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History Table of Contents
1994 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1994
Globalism and Tribalism: The New World Disorder?

Globalism: Threat or Opportunity?

FRANK ZINGRONE, Professor of Communications and Senior Scholar, York University

I would start with the truth, if I knew what it was. If I stumble across a plan to deal coherently with the truth during the talk, I will break off the talk and go right to the truth.

Now let me try to tell you where I am coming from on this. I

I am an old McLuhanite – it is an unforgivable crime in some places in Canada – but I have an immense respect for the kinds of deep probes that the man was able to use to gouge the Canadian consciousness, not all that many years ago.

He is still with us; there is a living spirit of McLuhan in the room.

Let me get exactly to the point.

In the way in which we go about talking about globalism and tribalism, there is an awful lot of misunderstanding about what globalism is. It is not a monolithic corporate takeover of the globe. That couldn't happen.

Nor, is tribalism really possible much any more in the old anthropological sense of finding people untouched by civilized values, however warping they might be.

What we have is a globe which is in fact a global communication envelope around this world we live in, around this planet. And we can shove messages into every square foot on the surface of the globe. These are things now that we all know.

What is the process of the force of globalism, meeting the force of tribalism?

Well, what you find is, in my analysis of the situation, is that there is a tremendous amount of awareness on the part of the smaller localized groups in the world; that the only way in which for them to exist against the capitalists global trust, the corporate view of the world, is for them to make themselves into a market.

The only way for them to protect themselves and to make themselves into a market, really, is to retrieve who they used to be. A lot of people have forgotten who they used to be. And so what you find is, increasingly, a very hoted-up local situation, where people are trying desperately to keep themselves separate in order to present themselves as a coherent market to the people who would like new and growing markets.

Nothing is essentially wrong with this; I don't take moral positions on any of this stuff.

So, what do you have happening, then, in that kind of a global setup?

Well, you have a global village all right. Marshall McLuhan said it a long time ago in a little book called, Culture is Our Business.

He said: "The TV generation is post-literate and re-tribalized. It seeks by violence to scrub the old private image and to merge into a new tribal identity, like any corporate executive."

Now this is a crucial kind of reprise on all of the loose talk we have been hearing about tribes. People are trying to make strategic global alliances into tribes; people are trying to make feminism into a tribe, I mean it is getting out of hand.

What I would like to talk about, plain and simple, my footnote is: What is re-tribalized society like?

And the reason I like that question is because – that is us, not them. It isn't us still in the posture of the anthropologist studying those other people out there who need our help and who need the agencies and institutions that we have to guide them to safety.

There is, in my view, little hope that we can do anything much except keep a bit of blood off the floor.

It seems to me we have to understand ourselves, as involved in a process that is a re-tribalizing process and I want to just describe very succinctly what that process produces.

There are a number of things that can be perceived as happening under these conditions. Let me put it this way. Electric process is new and visible ground that effects the work that all of us do, no matter what work we do. And most intensely it effects the way that we operate here in North America.

Electric process, and let me give you an analogy, it is like literate process.

When they invented printing, everyone said, oh well, it is not very good; certainly not as good as I can do by hand. And we'll get by; these damn books are really making everything quite trivial and simplifying life and we will get by and it will not really change us much.

We walked in innocently and became logical, sequential, rational, scientific, Protestant. The incredible amount of cultural movement created by that one technology and the space that it made us live in, the invisible space, the space out of common awareness.

This experiment that we are going through with electronic process is even more dynamically transformative than the transformation of literacy that we have all experienced.

What is it like? Let me just give a little bit of an idea of what I am trying to get at with this set of transformation.

We all know that you can take if you like physiological measures of the way in which the brain works when it is doing different kinds of things with different kinds of media.

It is almost a certainty that we are now developing biases by analyzing CAT scans and EEGs and that sort of things.

You can see that there are biases in the brain that are now shifting to other areas of the brain so that we are, technically, in a different mindset most of the time.

I don't want to put too fine an edge on that because, in fact, physiological measurements don't prove much; they are only indicators that something important is happening.

Let's look at some other indicators. I have a lot of students who have particularly interesting innovative ways of going about problems solving. For example, if I ask my students to recall something, they can't do it. If I ask them to recognize something, they can do it.

A while ago, the Columbia School of Broadcast Journalism tested some people on their ability to recall the evening news. More than 50 per cent – asked in an hour or two after the broadcast to recall an item or more of the news – could not recall a single item.

How many of you would not dare go to bed without missing the news?

How would you like to teach a whole classroom of kids who have ben raised on this sensibility? How would you like to set them an examination, that stupidly asks them to recall a lot of interesting facts they have committed to memory.

Not on your life.

The sensibility training – that is, the training of electric processes – is creating in us a whole new movement, which I want to describe as an inner tribal set of values.

The indicators are there, they are powerful, they are inescapable, incontrovertible, in my view, and produce something that usually strikes fear into the heart of someone like myself.

I am an old-fashioned literate, ear person. I understand that our tradition is under assault and that something very profound is transforming all of the things that we most value in education.

So, I will get back to the university, very quickly; somewhat succinctly in this extended footnote. Let me just point out one thing, and that is the effect of overload.

There isn't a person in this room that hasn't had a day where you just want to give it all up. There is too damn much information and it just will not go away. What is the response?

The only possible response to that kind of experience is to shut down the receiving organ; to desensitize the reception of the incoming information. And so we key down. Ever do anything to inhibit the inflow of information, to modulate the amount that you are required to take in order to survive in an urban environment? Inhibition.

Whether we understand it or not, it is there; it is coming to a head. It is, I submit to you, a kind of inner tribalism that we have the most of, because we have the most agitation from the most media in North America. We have an out-of- awareness stake that we don't know how to investigate, or we are not investigating very well.

Now, there are so many others ways in which one can go about investigating, electric process and its effects. I just want to suggest very strongly that we have probably to give up the metaphor of globalism.

Let me just see if I can do it succinctly. The idea of the total completion of a field theory, or a holistic total understanding of any system, we have to give up. It is an illusion that came probably to a head with Einstein's attempt at unified field theory.

There is no way in which we can do the whole global thing. But we are obsessed it. We are obsessed with holography, by holism, by ecology, the whole obsession we have; the global obsession we have, has got to be tempered, I think, a little bit, by the idea that we are involved in a process that is chaotic.

I recommend to you that some of the answers are being developed in chaos theory. I taught the first course in chaos theory at my university; a tremendously vital experience.

The point I would make, simply, is that there are ways to understand how order and disorder interrelate. Order can emerge from a sea of chaos, and the reverse is also true. And I think what we have to learn to observe is, that under electronic conditions, what we have created is a chaotic world in which new ways of finding islands of order are probably our only way to save ourselves from some unspeakable fate as a world polity – if such a thing is even possible.

I will leave you with that extended footnote.