Replaying history backward

Andrey Mir
11 min readFeb 14, 2024

We expect that new media will do new tricks to cover our old needs. We always think they will improve something we already have. Sometimes they do, but on their own terms. Eventually, media always condition us to do completely new tricks instead.

The introduction to Digital Future in the Rearview Mirror. Jaspers’ Axial Age and Logan’s Alphabet Effect. (Just published, available on Amazon)

A notable example is the phonograph. Thomas Edison expected that his invention would capture sounds for storage, not distribution. The initial attempts were aimed at using the phonograph as a dictating machine for offices. But the phonograph eventually unleashed its completely different “purpose” upon humanity. Long story short: Edison begat the phonograph, the phonograph begat listening freed from the time and space of performance, emancipated listening begat the recording industry, the recording industry begat popular music, popular music begat show business, show business begat fandom culture, fandom culture begat the cult of celebrity, and the cult of celebrity begat Trump.

Here we see the media “butterfly effect”: from a certain point of view, the phonograph eventually made Trump. Edison wanted the phonograph to become a new device fulfilling an already known function — dictation. But the phonograph has dictated otherwise.

This is how the technological imperative works: every medium emerges for some old tasks, but it then dictates its own true use. The instrumental use of the phonograph turned into an environmental force: the phonograph detached entertainment from the time and space of live performance. This forever changed not office practices, as initially intended, but humans’ leisure time and mass culture.

Our inclination to expect a new invention to make an improvement on the past was noticed by Marshall McLuhan. In The Medium Is the Massage, he wrote:

When faced with a totally new situation, we tend to always attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.[1]

This McLuhanism is rather sarcastic. But can we really see anything useful in the rearview mirror while moving into the future? Yes, looking at the past helps to understand those media effects that were gone with old media but are often retrieved by new media, according to another McLuhan concept, the law of retrieval.

McLuhan & McLuhan (Marshall and his son Eric) introduced this law in the so-called Tetrad[2], which described four universal media effects: enhancement, obsoleting, retrieval and reversal. Any human technology, medium, or artifact:

1. Enhances something.

2. Makes something obsolescent

3. Retrieves something from the past that was previously obsolesced.

4. Flips into something opposite or reverses its effect or characteristics when pushed to the limits of its potential.

Together, these four laws shape the Tetrad, a beloved intellectual toy of media ecologists for exploring the effects of any medium.[3] For example, when applied to cars, the Tetrad reveals the following media effects:

1. The car enhances mobility (according to McLuhan & McLuhan who drafted the tetrad for the car themselves, the car enhances “privacy”, “the ego trip”, and “going outside to be alone”[4]).

2. The car obsolesces horses and carriages.

3. The car retrieves traveling in an along-waterways fashion (with roads being like rivers) with the infrastructure developing along the roads and highways (McLuhan & McLuhan: the car retrieves “knight in shining armor”[5]).

4. When pushed to extremes, the use of the car reverses its effect by creating traffic and gridlock, which restrain mobility (McLuhan & McLuhan: the car also reverses lifestyle from “city into suburbs”[6]).

Digital media have enhanced information exchange and storage and made obsolete offline life. But what do they retrieve and reverse?

In his time, Marshall McLuhan suggested that electronic media — TV and radio — retribalized society and turned it into a global village.[7] He wrote:

Paradoxically, electronic man shares much of the outlook of preliterate man, because he lives in a world of simultaneous information, which is to say, a world of resonance in which all data influence other data. Electronic and simultaneous man has recovered the primordial attitudes of the preliterate world…[8]

This applies even more to digital media, as they have completed the submersion of people in a “world of simultaneous information.” On one hand, digital media epitomize technological progress (so far). On the other hand, they revert society back to tribalism. To complete the Tetrad of media effects, digital media not only enhance information exchange and render offline life obsolete — they also reverse literacy and retrieve orality.

The metaphor of the rearview mirror was used by McLuhan to describe the inherent retrospectivity of our media expectations; however, we can also use McLuhan’s rearview mirror with a rational purpose — to see what media did to us in the past, in case those effects are now being retrieved.

If digital media retrieve the preliterate world, we can look back and see how things were before literacy, when orality determined minds and cultures. Moving forward into the future, it is worth checking the rearview mirror, as the contours of the digital future suspiciously resemble patterns from the tribal past.

