“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us” -Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan’s Tetrad is a four-sided look at the simultaneous impact and effect any media (each a social process) has had or will have on the way society communicates, receives or distributes information. In his book Laws of Media: The New Science he illustrates his thinking by using the introduction of the radio as an example.
The radio is a medium that once enhanced the distribution of news by delivering it into the home, over the airways and through a human voice. At the time, it was more effective than a newspaper, which was slower to get the word onto the printed page and delivered to the doorstep.
At the same time, radio madethe public’s dependence on print and visual means of communication somewhat obsolete, elevating the way news, information and entertainment was delivered and received. It became the medium every household needed and other ways to communicate were on their way to becoming old-fashioned, bringing the spoken word to the forefront, retrieving or restoring what might have been lost. While newspaper were still relied on for information, and still are today, it’s important to point out that McLuhan’s Tetrad, all the observations are happening simultaneously yet not all at the same rate. It may take a significant amount of time for some ways of communicating to be come obsolete, a phenomenon becoming apparent with the decline of today’s newsprint, which slowly crawls to obsolescence.
When pushed to its useful limit, the need for better ways to communicate took over and acoustic radio reverted or gave way to television, where sound mixed with visual offered for an even better, more social experience.
When this thinking is applied to today’s Internet and social media experience it follows the same pattern that McLuhan offers for the introduction, growth and change in all media.
Internet and social media platforms greatly enhance the ability to communicate, create, and respond to through interaction. They’ve created a convenient and speedy way to gather and distribute information. They are easy to use, free, always on, and offer an amazing amount of diversity in the people someone can engage.
Social media and the Internet reduce the need for more traditional media. Radio, television and movies can be streamed through the Internet. Hundreds of news services make the act of fishing the newspaper out of the bushes and the carrier with poor aim obsolete. Both the Internet and social media can also bury the user in data and information and either make one very public, reduce their privacy as well as promote their message—the perceived good and bad of social media. Compared to traditional ways of communicating, the Internet and social media create more opportunities for dialogue leading people to instant access of information or personal exchanges about anything.
Today, Social media makes it obsolete for someone to not be engaged. It can also make the person resisting its use “obsolete” or out of touch. It creates every opportunity for people to be drawn into very broad conversations and reduces dependence on limited ways of communicating where there typically is no interaction, exchange of ideas, such as in newspaper, print media, radio and television.
But predicting and speculation is tricky business. What will today’s social media become when pushed to its limit? What is the limit and what will it revert to? Perhaps having to sift through useless, baseless, wrong or misguided information? Who emerges as definitive authorities? Will the concept of “friendship” lose meaning? Social media seems to be in the control and hands of any individual who engages in its use so when pushed to it’s extreme (and it will, just as every medium before it has), does it revert back into the control of the next company or person to create the newest social media platform which provides newer, more organized, logical, concise or broader opportunities to communicate? And what will that be? Could it be Google+?
Pondering McLuhan’s thinking made for a restless night. Should I be expected to predict or even guess the next step in how the world communicates and complete the McLuhan’s Tetrad as it relates to today’s Internet and social media? I’m still working on Facebook. But wouldn’t it be interesting to see a series of Tetrads on media and communication beginning with how prehistoric society used cave drawings to convey a story or message to those stumbling upon them, all the way to today where we rely on the Internet to communicate. That would illustrate McLuhan’s thinking fluidly and beautifully and demonstrate that his principles are indeed timeless.
…and for those you who need to know more there is a McLuhan for Beginners.