Friday, March 12, 2010

McLuhan's Tetrad Of Media Effects

Marshall McLuhan was one of the most significant thinkers of the late twentieth century, with a penetrating prophetic insight into the ways in which the things we create shape us. McLuhan used the term ‘media’ to highlight that everything is about communication: our technologies, our cultural forms, the clothes we wear, the tools we use...

He also pointed out that the medium itself has a far greater shaping effect on us than the content it carries. This is because, like a fish in water, we are unaware of the medium itself.

McLuhan identified four effects that any medium has on us, explored by asking four questions:

1| what human ability does it enhance (or amplify, or extend)?

a knife and fork extend the hands and teeth; mascara extends the eyes; a book extends the brain

2| what existing medium (cultural expression, technology) does it make obsolete?

where ‘obsolete’ does not mean that something disappears, but rather that in its current use it is superseded by something else, and therefore it must find a new use in order not to disappear; moreover, (while obsolescence is immediate) the effect of obsolescence does not have immediate impact, but grows over time.

3| what does it retrieve from the past, that had been made obsolete earlier?

Ecclesiastes 1:9,10 says: ‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.’

4| what does it ‘flip into,’ pushed to an extreme?

where ‘flips into’ means, it is now working against its original purpose, or, no longer enhances our ability – so, a book extends the capacity of the brain, but dependency on books erodes the memory, and eventually the volume of books overwhelms the capacity of the brain to access the available information; make-up extends the face, but glamour images cause girls to have great insecurity about how they look...

Here is an example. The car:

1| enhances the foot, allowing us to travel further, faster.

2| makes obsolete the horse/train-drawn carriage as a means of practical transport...but also the neighbourhood, as the place where we live and work and shop and pursue leisure activities. Both the carriage and the neighbourhood are forced to re-invent themselves.

3| retrieves an efficient network of long-distance roads and technology of road-surfacing known in the Roman Empire but subsequently lost throughout Europe.

4| too many cars ‘flips into’ crashes and traffic jams on motorways, which make journeys by car anything but safe and fast.

It is interesting to note that here in Liverpool, the rise of the car made the Loop (railway) Line obsolete...and that the Loop Line was later reinvented/re-imagined/re-purposed as a cycle path through the city, avoiding traffic congestion...

The same four questions can be asked of our expressions of church – the forms of teaching, of worship, of creating community...each of which shape us, through what they enhance, make obsolete, retrieve, and potentially flip into.

This is significant to the debate on ‘fresh expressions’ of church, and a ‘mixed economy’ church...


  1. can a tetrad be done on the church?

  2. You can do a tetrad on *any* cultural expression, or part therefof, as a way of looking at what we usually don't notice.