McLuhan, M., & McLuhan, E. (1992). “Tetrads.” In Laws of media: The new science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


Tetrad, Enhances, Obsolesces, Retrieves, Reverses into, Extension


In this article, McLuhan lays out his argument that technology is an extension of humanity. Every technology’s relationship to the world is dictated by McLuhan’s four laws, which he shows the simultaneous and complex relationship of through tetrads.


“This tetrad of the effects of technologies and artefacts presents not a sequential process, but rather four simultaneous ones. All four aspects are inherent in each artefact from the start. The four aspects are complementary, and require careful observation of the artefact in relation to its ground.” (p99)
“In tetrad form, the artefact is seen to be not neutral or passive, but an active logos or utterance of the human mind or body that transforms the user and his ground.” (p99)
“Language is one resource and, as Joyce found, infallible when handled properly.” (p117)


I liked McLuhan’s point about how language can point out the extension that the technology provides. McLuhan uses the example of the chair and how they have arms, legs, and a back like us and extends those parts of us. I also realized that language and etymology can point out what the technology obsolesces. For example, we create Word documents on the computer (or word processor) and create bookmarks and tabs on our web browser. Particularly when it comes to the computer and the internet, there are a ton of examples of what the technology is obsolescing.

One of the other points that McLuhan makes is that while technology obsolesces other technology and parts of ourselves, it does not fully replace the other. His point about language can be used for this as well. While we have bookmarks for the internet, we still have bookmarks for, well, books. While we have notebook computers, we still have notebooks of paper.

An important difference between the new media or technology versus the old one is that it is interacting with the world in a uniquely different way. In other words, it is simultaneously following the rules that McLuhan makes out, which gives its own agency that is different from the past one. For example, the way that you interact with a bookmark on a browser, and the way that web bookmark interacts with the world, is different than the way you interact with a paper bookmark in a novel, as well as how that paper bookmark interacts with the physical world around it. The new and the old have different biases around them and persuade the environment around them differently. The obvious difference is that the new technology is more efficient, but, as McLuhan discusses through his tetrads, there are other interacts that can vary between them.


How else might language help us understand the relationship technology has with us and the world?