Back to the Tribe

Van Mensvoort
July 3rd 2011

Traditionally, technology is seen as a force that diminishes our instincts and puts us at a distance of nature. Increasingly however, we realize technology can also energize and amplify our deepest human sensibilities – even some we had forgotten about. Propelling us not so much back to, but rather forward to nature.

Almost two decades ago, Brian Eno – artist, composer, inventor, thinker – gave an interview in which he stated the problem with computers was that there is not enough Africa in them [1]. “Africa is everything that something like classical music isn’t. Classical – perhaps I should say ‘orchestral’ – music is so digital, so cut up, rhythmically, pitch wise and in terms of the roles of the musicians. It’s all in little boxes.”… “Do you know what a nerd is? A nerd is a human being without enough Africa in him or her. I know this sounds sort of inversely racist to say, but I think the African connection is so important. I want so desperately for that sensibility to flood into these other areas, like computers.” … “It uses so little of my body. You’re just sitting there, and it’s quite boring. You’ve got this stupid little mouse that requires one hand, and your eyes. That’s it. What about the rest of you? No African would stand for a computer like that. It’s imprisoning.”

Twenty years ago, when Eno gave his interview, no one had a mobile phone. Today when you accidentally leave your house without your phone you feel amputated – as if you left a limb on the table – and you quickly run back into your house to get it. Social software networks like Facebook, MySpace, Qzone and Twitter reached the mainstream in an even faster pace. All these communication technologies have one thing in common: they restructure the social linkage between people. Arguably they bring a taste of Africa in computing.


Study of the history of mankind shows that, for thousands of years, people lived in bands or tribal settings of no more than 150 people [2]. The invention of larger and more complex social structures – e.g. cities, corporations, nations, etc – is relatively new. Although we have proven able to live in more complex social settings, our tribal sensibilities were never entirely washed away. Examples? Think of what happens during a football championship or the role of fashion brands in the defining of our identities. As the tribal setting is the structure in which mankind evolved, it’s only logical we still have a tendency towards it.

Social networks largely revolve around a stream of expression that feels more like ‘talking’ than writing

If we consider the parallels between the newly emerging communication technologies and a tribal way of living, some striking similarities occur. In a tribal setting, your identity is entirely wrapped up in the question how people know you. Looking at a social network like Facebook, we see the same pattern at work. People are shaping their identities by exhibiting their relationships to each other; while scrawling messages on each other’s walls and exchanging totem-like visual symbols, you define yourself in terms of who your friends are.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan was the first to envision the re-tribalizing powers of electronic technology. According to McLuhan it were the phonetic alphabet and the printing press that caused a mechanical culture of industrial production and nation states which consequentially resulted in the detribalization of Western man into a linear, specialized and detached professional. The introduction of the electronic media however, which saturates our sensory perception entirely, was elucidated by McLuhan as a break boundary between the fragmented literate man and integral man, just as phonetic literacy was a break boundary between oral-tribal man and literate man [3].

Secondary Orality

Social networks largely revolve a stream of expression that feels more like ‘talking’ than writing: tweets, comments, videos responses and status updates. We seem to be making up the rules as we go, but is this really the case? Researchers have been exploring the parallels between online social networks and tribal societies. In the collective pit-a-pat of profile-peeking, messaging and ‘friending’, they see the resurgence of ancient patterns of oral communication [4].

Our tribal sensibilities were never entirely washed away

An early student of electronic orality was Walter J. Ong, a professor at St. Louis University and former student of Marshall McLuhan who coined the term ‘secondary orality’ in 1982 to describe the tendency of electronic media to echo the cadences of earlier oral cultures [5]. Oral cultures were characterized as being aggregative rather than analytic, additive rather than subordinate, close to the human lifeworld, redundant or ‘copious’, conservative or traditionalist and more situational and participatory than the more detached and abstract literate cultures. Oral cultures operate on polychronic time, with many things happening at once. Socialization plays a great role.

New technologies may trigger ancient impulses.

