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!