This book is about orality, which once was obsolesced by writing, and about literacy, which is now becoming obsolesced by digital media.

To manufacture a rearview mirror for such a futuristic retrospective, I employed the concept of the Axial Age advanced by German philosopher Karl Jaspers in his 1949 book The Origin and Goal of History. Jaspers suggested that in the 8th to the 3rd centuries BCE, simultaneously and independently in the East Mediterranean, China and India, powerful doctrines emerged through the teachings of Jewish prophets, Greek philosophers, Zarathustra, Buddha, Confucius, Laozi and some others. They introduced philosophical and moral categories that happened to be universal for all humankind and through which humankind has been perceiving the world and itself ever since. Jaspers calls it the Axis of history and states that this was an event in which humans awakened to eventually become unified humankind. The local histories started gravitating to one world history, towards the unity of all humanity, a condition we approached in the 20th century, according to him.

To any media ecologist, a mysterious spiritual awakening of humankind dating from the 8th to the 3rd centuries BCE immediately brings to mind the introduction of the alphabet in Greece. Unfortunately (for this hypothesis), this coincidence does not cover the Axial events in China, as China has never had the alphabet, and it also does not explain the Indian contribution to the Axial Age, as India likely fully developed its alphabetic script later than Buddhism.

Nevertheless, the timeframe of the Axial Age and its main features obviously align with the changes brought by writing. Was the Axial Age a media effect caused by the transition from orality to literacy? If so, we can look there for parallels and patterns for understanding the reversal from literacy to orality that we are experiencing now because of digital media.

To adjust the rearview mirror to the right angle, I combined the framework of Jaspers’ Axial Age with the concept of the alphabet effect developed by Robert Logan. For Logan, the alphabet contributed to such civilizational phenomena as monotheism, codified law, individualism, deductive logic, and abstract science. Not only does the emergence of these phenomena coincide with the time of Jaspers’ Axial Age, but they also perfectly align with the logic and spirit of the Axial Age “awakening.” I also used the ideas regarding the transition from orality to literacy proposed by Eric Havelock, Walter Ong, and other media ecologists. All the details may not be clearly seen in this rearview mirror, but the patterns seem to be recognizable.

In general, the development of writing and the transition from orality to literacy caused the tectonic cognitive and social shift. The shift from orality to literacy signified the move from magic to faith, from superstition to religion, from myth to logos, from polytheism to monotheism, from customs to laws, from moral relativism to moral absolute, from practical and negotiated truths to objective and absolute truth, from relation-centering to object-centering, from natural and supernatural physics to metaphysics, from the Dionysian to the Apollonian, from the “cycle of life” to personal destiny, from the agitation of tribal belonging to the individual tragedy of (not-)becoming. At the roots of orality is the chanting shaman. At the roots of literacy is the writing priest (and their later iterations: philosopher, scholar, writer, journalist). The priests might continue to chant, but civilizations cannot help but emerge when the priests also write. They inevitably start recording the divine, dynastic, and celestial events as well as temples’ works and offerings, thus becoming historians, scholars, and bureaucrats.

“At electric speed, all forms are pushed to the limits of their potential,” wrote Marshall and Eric McLuhan.[9] As we already know from their Laws of Media, being pushed to the limits is a trigger for reversal. Electric and now digital media have created the ideal conditions for civilizational reversal. By reversing literacy and retrieving orality, digital media, essentially, are replaying the Axial Age backward.

Social media recreate orality in digital form by enabling a new linguistic phenomenon: digital speech. Digital speech encompasses the features of both oral and written speech. Like oral speech, digital speech permits the instant exchange of replies; like writing, it leaves behind a record and can be transmitted in time and space. On one hand, digital speech is an exchange between two or more people; on the other hand, it is fixed and observable to the audience. Exposure to the audience heats any conversation up. Digital speech is impulsive but not evanescent — it stays and involves others.

The ease of exchanging digital speech has shifted the focus of mass communication and the entire culture from reflections to reflexes and from substance to attitude. Historically and technologically, digital speech inherits from print literacy but retrieves orality. That is why it produces the state of mind and culture that can be called digital orality.

