This semester in COMP 300: Society in the Information Age we’ve been discussing our changing world and the shifting perceptions brought to us with the addition of technology. In a previous session we examined the Information Age through the lens of Marshall McLuhan’s teachings. McLuhan was a leader in the field of media theory and communications. Though long dead at this point, his methodology for examining any radio ad, television series or new technology has allowed academics and media theorists to discuss the effects upon society as a whole.
The reason that McLuhan’s work has lasted was his blanket approach to addressing technology’s impact on society. Instead of discussing the sales of a particular product as a result of a popular advertisement, instead he examined how that ad touched upon our desires, wants and cultural norms. He separated each example from time and space, looking it as an archaeologist would, giving each medium the designation of cultural artifact. That approach remains viable to this day and would allow you to measure current technological advances such as the success of a viral video as a function of what emotions or societal effects it addressed.
McLuhan’s most useful device is the tetrad, a pedagogical tool designed to understand the transformative effects of a particular cultural artifact by looking at how it increased or decreased specific cultural patterns or brought back things that were lost in our society as a result of new technology.
Specifically, McLuhan’s tetrad asks:
- What does the medium enhance or amplify in our culture?
- What does the medium obsolesce?
- What does the medium retrieve from earlier civilization or society that was previously lost?
- What does the medium reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes? (this answer almost always carries a negative connotation)
In class we wrote out the tetrad for the cases of radio, television, the internet. For example, radio retrieved the use of our sense of hearing for information delivery, something that characterized pre-literate times. Another example: the internet enhances our abilities to redefine our geographical boundaries based on interests and identies in the same way that nationality arose with the coming of print culture.
This brings us to the application of the tetrad to another disruptive technology: Twitter. No one can argue that Twitter has completely shifted the way that we use the internet but also what makes up the internet. It seems that very few people have applied McLuhan’s theories though in an effort to explain the ways in which we as a society are now different as a result of Twitter. There are a couple examples of people who have applied the tetrad to Twitter (here, and here) and while I agree with some of their observations I mostly disagree with the specific application of the tetrad without considering the broad applications of the technology for society as a whole.
To truly examine Twitter’s effect on our lives we have to take a step back and view it as its own cultural artifact. It’s not enough to say that Twitter enhances our ability to connect with people all the time. Saying that Twitter makes CNN’s Breaking News Alerts obselete also understates the importance of Twitter. Instead we have to pull from what makes society the way it is, take our origins and our predictions for where we’re going. Questions like “what does this say about our society as a whole” or “what comment does Twitter make on societyas a people?” are more salient questions than the specifics of how Twitter is being used. As one of Neil Postman’s laws of technological change (#4 to be exact), technology does not make a additive difference, it makes an ecological one. So applying the tetrad to television does not yield answers based on how people use television but how society is different because of television. This is what McLuhan meant when he said his most famous quote “the mediums is the message,” that it is not important what people are watching or how they are watching but the mere fact that they are watching television that changes the society.
To stave off further verbose explanation, here’s the Twitter Tetrad. Again, it is important to note that while there are many answers to these questions, the answers are not “Twitter helps everyone connect with everyone immediately” or “Twitter helps you learn what your friends are doing” . This tetrad is designed to help us understand how Twitter actually has changed society.
1. What does Twitter enhance or amplify in our culture?
Twitter enhances our ability to cement the boundaries that we’ve begun to redraw on the internet. It does this by allowing us to live in communities of our own borders, different than nationality (which arose because of print technology), surrounded by like minds and interests. We come closer to “living” in this new community by understanding how those with shared interests and beliefs really live rather than just joining each other on websites and forums to discuss our similarities.
2. What does Twitter obsolesce?
Twitter obsolesces editorial content completely by painting a picture of what is actually happening right now. Twitter also removes traditional media as the authority and source of facts and up to date information.
Twitter retrieves the ability to be an authority based on “power of voice” rather than traditional pedigree, something that was present in oral tradition. Twitter also retrieves our ability to memorize short passages to repeat orally as a transmission method for information and then knowledge.
4. What does Twitter reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?
Twitter’s all-information, all-the-time, from everywhere on the globe, helps us stay connected everywhere but reverses into a collective hive mind of our buzzing thoughts. Disconnectedness and isolation is the product of the oversaturation of the channel: high fidelity but information dilution brought to you by sheer numbers of faceless thoughts passing through the medium.
Please let me know what you think about Twitter’s effect on society as a whole.