McLuhan’s Tetrad

McLuhan’s Tetrad comprises 4 laws of media that can be used to analyse the effects of technological change on society, rather than the causes.

Timothy Kraft describes the tetrad as:

Enhance
The technology must enhance some capability of the person. The medium is an extension of the person.

Retrieve
The result is a retrieval of some earlier service or capability that was lost and is now brought back into play in a new form.

Obsolesced
What is pushed aside and made obsolescent.

Reverse
If the new media is taken to extreme what will result that reverses the original characteristics of the media when it was first introduced.

While the first three of the tetrad seem quite obvious to me, the fourth, “reverse” has troubled me somewhat.  McLuhan suggests that a medium “overheats”, or reverses into an opposing form, when taken to its extreme.

Reading articles of how people have interpreted and applied reversal to other medium has caused some confusion, as I think many who have written about the Reverse law of the tetrad may have misunderstood its meaning.  Or perhaps it is just different interpretations of what McLuhan defines as the reversal.  Or more likely, maybe I have it all wrong. 🙂 After reading through some of the Canadian Library Archive notes about McLuhan’s work, and listening to a radio interview with Nina Sutton in 1975, it became more clear to me.  McLuhan says that when a medium is pushed to extremes, it reverses or flips into an alternate form.  In an excerpt of an interview with Nina Sutton hosted on the Library and Archives Canada webiste, McLuhan discusses the revolution of the steam printing press to the telegraph press.  When the telegraph press emerged, the way that people wrote for newspapers changed immediately and flipped.  The type of writing that was required for the telegraph was inverted so that all the very important information was transmitted first sentence, and then all the other information followed in order or most importance.  This was due to the risk of the transmission being interrupted, so that the critical information had the lowest risk of being lost.

The misunderstanding of the Reverse is derived from the word “extreme”.  I wonder whether the flipping or reversing is not a result of extremes of adoption as seems to be alluded in examples online such as here or even here where the more it is used, a flipping effect occurs. I take from McLuhan’s examples, the demonstration that it is extreme changes to the medium, rather than the application thereof that is the catalyst for the reversal.  I don’t know whether this is significant or not.  The flips that McLuhan speaks of are in response to extreme changes in the medium, that then have extreme impact on their use.  So the flipping of the steam press was a result of introducing the telegraph press, rather than changes in how they used the original steam press or how much the stream press was used.

A different take on an analogy for McLuhan’s press example for flipping or reverse, is with the mobile phone as described by Library and Archives Canada.  Mobile phones changed things a lot and brought to prominence aural communication, over written anywhere anytime.  However, the mobile phone taken to extremes saw the advent of SMS texting, which became very popular and evolved as a result of the high cost of mobile telephony.  SMS Text Messaging quickly became much more frequent than mobile phone calls.  So the mobile phone taken to the extreme (at the time) has flipped the prominence of aural communication to short written messages, perhaps akin to the telegraph.  Of course mobile phones have evolved considerably more since text messaging, and McLuhan in his radio interview with Nina highlighted the fact that there has been many “flips” in the printing press leading up to the 1975 interview.  So extremes seem to be able to persistently take on new heights again and again, flipping as they evolve.

Looking at internet technologies is considerably harder than the examples of printing presses and mobile phones, because the rate of change is significantly faster, and because of the modern convergences of technologies.  I also wonder whether many of these technologies have not yet reached the extremes necessary to cause a reversal.  Dan Pontefract’s article highlights the following reversals for Learning 2.0 as a medium:

  • Everyone is an expert
  • Content & opinion overload
  • 90-9-1 hypothesis
  • Time mismanagement
  • Learning groupthink
  • Loss of certified company staff

I suggest that each of these items is part of the extends or enhances category.  These are aspects of learning 2.0 that are enhanced, intensified, made possible, or accelerated as a result of the learning 2.0 medium’s introduction.  They are just some of the negative outcomes that sit along-side the positive ones, and likely emerged around the same time.  In other words as learning 2.0 extended positive things like formal classroom/eLearning, Social Networking/Web 2.0, Traditional Corporate University, and so on, it also extended the everyone is an expert paradigm, content & opinion overload and so on.

So what would I consider the reversals for learning 2.0?  Well I guess it depends on context.  My context in higher education and curriculum development appears different to Dan’s article which uses terms such as training which makes me think of VET type education rather than education via the academy.  This assumption may be incorrect of course.  Nevertheless, from a university context, the first thing that comes to mind in terms of pushing learning 2.0 to the extreme is the explosion of the MOOC concept.  Within higher education, MOOCs have flipped the learning 2.0 medium by breaking the mould of the traditional university course as being closed and elitist, to open and accessible.  It is the MOOC that has pushed learning 2.0 to extremes that has caused this flip, rather than the amount of people engaged in learning 2.0 in higher education.

The idea of the reverse law sings to the swings and round-a-bouts we see in technological circles.  McLuhan’s tetrad is a fascinating construct for analysing the influences of technology on society.

 

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One thought on “McLuhan’s Tetrad

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  1. Good to see you blogging again Damo. Especially on a topic like this, thinking about the implications of technologies is a good place to be.

    Have come across this article which uses the tetrad to look at analytics. It offers a couple of examples to explain the four effects. I found them a good way to understand.

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