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Why media needs its own Periodic Table

Rowley: Why media needs its own Periodic Table

Marshall McLuhan’s Tetrad model can revolutionise your understanding of media and marketing. Embrace the opportunities, prioritise, revive, and prevent to stay ahead of the game.

In February 1869, scientist Dmitri Mendeleev created a framework that was to revolutionise our understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology, and become the cornerstone of future scientific endeavours: the periodic table.

Mendeleev’s codification of atomic traits helped position elements on a page in a way that accurately depicted the relationship between metals and gases and helped make predictions about their behaviours, reactivities, and physical effects on the real world.

When that first periodic table was created, Mendeleev plotted the positions of 63 elements. At that time, 63 elements were all that were known to science. Crucially, however, Dmitri knew more were waiting to be discovered and so created a system flexible enough to explain any newfound elements within the context of the old. Today we have 118 elements that fit snugly in the gaps predicted and accommodated by his system.

The periodic table is a framework from the past robust enough to explain the future. But what if there was such a model for media? One that could outlive its creator, yet years later could still accommodate our understanding of future technologies and predict their behaviour? A periodic table for media technology.

Well, that model exists. Sort of.

Rediscovering Marshall McLuhan’s ‘Tetrad’

You may have heard of Canadian media theorist, Marshall McLuhan. He coined the phrase “the medium is the message” and, according to some, predicted the internet thirty years before its arrival. He’s achieved cult status among some groups, resembling a cross between Nikola Tesla and Yuval Noah Harari for the broadcast age.

McLuhan’s Tetrad Model was – and still is – a useful framework for assessing the social effects of media technologies on populations. Though it was created during the ascendancy of mass media — press, radio, and TV — and published posthumously in the 1980s, it’s as vital today as it’s ever been and can help us understand the impact of social media, the metaverse, artificial intelligence, and also forecast the effects of media technologies not yet invented.

Put simply, McLuhan states all media tech has four potential effects on society. He labels them thus:

1. Extends — what behaviours will the medium augment?

2. Obsolesces — what behaviours will the medium kill off?

3. Retrieves — what defunct behaviours will the medium revive or resuscitate?

4. Reverses — what behaviours will we see when the medium is pushed to extremes?

To illustrate, take the arrival of the printing press in 1436. Understood through this model, in time, printing worked to extend the reach of information previously monopolised by the church. It obsolesced scribes and calligraphers meticulously copying manuscripts word-for-word. It retrieved the democratisation of storytelling and public debate, previously alive and well in tribes, but latterly choked off by theocratic institutions. Last, when pushed to the extreme, it could also flip or reverse into propaganda and be employed not as a democratising force but as a method of control. The Reformation was not only a religious revolution but a technological one too, it seems.

Theorists and thinkers have also carried out this exercise for television and radio and latterly the internet and social media. Intriguingly though, it also works for the most recent technologies too.

Gaming, the Metaverse, and Artificial Intelligence in the Tetrad

So, let’s take gaming and the metaverse and test the model.

Gaming and the metaverse extends our physical presence into dimensionalised environments, allowing our re-embodied proxy selves to remotely navigate imagined spaces. It obsolesces, or perhaps stated more modestly, challenges the hard divide between physical and virtual presence, as concerts, meetings, and conversations can be conducted in virtual zones. It retrieves long-defunct locations or indeed people, enabling users to peruse pre-eruption Pompeii and ‘chat’ with a stallholder. Finally, when pushed to extremes, it can reverse into isolation and a total abandonment of the real world, regardless of whether a user is in VR or simply hypnotically engrossed in the mobile game Candy Crush.

Or consider AI. With Generative AI, like Chat GPT or Bard, we see technology extends our access to answers by providing a quick, clean interface we can easily quiz. It potentially obsolesces, or reduces focus on, searching through answers; the long scroll through returned results may one day be jettisoned.

