McLuhan’s (1988) tetrad mode of evaluating media effects provides a solid foundation for gauging the value and impacts of different media developments. However, its relevance to the modern digital age can be seen to wane in light of the increasingly complex interrelations between new media and technologies.
McLuhan, writing in response to developments in television and radio, delineates a four-question system of analysing the specificity of various media, focussing on the following: what the medium enhances; what benefits of the medium become detrimental when pushed to extremes; what antiquated systems it reinvigorates; and finally, what other forms it renders obsolete (McLuhan 1988). The tetrad is valuable because it provides a scientific basis upon which to study media qualitatively. Encompassing all forms of communication, different media can be analysed on the same terms for their effects on cultures, society and human interaction.
However, the criteria used by McLuhan answers best to his own temporal context, and hence requires some revision as it does not fully account for many technological reconfigurations since. That is not to say that McLuhan’s theories are somewhat lacking in themselves; rather that, as changes in technology inexorably flow, media theory needs to develop alongside. He wrote at a time when one-way communication systems (broadcast media) were the most dominant forms of widespread communication. The concept of digital literacy itself was only starting to burgeon as the related technologies were being created.
The seismic socio-technological developments that warrant amendments to McLuhan’s foundational analysis are best described by Jenkins (2006) under the coinage ‘convergence culture’. Jenkins posits cogently that old and new media are blending, while messages are increasingly transferrable across a range of media platforms at the behest of digitisation. An example of the complex relationship between new media is given by Abraham (2011) in regard to video games and music. He outlines that a player’s manipulation of the gamic narrative is non-linear and controlled at their discretion; as a result of this, the Western musical traditions of form, harmonic structure and rhythm used when composing for games cannot always be reconciled to its purpose of highlighting actions and marking cues as would its counterpart in the linear film world. Sound effects instead become the sole reliable accompaniment to the player’s actions in this respect.
An evaluation using McLuhan’s tetrad would perhaps say that this situation obsolesces traditional music forms to be replaced by sound effects and perhaps rudimentary rhythm tracks. Composers, however, have instead used the musicality of sound effects afforded by synthesisers to blend the roles of music and diegetic noise: creating ‘an overall soundscape that is highly musical” (Abraham 2011, p70). With regard to McLuhan’s tetrad, media forms under this system aren’t necessarily made obsolete but blended; this blending is currently the basis for enhancement.
From this, it is clear that McLuhan’s tetrad remains a stalwart companion to the study of media effects; however, in order to support more recent changes to the media environment, it requires updating in order to retain its currency in the digital age.
Abraham, B. 2011, ‘Halo and Music’, in L. Cuddy (ed), Halo and Philosophy, Open Court Publishing, Chicago, pp 61-70.
Jenkins, H. 2006, Convergence Culture: When Old and New Media Collide, New York, NYU Press.
McLuhan, M. & McLuhan, E. 1988, Laws of Media: The New Science, Toronto, University of Toronto Press.