Retribalizing on the city platform

Peter Hirshberg sees Marshall McLuhan everywhere. In a career that has included a long stint in Silicon Valley, a foray into the cosmetics industry, a reimagining of the social media world, and an engagement with smart cities, he’s applied McLuhan throughout his life. 

Fifty years ago, McLuhan described technology as an extension of the self that enabled us to reach beyond our physical bodies into a space where we interact with the world. Today, we call this space the platform, and while we debate over how to define it, Hirshberg says, “McLuhan’s already been there.” 

Hirshberg has been thinking about the platform ever since his days at Dartmouth in the ‘70s, when he first encountered computers as a tool for time-sharing. “You could actually see the seeds of social media,” he recalls. One college professor insisted, though, that “computers are for computing,” by which he meant that computers should solve the old problems of accounting, engineering and math in sped-up ways, but using computers for some form of personal communication was a really silly waste of resource.  

Already an applied McLuhanist, Hirshberg rejected this conventional response. He says a light bulb went off in his head. Why not use computers for what people wanted to use them for? McLuhan had speculated that any medium has a way of imposing its own grammar on us, so if computers were fostering new forms of connections, that was probably worth pursuing.

Hirshberg leaned on this philosophy a few years later at Apple Computer, when the platform was moving from the computer to the internet. He felt the urgency to explore that unfamiliar terrain, but Apple was initially ambivalent about bringing its services online. “We had to socialize the idea of networking inside the company first, and then go sell it to others,” he says.

In the ‘90s, Hirshberg’s career took a slight “detour” when he ran online operations for Estée Lauder. He went from “routers to mascara,” but still felt as if he were standing on the same platform: “I used to give a talk called, 'Everything I know about the beauty business, I learned at Apple.' Steve Jobs, he says, knew that beautifully designed products can emotionally empower a customer base. Like a sleek iPhone, an exquisite compact is a technology—an extension of the self that connects the user to the world in a particular way. “Steve had intuitively brought the principles of the prestige luxury business to the commoditized word of desktop computing and taught a whole generation to think that way.”

Hirshberg eventually moved into social media, fascinated by the accumulation of human consciousness he observed in networking and blogging activity on the internet. He focused on building a market and creating an ad platform around that space as Chairman of pioneering blog search engine Technorati. Today, he says, “the platform is moving from the screen to mobile and from mobile to the world.”

That’s why his current stop is the city. The smart city is, to be exact, one in which the best possible uses of technology work for people in the material world. 

“More and more people will participate in and develop the city as it becomes a platform,” Hirshberg says. “Just as social media has allowed almost anyone to create content or engage with a brand, more players than ever will participate as the city is seen as a living laboratory.” These dynamics are similar to what we encountered in building a software developer ecosystem at Apple 30 years ago.

At the center of this smart city, Hirshberg still finds McLuhan, who predicted half a century ago that technology would “retribalize” humanity by condensing our connections and keeping us “electrically” involved in each other’s lives. He saw the fragmented, mechanical world of industry moving toward an age of wholeness, empathy and deep awareness. He called it the “global village.”

That might explain the current move back to the city among millenials who crave community, intellectual exchange and artistic stimulation. They see technology as a reasonable means of acquiring those things.

Big data is part of this ever-evolving platform that is “spreading out into the world around us,” according to Hirshberg. With 2.4 billion internet users worldwide, we are learning fast about complex systems and problem solving. The ebb and flow of a city emits massive amounts of data in real time, immediately revealing to us how a crowd is behaving in a given situation, whether it’s a World Cup championship game or a traffic jam.

“The city is really the ultimate place to practice this stuff,” Hirshberg says. “Second by second, we can understand human behavior atomistically.” It is McLuhan’s electric age when action and reaction occur simultaneously.

On the smart city platform, big data retribalizes us by condensing our associations and making it easier for us to optimize existing resources, or as Hirshberg says, “evoke what’s already there.” But, just as we had to be cautious about not over designing cities for car culture, we have to think through how to avoid the overly mechanistic implications of hyper connected culture. “McLuhan pointed out that augmentation leads to amputation.

Today’s ubiquitous smart phones mean that people are often glued to screens on the street, in restaurants, even in bed. We are at once fully connected to the network but less connected to each other. So for cities, place making, shared experiences, urban design that pull for community, as well as public art and citizen co-creation, are becoming an important design center for civic innovation. We have to get those things right, and urgently,” says Hirshberg.