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ARCHIVED - Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan

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McLuhan

Tetrad

"Gutenberg made everyone a reader. Xerox makes everyone a publisher." Interview with Nina Sutton, November, 1975

Published posthumously by his son Eric, Laws of Media (1988) brought together McLuhan's ideas as a concise tetrad of media effects. These four laws of media further exhibit McLuhan's abiding concern with pedagogy: they are meant to be used as tools to analyze the patterns of effects that different technologies produce. McLuhan phrased them as questions with which to consider any artefact:

  1. What does it enhance?
  2. What does it make obsolete?
  3. What does it retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does it flip into when pushed to extremes?

It is important to remember that these four laws exist simultaneously. Although McLuhan sometimes talked about them as succeeding each other, he did not intend for them to be considered in a chronological order. The tetrad is not meant to be a scientific tool, but one for exploration of the "grammar and syntax" of each artefact, a dynamic tool to describe "situations that are in process." 12

As Robert Babe has noted, the fourth law -- that an artefact reverses into an opposing form when "overheated" -- marks a significant departure from Innis. For instance, Innis never argued that, pushed to an extreme, space-binding media would flip into time-binding media, as McLuhan does. 13

Laws of Media (p. 168-171) provides examples of the tetrad in use.

Can you apply the laws of media to the cellular telephone?

What does the cell phone enhance?

  • Interpersonal communication
  • Accessibility
  • Response time

What does it make obsolete?

  • Phone booths
  • Privacy and anonymity
  • Isolation and the home

What does it retrieve?

  • Tribal culture
  • Acoustic space
  • Cameras

What does it flip into when pushed to extremes?

  • Letters
  • "the sender is sent" 14

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Marshall McLuhan uses print media as an example of "flipping," interview with Nina Sutton, November 1975.
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Photograph of Marshall McLuhan's face as seen through a cut-out in a newspaper, December 1972, by Lou Forsdale

Source

Marshall McLuhan, December 1972, photograph by Lou Forsdale

Photograph of Marshall McLuhan and his students during a seminar, April 15, 1973, by Robert Lansdale

Source

Marshall McLuhan and his students during a seminar, April 15, 1973, photograph by Robert Lansdale

Notes

12. McLuhan, Laws of Media, p. 116.

13. Babe, Canadian Communication Thought: Ten Foundational Writers, p. 299.

14. McLuhan, Laws of Media, p.153.

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