the retrieval quadrant

“The medium is the message.” —Marshall McLuhan

In 1988 Marshall and Eric McLuhan published The Laws of Media. These tetradic laws state that every new medium (or technology in the broader sense of the word) has four effects — Extend, Obsolesce, Retrieve, Reverse. This is how Derrick de Kerckhove explained the media tetrad when he was Director of the McLuhan Program.

  1. extends a human property (the car extends the foot);
  2. obsolesces the previous medium by turning it into a sport or an form of art (the automobile turns horses and carriages into sports);
  3. retrieves a much older medium that was obsolesced before (the automobile brings back the shining armour of the chevalier);
  4. 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)

Here is another explanation, published in McLuhan for Managers (2003).

“For example, a Medium may EXTEND a particular characteristic or enhance a specific capability. When that particular item is EXTENDED beyond reasonable limits, the over-extension REVERSES into a complementary, but opposite action or form that directly and thematically corresponds to the specific EXTENSION. Similarly, the EXTENDED offering would OBSOLESCE some attribute of an earlier Medium that relates to the aspect being extended, and RETRIEVE an earlier form of that aspect belonging to some previously OBSOLESCED Medium.”

mcluhan media tetrad

The Laws of Media provide us with a way to understand the effects of social media. Marshall McLuhan stated that, “At electric speed, all forms are pushed to the limits of their potential.” We are currently surrounded by media at electric speed. In addition, McLuhan noted that, “Retrieval always seems to provide the keynote or dominant mode of each tetrad, which may explain why it is often the most difficult of the four to discover.”

So let’s look at the Retrieval quadrant. I have developed tetrads over the years and will highlight some of the retrievals I have identified for electric/digital media. There are some further examples in — tetrads for sensemaking.

Retrieves a much older medium

  1. Oral stories become borderless liquid narratives that effortlessly cross borders and continents.
  2. Tribalism drives clan loyalties which can foster  identity politics — “Politics offers yesterday’s answers to today’s questions.” —Marshall McLuhan, &  “tribalization will make our society vulnerable to information warfare” —David Ronfeldt
  3. The pastoral impulse becomes the undoing of scientific knowledge such as the growing number of anti-vaxxers.
  4. Story telling can degrade into the gossip column — “When a thing is current, it creates currency.” —Marshall McLuhan
  5. The village square exponentially becomes the global village but also connects all of the village idiots.
  6. The town crier gets hijacked into social media memes.
  7. A new sense of kinship improves cooperation and emerges in the business world as artisans & guilds while peer-to-peer learning fosters apprenticeship and virtual friendships.


Stories, tribalism, and orality are retrieved by social media and digital self-publishing platforms. This means that we can no longer rely on institutional authority to influence people. Facts and figures are not enough — “Don’t bring a fact to a narrative fight.”BMJ 2019-11-21

Here is an example of what does not work. Mandatory education classes in Ontario, Canada — complete with videos and health care professionals to advise — have been useless in getting parents to accept vaccinations for their children. And this was before the pandemic which resulted in even more more liquid transmissions of counter-factual stories.

‘But since it was introduced in 2017, thousands of mothers and fathers have dutifully watched the video, collected their ‘Vaccine Education Certificate’ — then continued to duck the shots.

As one public health manager put it: “We had a zero percent conversion rate.”’ —National Post 2019-03-15

Stories are becoming the battleground of the network age — whose story wins? As storytelling becomes the operational theatre, a critical network era skill will be the ability to deconstruct stories — sense before stories.

A program in Québec showed what works with the vaccine hesitant is to first connect as a fellow human. This is — EMMIE (l’Entretien Motivationnel en Maternité pour l’Immunisation des Enfants), in English — Motivational Interviewing in Maternity Hospitals for Child Immunization.

It [EMMIE] uses a method of counselling called motivational interviewing, an empathic, non-confrontational communication style developed by psychologists to bring about behavioural change.

“We are here to understand them and to give them the answers they need to make a good decision about immunization, and to help them to build a stronger decisional process about immunization of the child,” said [Doctor] Gagneur … [In the case of one mother] Just 19 and living in rural Alberta at the time she had her first child, Coulis said she did a lot of reading, a lot of which she didn’t understand fully. “I felt confused and unable to parse the information about this study versus that study.” There were big claims by anti-vaccination literature, but Coulis didn’t see those acknowledged by the government materials or by public health nurses … “The message from public health was, ‘Just trust us, we’ve done the thinking for you,’” she said. —CBC 2020-12-19

We need new types of media literacy to swim in the digital surround.

“Ironically, in an age of instant global connection, my certainty about anything has decreased. Rather than receiving truth from an authority, I am reduced to assembling my own certainty from the liquid stream of facts flowing through the web. Truth, with a capital T, becomes truths, plural. I have to sort the truths not just about things I care about, but about anything I touch, including areas about which I can’t possibly have any direct knowledge. That means that in general I have to constantly question what I think I know. We might consider this state perfect for the advancement of science, but it also means that I am more likely to have my mind changed for incorrect reasons.” —Kevin Kelly (2017) The Inevitable

With every part of the political spectrum feeding us fake news and the events in far-off countries having effects on our own borders, each citizen in a democracy has to become an aggressively informed sense-maker. Today, the world is liquid, with few hard borders to stop the stories from flowing — both true & false. Having unfettered access to unfettered information is no longer enough. But we can each do something.

As individuals we can get out of our close-knit communities and identity silos with a mere click. We can ignore the bots, trolls, and propagandists and instead connect to real people, doing real work in other parts of the world. This is informed by Retrieval point #7 above — A new sense of kinship improves cooperation and emerges in the business world as artisans & guilds while peer-to-peer learning fosters apprenticeship  and virtual friendships.

From these human networks we can then get direct knowledge about what is happening in the world. Citizenship in the network era can start with a practice like personal knowledge mastery — making sense of the networked world on our own and with our fellow citizens.

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