phonetic alphabet was the initial catalyst for the “detribalization” of humankind:
“The internal world of the tribal man was a creative mix of complex emotions and feelings that literate men of the Western world have allowed to wither or have suppressed in the name of efficiency and practicality. The alphabet served to neutralize all these rich divergencies of tribal cultures by translating their complexities into simple visual forms; and the visual sense, remember, is the only one that allows us to detach; all other senses involve us, but the detachment bred by literacy disinvolves and detribalizes man. He separates from the tribe as a predominantly visual man who shares standardized attitudes, habits and rights with other civilized men.”
Basically, his observation here is that abstract communication is the first step toward emotional and sensual isolation. The visual sense becomes dominant over the others and allows us to detach ourselves from the tribe. This transition sped up exponentially when Gutenberg developed the printing press and disseminated printed words throughout Europe. Ironically, McLuhan sees the television and other electronic media as the antithesis to printed material – thus ending the dominance of the sense of sight.
This is where McLuhan loses me. He says that television is not primarily a visual medium like it’s print predecessors because it “offers no detailed information about specific objects but instead involves the active participation of the viewer”. In my own observation, there are really only two things that separate photography from television: movement and sound. Sight is still a dominant sense here, only now sound is now equally important. Television may require an additional sense, but it is hardly the antithesis to print like McLuhan is saying. I tend to view it as a a form of mass media that involves more than just the visual sense.
The last of McLuhan’s observations to which I’m responding has to do with the “retribalization” of youth. For McLuhan, the youth to which he was referring was the counterculture of the 60s – that is, the hippie generation. He referenced their use of drugs and sexual experimentation as means of tapping into the senses that the alphabet has since caused us to forget. By tapping into those senses, the idea was to return to the tribal world before civilized thought. Such a world, as I understand it from McLuhan, was their utopia. Hippies are still around today, but our youth culture is quite different.
We have social media. Facebook is the new television. Not only can people all around the world watch the same show, but we can also share ideas and other electronic media through computers. Computers have become extensions of individuals. People can carry their smart phones around with them wherever they go and share ideas with the click of a button. The sense of sight is still dominant, but computers add the sense of touch into the formula. The iPod touch is an prime example of this.
I’ve heard it said that our generation is “retribalizing” through social media, but I disagree. In fact, I think it is quite the opposite. We may be involving more senses in our communication, but those senses are experienced remotely through social media – that is, we are not phyically with other people when we talk to them on Facebook. We are independently interfacing with a device. Therefore, we are becoming even more of an individualistic society than before.
Here’s the kicker: we probably won’t figure this out until something new takes its place. That’s my observation. Take it or leave it.