Robert Logan was the first to use the term “digital orality” in 2007. He introduced it to support and clarify the main term for this phenomenon, “tertiary orality”, which was inspired by Walter Ong. Logan wrote:

Walter Ong in his study of orality made a distinction between primary and secondary orality: “I style the orality of a culture totally untouched by any knowledge of writing or print, ‘primary orality.’ It is ‘primary’ by contrast with ‘secondary orality’ of present-day high-technology culture.” Based on the conversational nature of the Internet and text-based communication I would like to suggest that there exists a third kind of orality, namely, tertiary or digital orality. Tertiary or digital orality is the orality of emails, blog posts, listservs, instant messages (IM) and SMS, which are mediated paradoxically by written text transmitted by the Internet. [10]

Logan used the term before the proliferation of social media, so he could not observe in detail the hybridization of oral and written speech into digital speech. His derivation of the “tertiary or digital orality” from Ong’s succession of oralities was a pure and genuine insight, the farsighted introduction of a definition, the meaning of which still continues to be filled in by the subsequent development of media.

The ongoing shift from print literacy to digital orality underlies the entire set of reversals: from literacy to orality, from civilization to tribalism, from law to honour, from logic to magic, from individual moral to collective loyalty, from absolute truth to the relativism of justice, from writing scholar to chanting shaman, from book to meme, and so on. All of this started happening in the 2010s, after social media and other digital platforms began absorbing all human private and professional activities.

Historical time has accelerated. The awakening of humankind lasted, in Jaspersian chronology, from the 8th to the 3rd century BCE and comprised the entire Axial Age. The reversal Axis is rather an extended decade — the Axial Decade. What will awaken during it remains to be seen. The rapid development of AI gives a hint. Anyway, it is good timing to look at the Axial Age in the rearview mirror and see what orality and literacy are and what the transition from orality to literacy did to people 25 centuries ago.

Will the reversal undo it? How much of it?

The study of orality and literacy is one of the specialties of media ecology. This book employs the views of Harold Innis, Eric Havelock, Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Neil Postman, and many others who pioneered and advanced studies of orality and literacy. If one would like to get to know their ideas better but may not have enough time to read academic volumes, this book is a handy digest of the essentials of orality and literacy. But it is not a bookish summary. All the relevant ideas are selected to examine digital orality. Why do people on social media become so polarized and deaf to logic and reason? Why do people read less and demand more? How do social media change minds and society? What comes next? The answer is digital orality. What is digital orality? This book starts a series of projects answering this question.

Andrey Mir

Digital Future in the Rearview Mirror: Jaspers’ Axial Age and Logan’s Alphabet Effect is available on Amazon.

[1] McLuhan, Marshall, and Fiore, Quentin. (1967). The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, p. 74–75.

[2] The Tetrad was introduced in: McLuhan, Marshall, and McLuhan, Eric. (1988). Laws of Media: The New Science. Eric McLuhan finished the book using their collaborative notes with his father after Marshall passed away in 1980.

[3] See, for example, the Twitter account “Laws of Media” — @McLuhanTetrad. Also, a board game “The MediuM”, based on the McLuhan Tetrad and designed by Paolo Granata from University of Toronto, was issued in 2021. I had the honor and pleasure of participating in the design and testing of the game’s rules.

[4] McLuhan, Marshall, and McLuhan, Eric. (1988). Laws of Media, p. 148.

[5] McLuhan, Marshall, and McLuhan, Eric. (1988). Laws of Media, p. 148.

[6] McLuhan, Marshall, and McLuhan, Eric. (1988). Laws of Media, p. 148.

[7] McLuhan, Marshall, and Fiore, Quentin. (1967). The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, p. 67.

[8] McLuhan, Marshall. (1974). “At the moment of Sputnik the planet became a global theater in which there are no spectators but only actors,” p. 49.

[9] McLuhan, Marshall, and McLuhan, Eric. (1988). Laws of Media: The New Science, p. 109.

[10] Robert Logan first introduced the term “tertiary or digital orality” in the 2007 article “The Emergence of Artistic Expression and Secondary Perception” and then developed it in: Logan, Robert. (2010). Understanding New Media: Extending Marshall McLuhan. New York: Peter Lang. (Second edition: 2016.)

[11] In 2014, Robert Logan wrote a review of my book: Human as Media: The Emancipation of Authorship. Later, we co-authored several articles and projects.



Andrey Mir

Media futurologist, the author of “Digital Future in the Rearview Mirror”(2024), “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers”(2020), and “Human as media”(2014)