Tools for Tech Thinking: McLuhan on Twitter

MarshallMcLuhan The first question we usually ask about technology is “How can this technology be used?” However, as stewards of creation the deeper questions that we should first ask are, “What does it mean to use this technology?” and “How will using this technology affect people?”

Thankfully, there are great thinkers out there than can have developed tools we can use to better understand the nature of a technology. In this first installment, we’ll look at Marshall McLuhan’s Four Laws of Media (also called the Tetrad) from his book Laws of Media and apply them to Twitter as an example.

1. What does Twitter extend?

Twitter-256x256 A car extends our feet and ability to travel. A phone extends our voice and ability to communicate.

  • Twitter also extends our voice, but in a very specific way. It  extends our ability stay “in conversation” about our daily activities and thoughts.

2. What does Twitter make obsolete?

On a technology level, the car made riding horses obsolete. On a human level, cars make walking to a destination obsolete.

  • Twitter makes obsolete older tools like a quick Budweiser “Waaas Up?” phone call, a blog post, or an email. On a human level, it can also make obsolete catching up conversations around a water cooler .

3. What does Twitter retrieve?

A few hundred years ago, when people lived in small communities and worked together regularly, everyone knew what everyone was up to. Today’s large cities take this away.

  • Twitter, along with a lot of social technologies, can retrieve this age-old sense of connectedness. For friends who live in different cities or work in distant offices, Twitter can retrieve the sense of knowing what one’s friends are doing and thinking.

image 4. What does Twitter reverse into if it is over-extended?

This is McLuhan’s “negative” question where he gives examples like the ability to project one’s voice is lost if the microphone is overused and the ability to walk long distances is lost when one relies on vehicles.

  • Twitter can connect physically distant individuals, but when overused it can also isolate a person from those who are physically near (like spouses) reversing into a state of more disconnectedness.
  • Twitter can also reverse into a level of shallowness, because communication is limited to 140 characters.
  • Twitter can also reverse into a mess of noise and distraction since so many voices are speaking  at the same time.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive understanding of Twitter (or McLuhan’s thoughts!), but just applying these four questions sheds a lot of light on what Twitter is.

In the comments, feel free to apply McLuhan’s questions to another technology!

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

17 thoughts on “Tools for Tech Thinking: McLuhan on Twitter”

  1. I’ll venture to share that up until reading your post, I’d never heard of McLuhan. I’ll have to do some more research on him at some point BUT, thanks for introducing me to these questions. I immediately began to think through these four questions in terms of our new business model at work; and then started thinking through their application in just about any sphere of life. Could I potentially use these 4 questions to help me make big decision? I’m a big proponent of simple tools that help us clarify what’s important.

    If I’m going to do anything, then I need to make sure I’m extending the right thing, keep a pulse on what goes by the wayside if I move forward, make sure that I’m retrieving that which has the highest value and think cautiously so as not to overextend and end up reversing the initial intent.

    1. Jason, you’re right that McLuhan’s questions could probably be applied to any new venture, whether it be a new family tradition, business model, or church program.

  2. John,

    I’m excited to have discovered your blog (via Justin Taylor)

    Far too few Christians are aware of McLuhan’s importance and continued relevance.

    “Understanding Media” should be required reading for any non-Amish church leader.

  3. John,

    Great post, that’s all I have to say. We have talked about this before in person, and I always remember your quote from…was it Freud? about the same steamboat that allowed me to cross the seas, took my son off to college…something like that. What was it? Help me out?

    rhett

  4. Wow, this is the first time I’ve visited a blog concerning faith and technology that actually has substance (rather than mindless drooling at techno-wizardry or regurgitating “web 2.0” banter.)

    In regards to this post, I’m not familiar with McLuhan…yet! But I find the “negative” question raised by point 4 absolutely fascinating.

  5. As far as the paradox of Twitter goes (on one level, it connects physically distant people, but on another level, it isolates you from those closest to you if over relied upon; it can extend conversations, but tends to make them shallow, etc), that applies to most social media sites: myspace, facebook, etc.

    As a teacher, I see this all the time with cell phones: students will be walking in groups, but no one is interacting; they are all texting other friends and bumping into people in the process. As far as communication goes, thats like preferring Cheetos to a steak dinner every night.

    Most of the time, students are unaware of all this because they have never known a time when these things were ubiquitous.

    Another quick example: you can “keep tabs” on folks, but this has a definite downside. Rather than finding out who is dating whom, just check out her facebook profile.

    Somethin’s not right with that, IMO…

    1. I came across a teacher’s blog taking about an assignment he gave to his students where they reflected on their “hyper connectivity.” The students had a lot of good things to say, and it seems like the assignment went over better than just telling the kids they were doing something wrong (which I see a quite a bit.)

  6. John,

    I am another one that has not heard of McLuhan before, but I found this post very interesting. These are important questions to ask.

    As a pastor who is passionate about the use of technology, I can confess that I find it tempting to get lost in the technology itself and lose sight of the fact that it is means to an end – not an end in itself.

    These types of questions provoke honest conversations about what we are doing and why we are doing it. Everything was nice and wonderful until we get to question #4 and then BOOM we see the negative side of technology. The potential drawbacks are real, but I don’t think it should stop us from using the technology any more than the potential to hit my thumb should stop me from using a hammer. But we need to be proactive in dealing with the risks, putting structures and relationships in place to pre-emptively deal with these drawbacks.

    Thanks for this insightful post. You are now in my Google Reader!

    1. Ben, for pastors and church leaders I recommend Shane Hipps’ (who is a pastor himself) book “Flickering Pixels.” It is a great introduction to the history of how technology influences society and the church.

  7. @”Scott Lenger” I’ll second your comment about this blog being a rare find…this is what I’ve been looking for for months now!

    @John, this is an excellent, simple framework for thinking about technology. I’ll be applying this to Facebook and wikis as well for a report I’m working on. Thanks!

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