Secondary orality is similar yet different from the original oral cultures, as it presumes and is dependent upon writing and digital technology. The revival of an older nature within a next nature – in order to eventually transform and supersede it – is a powerful evolutionary principle. Although the power of the newly emerging digital tribes lies in the revival of some deeply rooted human sensibilities, they are literally of a different nature than the ancient tribes they resemble: Not the human social intuitions engraved in our DNA, but the digitalism of the database is the primary foundation they are built on. Hence, the next tribes are not so much about being tribal, as they are about being digital. The result is a marriage between old and new, between ancient and alien.

The incorporation of an older nature within a next nature, is a powerful evolutionary principle.

In tribal societies, people define their bond through direct, ongoing face-to-face contact. On the Internet, people connect for a variety of reasons ranging from family ties, to life-long friendships, to mutual interests to we-haven’t-met-but-it-seems-cool-to-have-you-in-my-tribe. While traditionally one would belong to only one tribe, you are now linked into tightly knitted network of tribes that together constitute what McLuhan already called the ‘global village’. And besides the dependence on digital technology, the next tribes are typically facilitated by corporations with commercial incentives that aren’t necessarily geared at the wellbeing of the tribe members. Nonetheless, their brand territories are strong and may soon be competing with the geographical borders of countries.

It remains to be learned whether these next tribes are durable as an organizational infrastructure. Will they replace nation states – a product of a diminishing print and writing culture – in due time? If so, will they be able to replace their functioning? Provide for our security? Democracy? Provide for public spaces and freedom of speech? Turn our living space into a shopping mall? Or bring totalitarian regimes? The question marks are numerous. Nonetheless, we rush ourselves to join. Why? Some of the most important people we know have joined and we intuitively don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to reconnect with them in what could be the next social setting. Indeed, the success of a new technology often depends on its capacity to trigger an ancient impulse. Back to the tribe, forward to a next nature.

1. Kelly, Kevin (1995) Gossip is Philosophy, Interview with Brian Eno, Wired Magazine, 03.05 May 1993.
2. Dunbar, R.I.M. (1992). "Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates". Journal of Human Evolution 22 (6): 469–493.
3. Norden, Eric (1969) Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan. Playboy: pp. 26–27, 45, 55–56, 61, 63. March 1969.
4. Wright, Alex (2007) Friending, Ancient or Otherwise, New York Times, 2 December 2007
5. Ong, Walter J. (1982) Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, (New. York: Methuen, 1982)

Share your thoughts and join the technology debate!public: 1


Koert van Mensvoort
Posted 23/09/2011 – 03:35

@reamronreagan: Thanks for pointing this out! Of course I am aware of the article by Alex Wright. It was even posted on this blog in 2007 ( Somehow this blogpost was accidentally published without the references. Among them Kevin Kelly's Brian Eno interview, Alex Wright, Ong, Mcluhan and more. Very clumsy, Very sorry. Thanks again. We will fix this.

Posted 23/09/2011 – 01:11

You should probably quote someone when you are citing their work... might seem to some that you are plagiarizing Alex Wright's article from the New York Times... word for word at times.
"scrawl messages on each other’s walls and project our identities using totem-like visual symbols. "
"An early student of electronic orality was the Rev. Walter J. Ong, a professor at St. Louis University and student of Marshall McLuhan who coined the term “secondary orality” in 1982 to describe the tendency of electronic media to echo the cadences of earlier oral cultures."

Posted 07/07/2011 – 02:22

"Tribe" is "Tube" with the "u" written upside down. McLuhan's Retribalisation is a satire on American hippies and a play on the visual sense of the typographic man.
Like the Italian Renaissance before it, Retribalisation is a recreation, a replay of past postures under the conditions created by a new environment (the printed book in the Renaissance, the television, or tube in American argot, in the 60s).
Retribalisation, if such thing ever existed, faded away unnoticed. So did the Global Village. The latter was transformed into the Global Theater, which 'is the use of public space for "doing one's thing"' ("From cliché to archetype", 1970). Not sure it is worth to look too hard for this, it is already far behind us or still ahead of us if our sight is riveted on the rearview mirror.
Digitalisation by the computer is the most recent process we have been going through. We are Digital Natives, or so we were.

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