Marshall McLuhan and the laws of the media

By Ross Dawson on July 29, 2006 | Permalink

I have been a long-time fan of Marshall McLuhan. Some of his well-known insights and aphorisms are immensely powerful. It is profoundly true that media are extensions of man; they extend our senses to take us to distant places and perspectives. McLuhan’s best known tenet, the medium is the message, is something that we all implicity understand in our media-rich world, though we rarely express it. When I first read The Medium is the Massage, which came out in 1967, it looked to me almost exactly like the bold typographical style and layout that Wired magazine was thought to have pioneered in the late 1990s. McLuhan had been there three decades earlier, and he was acknowledged as the “patron saint” of the magazine.. His influence has been profound, but now 26 years after his death, his thinking is embedded into the way we think rather than being broadly acknowledged.
While I’m not a big reader of biographies, I have just finished reading Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger , by Philip Marchand, who did an outstanding job at capturing the life and whimsy of the man. One theme that comes across very strongly through the book is how incoherent most of McLuhan’s speaking and writing was. This is not a surprise to those that have tried to get their heads around even some of McLuhan’s more mainstream work such as Understanding Media, however this seems to have been pervasive through almost all his work. The thing was McLuhan had no interest in being coherent or consistent – his approach was to spin off a million ideas and see which ones landed. Many of those that worked with him recognized both his genius, and that he was virtually crazy.
One episode that illustrates McLuhan’s extraordinary prescience is that in 1955, well before he became famous, he set up a company called Idea Consultants. One of their slogans was “A headache is a million-dollar idea trying to get born. Idea Consultants are obstetricians for these ideas.” The company never sold any ideas or got any work. However one of McLuhan’s often brillliant ideas at the time was to create a TV program that would select a business problem, build it into an interesting format, then offer a reward for the viewer who came up with the best approach. McLuhan thought that this would be far more likely to result in a good solution than hiring any group of consultants, however good they were. Today, this would be considered an innovative, pragmatic, and viable project. Maybe it will happen in the next few years. Fifty years ago, clearly the world was not quite ready for it.
One new thing I learned about in reading the book was what McLuhan called the Tetrads, or the “laws of the media”. it stirkes me that these “laws” are actually highly relevant to strategic analysis of any industry which is undergoing rapid change. I still have to dig up the original material to interpret it properly, but the following is my loose interpretation of McLuhan’s Tetrads.
1. Any innovative technology enhances or accelerates some of what existed before.
[Q: What does it enhance or accelerate?]
2. Any innovative technology erodes or renders obsolescent some of what existed before.
[Q: What does it erode or obselesce?]
3. Any innovative technology retrieves something that has become obsolescent.
[Q: What does it retrieve that has eroded or become obsolescent?]
4. Any innovative technology, when pushed to the limits of its potential, reverses or flips into something entirely new.
[Q: What does it reverse or flip into?]
McLuhan used the telegraph as an example. Again adapting his work:
1. The telegraph amplified the reach of events, and changed daily news to instaneous news.
2. The telegraph rendered opinion based, local broadsheets obsolescent as people sought faster, broader news.
3. The telegraph brought back group involvement and discussion around events, which had been fading.
4. The telegraph flipped from one-on-one communication into multi-point broadcast, and reversed the corporate hoarding of information.
I am a strong believer in strategic questions (as briefly illustrated in the Future of Media report). Asking the right question is most of the way to getting the right answer. The strategic questions raised by McLuhan, if applied effectively as part of a strategy process, can be immensely valuable in understanding how specific new technologies will change us, and the opportunities they create. I will play with these questions more around some current issues, and will share anything interesting here.