AI’s ability to make connections between disparate data sets may revive old knowledge or forgotten frameworks that help us understand the world — much like the Tetrad itself. Finally, pushed to extremes, it may impact humans’ natural curiosity. We must be mindful of Generative AI’s output being seen as gospel, given conversations going on today about the veracity and reliability of its data sets.

The above impacts and implications are not meant to be definitive or exhaustive. Rather, they are thinking tools and provocations to delve deeper into the effects media tech may have on wider behaviour. We may also wish to extend the model beyond media into other areas of science, technology, and culture, for instance, biotech, robotics, or new transport solutions. Bizarrely, I’ve also seen it used to explain the birth of stars and black holes.

However, is this model of any use from a marketing strategy standpoint? Can it help us to better understand and provide for consumers? How can we use this to our advantage in media, marketing, and advertising?

Applying the Tetrad to media and marketing

Regardless of the technology, I think that from McLuhan’s Tetrad, we can reverse engineer four corresponding marketing opportunities or consumer affordances.

From Extends, I think we can derive the action of Enable. When a technology breaks through barriers to augment human ability, brands may wish to position themselves as the aid to that furtherance. For example, not long after Augmented Reality arrived, fashion and auto brands were quick to harness its power for virtual try-ons and try-outs, helping consumers to a better product understanding by enabling that extension of the senses.

From Obsolesces, I think we can encourage brands to Prioritise. We should be alive to making efficiencies by moving away from that which has since been superseded. That means having an early awareness of when it’s no longer necessary to maintain a brand’s Tumblr or Google+ page, or as I was once asked by a client to do: look into making a branded game that lived in a Facebook desktop app long after Facebook had discontinued the format, and even longer after consumers had switched to smartphones.

For Retrieves, I think we can be inspired to raid the ideas archive and see what we can Rebirth. Podcasts have injected new energy into the audio medium, and we have seen a second blooming of audio comms in the form of advanced programmatic, in-game audio ads, and full-length ad-funded audio narratives, for instance, drama and documentaries. Consumers have over 4.1 million podcasts to choose from, globally. Turns out when Freddie Mercury sang in Radio Ga Ga (“You’re yet to have your finest hour…”), he was spot on. What other media is waiting to be rediscovered?

Finally, for Reverses, I think we can caution ourselves to Prevent. Brands can accrue damage if they are seen to be fuelling darker aspects of technology. Marketers that launch anti-bullying in the metaverse initiatives or decree they will never use deep fakes in their advertising are acknowledging their future responsibilities to consumers.

Ultimately, McLuhan’s thinking-tool still works, encouraging us to consider the implications of new media technology and how we can prepare our responses.

Yes, it is too late to apply to the printing press, radio, and television, but it can help us get to grips with our contemporary fascinations like AI and the metaverse. And after the current buzz of AI has subsided, there will be something else to get excited about.

Like the periodic table, the Tetrad’s strength comes from its ability to accommodate new technologies because it has identified deep undercurrents steering media, tech, and culture throughout history.

Whatever comes next, if we look to the past, we can prepare for the future.

Phil Rowley is head of futures at Omnicom Media Group UK and the author of Hit the Switch: the Future of Sustainable Business. He writes a monthly column for The Media Leader about the future of media.

Join Phil Rowley this Thursday for The Future of Gaming: he will speak on a heavyweight panel at the event’s finale, hosted by The Media Leader’s editor-in-chief Omar Oakes.

The conversation “The bigger picture: gaming on the road to Media 3.0?” will also feature Wavemaker’s Amy Meikle, Columbia Business School’s Cecila Dones, and Venatus’ Laura Ballesteros.

Andrew McLuhan, director, The McLuhan Institute, on 11 Oct 2023
“The tetrad, actually developed by Marshall and his som Eric McLuhan is a very potent framework for analyzing the implications of human innovation. Highly recommend reading their ‘Laws of Media: The New Science.’ It’s as challenging as it is rewarding.”

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