Technology Tetrad

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A fourfold way to examine the impact of technological artefacts, proposed by McLuhan.



"The tetrad is arrived at through a process of asking questions, based on historical, social, and technological knowledge of the subject:

  • What does any artifact enlarge or enhance?
  • What does it erode or obsolesce?
  • What does it retrieve that had been earlier obsolesced?
  • What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to the limits of its potential?"



Andrew McLuhan:

" ‘Tetrad’ means ‘a group of four’ — as ‘triad’ means ‘a group of three’, and ‘dyad’ means ‘a group of two’, et cetera.

The McLuhans’ tetrad is a tool for exploring the effects of media (Figure/Ground analysis is another exploratory tool). It does this through asking four questions. For our purposes, we can define ‘medium’ as a human technology. ‘Artifact’ works as well — ‘an object made a human being.’ This could be a car or a fork, an iPhone or an app. Through testing, the McLuhans found that the field of study is even larger than that:

“ … we learned that they applied to more than what is conventionally called ‘media’; they were applicable to all the products of human endeavour, and also to the endeavour itself! One colleague at the university tried them on remedies for cancer, and found they worked. With another, my father tried business procedures; with another, Newton’s laws of motion. They worked!” [LoM, ix]

Here, then, are the four questions of the tetrad. Don’t feel you have to ask them in any particular order.

What does _______ enhance?

What does it make obsolete?

What does it retrieve?

And, when pushed to an extreme, what does it reverse or flip into?

ENH (enhance)

“First, extension: as an ‘extension of man’ (subtitle to UM) every technology extends or amplifies some organ or faculty of the user.” [LoM viii]

Amplify. Extend. Speed up. Intensify. Increase. Upgrade. Improve the quality, value, reach of… . Every new medium enhances some human faculty or function, or builds upon an existing medium.

OBS (obsolesce)

“Then, the attendant ‘closure’: because there is an equilibrium in sensibility, when one area of experience is heightened or intensified, another is diminished or numbed.” [LoM, viii]

Obsolete doesn’t mean dead — just no longer in charge. Out of date. Out of fashion. Version 1.0 when v.2.0 is out. What does the new medium take over from? What does it make unnecessary?

REV (reverse)

“…a third, with a chapter of its own in UM (‘Reversal of the Overheated Medium’): every form, pushed to the limit of its potential, reverses its characteristics.” [LoM, viii]

When pushed, a medium will reverse it’s characteristics. For instance, the highway is meant to speed up traffic, make travel easier, but when you have too many cars on the road at once, you get a traffic jam — this is the flip or “reversal of the overheated medium”. The phrase “tipping point” is the point of reversal.

RET (retrieve)

“At first we thought retrieval entailed only the recasting of whatever formed the content of the new form. That is does (the content of any medium is an older medium) and considerably more.” [LoM, viii]

Reclaim. Bring back. Revival. Retro. This is the etymology of media, its roots. What’s old is new. There’s nothing new under the sun. Every medium also retrieves some previous medium. To answer this question can be very difficult and requires a lot of knowledge of history and the past."