GPT-3 through a glass darkly

I have been using the tetrad (four sides) derived from Marshall & Eric McLuhan’s Laws of Media for several decades. I find it useful for examining emerging technologies, beyond the hype. For example, according to Derrick de Kerckhove, Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology at the University of Toronto, the 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)

Here is what that tetrad could look like.

Tetrad of the effects of the automobile

Recently there has been a lot of hype around OpenAI [another organization funded in part by Elon Musk] and especially tools like ChatGPT based on GPT-3“Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 (GPT-3; stylized GPT·3) is an autoregressive language model that uses deep learning to produce human-like text. Given an initial text as prompt, it will produce text that continues the prompt.” With a limited set of inputs — such as write me a sonnet on operations research — ChatGPT can produce a credible looking result in seconds.

Sonnet on operations research written by ChatGPT

Source: @MikeTrick

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. GPT-3 is accelerating the production of most forms of writing. What it retrieves may tell us something about where it will go, as 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.”

For example, here are some possible retrievals that are driven by social media that currently surround us.

  1. Oral stories become borderless liquid narratives that effortless 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.

So I decided to look at GPT-3 from the perspective of the McLuhans’ media tetrad. Note that AI (artificial intelligence) in this case is mostly ML (machine learning).


  • Extends each voice & mimics creativity
  • Obsolesces copy-writing and essays so that human insight becomes a luxury
  • Retrieves the polymaths of the European Renaissance so that the best writers must be multi-talented to earn a living
  • Reverses into mass deception and provides answers without real questions behind themsee quote below

We may be in a ‘golden age’ of AI, as many have claimed. But we are also in a golden age of grifters and Potemkin inventions and aphoristic nincompoops posing as techno-oracles. —Derek Thompson, The Atlantic, 2022-12-01

If my interpretation of the Retrieval quadrant is correct, it will become much more difficult to be an average, or even above average, writer. Only the best will flourish. Perhaps we will see a rise in neo-generalists. If you are early in your career, it may be best not to specialize but develop several complementary skills — in the sciences AND the humanities — including writing.

“Yet we continue with a polemic today that can be traced back at least to the time of the Renaissance, evidenced by an artificial schism between the arts and the sciences … It is why the current advocacy of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the STEM subjects, by policy makers and funding bodies seems so misguided. They are essential, but so too is the study of the humanities … It is through the hybridization of and cross-pollination between such disciplines that we will arrive at solutions for our wicked problems.” —The Neo-generalist

Continuedauto-tuning work

tetrad of gpt-3

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