According to Derrick de Kerckhove, Director of the McLuhan Program in Toronto, the McLuhans’ tetradic Laws of Media state that every new medium (or technology in the broader sense of the word):

extends a human property (the car extends the foot);

obsolesces the previous medium by turning it into a sport or an form of art (the automobile turns horses and carriages into sports);

retrieves a much older medium that was obsolesced before (the automobile brings back the shining armour of the chevalier);

flips or reverses its properties into the opposite effect when pushed to its limits (the automobile, when there are too many of them, create traffic jams, that is total paralysis)

For example, I looked at the emerging practice of commons-based peer production, such as open source software projects, with this perspective and saw that this democratization of work:

  • Extends each individual’s reach worldwide
  • Obsolesces the middle men (accountants, lawyers, traders, brokers)
  • Retrieves the barter system or the bazaar – (I can set my own rules for buying & selling)
  • and Flips, when extended to its limits, the Commons into a whuffie economy

Tom Haskins uses the tetradic framework to examine the effects of pervasive connectivity, with this image:


What I find most interesting is that with new lenses we can see the world in a different way. Finding appropriate lenses and metaphors to help make sense of our world is an important part of facilitating learning. Too much training and education consists of information delivery (e.g. key content areas in the curriculum) but getting people to look at something from a new perspective enables change. This may be something to consider when first developing course material.

Here is another lens that helps to view disorientation in learning and is especially useful for adult learners.

9 Responses to “Tetrads”

  1. Tom Haskins

    Harold: Thanks for retrieving the original wording of the Tetrad. Thanks also for the book tip. You’ve enchanted me with the possibility that the commons could flip into something else. Goodbye brokers — hello cultural creatives!


  2. Tom Haskins

    I’ve started reading The Whuffie Factor. Thanks again for the tip off. I’m getting a glimpse of this possible reversal from a Commons to a new economy. Tara Hunt’s approach works especially well when she’s seeking help with 1) deciding what/which to do, 2) generating alternatives to decide between 3) helping others get what they need 4) getting others convinced to change a policy. In each of these situations, it works to be transparent about what’s just happened, what’s getting considered, what help has arrived, and what’s gaining momentum. Any of those generate more emotional engagement than simply joining an online group, social networking platform or local task force. As you said, that could define the premise for a new economy.


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