According to Derrick de Kerckhove, Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture, the McLuhans’ tetradic Laws of Media state that every medium (or technology in the broader sense of the word) has four major effects:
- 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)
New lenses, like tetrads, can enable us to see our world in different ways. Here is de Kerckhove’s view of a new kind of identity in our world of pervasive networks:
“The key to the new identity is what I call ‘selving’, that is the self in progress, in becoming, as in quantum physics where ‘things are not, they merely tend to be’. The new identity is in perpetual formation and reformation at the moment of use and on line it is fluid and aggregative as when people meet and change their perceptions of each other during the meeting. I sometime suspect that screens were invented only for the purpose of allowing several persons, minds, identities to meet and share thinking and speaking at a distance. The new connective thinking system is the screen.”
In exploring the effects of pervasive networks in our lives, I see this possible tetrad:
- extends democracy to the workplace, as can be seen from growing number of organizations recognized by WorldBlu
- obsolesces structured and control-oriented hierarchies, replacing them with more open frameworks like wirearchies
- retrieves the cooperation of doing business on a handshake, as our actions become visible to all
- flips or reverses into a world of deception, where big data is controlled by platform owners and governments, creating a panopticon of being constantly watched.
The idea of ‘selving’ aligns with personal knowledge mastery, or the requirement to continuously improve our sense-making of complex systems. What de Kerkhove calls ‘perpetual formation and reformation’ I call perpetual Beta. In pervasive networks, individual responsibility for constant sense-making becomes critical, so that we control the screens and not vice versa. As a society we need to share our sense-making, and stay ahead of the platforms, the machines, and the urge of those who would benefit from a world of panopticons.
While democratic workplaces sound positive, they require more commitment to stay democratic. Wirearchy is a fine guiding framework, based on shared power and authority, but it is seldom practiced. Few organizations actively practice wirearchy, though there are some examples. Cooperating is easy to do, until it conflicts with getting a job done, then we tend to forget to nurture our extended networks, and only realize the loss when we need them again.
The potential of the panopticon is quite real. We are seeing an erosion of the original open web. It is almost impossible to communicate with each other unless we use some platform that tracks us and uses our data. The case of how one woman hid her pregnancy from big data shows how difficult, if not impossible, it is to have some privacy online. But all is not lost, as Dan Robles explains how we might be able to shut off the lights of big data:
“Big Data, Bigger Data, Not Neutrality, Mega-Mergers, Election Deform – BIG (fill in the blank) spells BIG trouble for LITTLE (rest of us). We don’t stand a chance against the tsunami of surveillance that is barreling our way. Big Data is becoming its own feedback loop and, like shoving a microphone into a stack of tweeters, the noise is deafening.”