Seminar 3 – Ecology

So just to recap, the lecture for this week was on ecology. We discussed a number of ideas relating to mutations within technology, natural selection of devices and the eco-system of the media. In particular, we focused heavily on concepts developed by Marshall McLuhan, below I’ve dropped in a fantastic quote from the man himself, where he outlines how humanity created one of the first mediums – the spoken word. In order to do this, we needed to develop from our society of drawing simple illustrations on cave walls and communicate through sound – one of the first and most significant steps to the society we know today.

“The spoken word was the first technology by which man was able to let go of his environment in order to grasp it in a new way.” Marshall McLuhan

The seminar then! We first discussed something that was only briefed touched upon in the lecture – another McLuhan concept. He believed that “all media are extensions of some human faculty – psychic and physical” – here he is referring to how we use our bodies to interact with various media. For example, we use our fingers to use our mobile phones, but we also use our ears to listen to it and our mouths to speak through it. Without us, technology wouldn’t exist as it would not be able to operate without us.

We then looked at the McLuhan tetrad – a system which outlines four effects that all technologies have upon the eco-system that McLuhan envisaged. The tetrad states that all media;

  1. Enhances – a previous medium, a body part, amplifies/extends, focuses a human capacity
  2. Reverses – when pushed to extremes, flips to the opposite intention, long-term and global consequences
  3. Retrieves – calls back experiences, patterns and media from the past – nostalgia
  4. Obsolesces – makes an older/alternate medium, process or pattern obsolete

Video killed the radio star?

One particular point of the tetrad cause quite a stir amongst the people in the seminar for various reasons. The tetrad states that all media technologies will make another/older technology obsolete – in a ‘video killed the radio star’ manner. Where some people were happy to believe this – with the blackberry as a prime example of how new developments such as the iPhone can make older technology, in this case the Blackberry, obsolete.

However, when looked at in relation to McLuhan and how he viewed the ecology of technology, we can argue that in a way this a necessary, as it means new media can always be developed – mutations lead to new technology. It can also be argued that McLuhan envisaged an eco-system where technologies – old and new would interact with each other, learn from each other and drive each other forward. He argued that technological progression was not linear, but rather a coming together of a vast network, with everything interacting and developing at once.


On the whole I found how McLuhan describes a network of mediums and technologies and an ever-evolving eco-system of development a very interesting concept and way of looking at changing technologies and how they interact with society. I enjoyed watching several interviews with McLuhan from the 1960’s and 70’s, as well as reading the Play Boy interview published in 2009 which, is a lengthy read but, a fascinating look into how McLuhan views the world around him and challenges his ideas constantly.

I particularly enjoy how McLuhan’s ideas relate so well to the world of technology we have today. When McLuhan began discussing concepts based on an eco-system or network of actors, he was referring to things like microfilm, books, radio and early television however, his ideas are still relevant when we look at more recent developments such as mobile phones and the internet.


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