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November 4th, 2006
Sat, Nov. 4th, 2006 12:00 am

"During the mechanical age," says Marshall McLuhan at the beginning of his book Understanding Media, "we extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man -- the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media."



For the last few days I've been immersing myself in McLuhan, not by reading his books but instead -- appropriately -- letting a National Film Board of Canada DVD called McLuhan's Wake wash over me. It's not just a film but a whole series of audio interviews, music, visual metaphors, essays, and didactic sections.

In one of these the concept of tetrads is explained. Tetrads were the "laws of media" which McLuhan and his son Eric developed in the book "Laws of Media". The basic idea of the tetrad is that every new technology:

enhances something / reverses into something

retrieves something / obsolesces something

Now, it isn't always quite clear what these things enhance, reverse into, retrieve and obsolesce. For instance, does the cell phone obsolesce the landline, or the need to be present when talking to someone? It's your call.

The concept I find most interesting in the tetrad is reversal. This basically says that, pushed far enough, the benefits of a new technology will reverse and turn into disadvantages. And so the liberty offered by the car reverses, when everyone has one, into gridlock and stasis. This relates to McLuhan's idea about technology being an extension of the senses; when the ratio of the senses gets out of balance, he believed, chaos ensues. It's the same with reversal; taken too far, pushed out of balance, an enabling technology becomes disabling. One sense, over-emphasized, loses its harmonious relationship with the other senses; one sense-enhancing technology numbs the others.

I find the notion of reverse interesting because I've been thinking a lot about uncontrolled growth. While it's certainly true -- even a truism -- that we live now in the world McLuhan predicted, a tribal global village in which we share an electronic nervous system, we also live in the world of his lesser-known prediction of reversal -- a world in which many enabling technologies have reversed into disabling technologies.

Because the downside of once-promising technologies is something I write about a lot in my Wired column, I recently compiled a list of things that are growing, things it's almost impossible to imagine shrinking:

global human population
speed of edits in ads or pop videos
air travel
number of cars on the road
urbanization of formerly rural populations
levels of personal debt
obesity amongst populations in the UK and US
gap between the wealthiest and poorest 10% of the population in advanced nations
surveillance and information collection by governments and corporations
extinctions amongst species other than human


We'd be very surprised to see headlines announcing the opposite of any of these trends; even 9/11, for instance, only put people off flying for a year or so. Even such a spectacular rebuff to the aviation industry couldn't stop a strongly incremental trend towards the discounting and democratization of jet travel. Similarly, it seems unlikely that eco-breakdown will stop people flying either.

Now, it may seem that the only thing powerful enough to buck and break these trends is a kind of enlightened authoritarian government with massive power; the Chinese government's one-child policy, for instance. But McLuhan's idea of reversal gives us another solution. These trends will reverse themselves eventually, in a sort of self-adjusting ecology, because all the advantages they present will turn into disadvantages. Let's look at the list again, and look at how these things might reverse:

global human population
populations are already declining in advanced nations, and the global population will start decreasing after peaking at nine billion mid-century.
speed of edits in ads or pop videos
the development of pull-media are already calming the frantic pace of desperate, aggressive push-media techniques like high-impact editing.
air travel
i flew to thailand only to find the kaosan road in bangkok felt like manchester. when we all fly, there's nowhere to fly to which isn't basically like anywhere else. so we search for difference elsewhere. inside ourselves, maybe.
number of cars on the road
gridlock, stress, enviro-guilt, eco-taxes and congestion charging will make people give up their cars eventually.
urbanization of formerly rural populations
this is hard to reverse, but i'd say that as these urban populations become knowledge workers they'll drift away from cities -- and commutes. in fact, mcluhan predicted telecommuting, saying that stockbrokers could do all their business by telephone, and soon we all would.
levels of personal debt
debt is supposed to free you, but it actually enslaves you. this becomes apparent, presumably.
obesity amongst populations in the UK and US
obesity literally disables, and kills. it makes you less likely to find a partner and reproduce. it has reversal built in.
gap between the wealthiest and poorest 10% of the population in advanced nations
extremely high gini societies are prone to sudden reversals of fortune in the shape of crime and wild casino-style speculation.
surveillance and information collection by governments and corporations
a small amount of information might be useful, but with bigger and bigger quantities you lose pattern recognition; you can't see the wood for the trees.
extinctions amongst species other than human
extinctions amongst species other than human will lead to human extinction too, because we're part of an eco-system.

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