Understanding the effects of a technology on society is hard. If we think about the effects of technologies like smartphones, automobiles, e-cigarettes, or virtual reality, we are quickly confronted with an overwhelming array of alternative things we could look at. For instance, entire months could be spent looking at one particular thing like social dynamics, environmental impacts, unanticipated use cases, or even geopolitical dynamics. If you’re trying to bring about a better societal outcome through your technology, the task of deliberately designing for those outcomes while avoiding negative outcomes can seem daunting.
For this issue, I introduce a simple framework that you can use to organize your thinking on the societal effects of technology.
In The Laws of Media, father-and-son team Marshall and Eric McLuhan offer a framework called the “tetrad of media effects” that can be used to examine any medium. Within media theory, the term “media” can include not just “technology” (as we commonly understand it), but a dizzying array of human constructions like the alphabet, numbers, legal systems, methodologies, poems, and household objects. Everything designed is media. When McLuhan proclaimed the oft-repeated, “the medium is the message,” he meant that the means of communication (e.g., television) are as important to understand as the content of communication (e.g., the evening news). McLuhan studied all of media, but we will study only a subset: technology.
The tetrad model posits that all effects of technology can be identified by answering four basic questions:
What does the technology enhance? This question considers the manifold ways that technology improves, amplifies, upgrades, or speeds up some human capability.
What does the technology obsolesce? This question is the inverse of the first, looking at capabilities that are diminished, dormant, out-of-date, or out-of-fashion.
What does the technology reverse when pushed to its extreme? McLuhan points out that the characteristics of a technology reverse after a certain (e.g., highways intended to increase the speed of travel will slow it down when too many cars are on the road; cigarettes that calm in low doses invoke anxiety in high doses).
What does the technology retrieve that had been previously obsolesced? This question asks what a technology reclaims from the past. It points out that what is new is often old (e.g., Twitter bringing back sharable diaries), and that while technology is always changing, humans do not. It is the difficult question to answer as it requires knowledge of history.
As an example, I’ve created a tetrad covering a handful of effects stemming from Twitter:
My example should illustrate some limitations of the tetrad. For one, it does not generate a definitive list of societal effects. Filling in the tetrad is an art rather than a science. Moreover, the tetrad does not replace the hard work of rigorous methodologies like ethnography that unpack the role of a technology in peoples’ lives. Instead, it is an exploration tool that surfaces hypotheses that can researched in greater depth (similar to how a SWOT analysis serves as a container for thinking about the critical issues associated with a company’s competitive landscape).
The tetrad also fails to deal with the temporal, systematic, and cultural aspects of a technology. In today’s connected world, technologies can be rapidly disseminated and recombined in a myriad of ways. The static pictures generated by a tetrad can omit important information that lives outside the frame of the analysis.
Finally, the tetrad frames technology as deterministic. That is, it treats technology as the sole determinant of societal change. While we must not forget that technology has effects, humans are ultimately in the driver’s seat. To say something like the car suburbanized America is a simplification that ignores the deliberate actions of people in the business and government that worked to make car-centric suburbs a reality.
Despite its limitations, the tetrad can be a useful heuristic. I’ve found it particularly useful for thinking beyond the most common questions asked of technology (1 and 2) by considering systems (question 3) and history (question 4). Drawing your own tetrads could unearth some surprising insights about technology that give you a fuller picture of what its long-term implications are.