The Laws of Media – A Conceptual Tool for Understanding Media


A tetrad envisioned as a Mobius strip

In Laws of Media (1988) and The Global Village (1989), published posthumously, Marshall McLuhan summarized his thinking about technology in a concise tetrad of media effects. The tetrad is an analytical tool for considering the effects on society of any technology/medium, artifact, or idea (put another way: a means of explaining the social processes underlying the adoption of a technology, artifact or idea) by dividing its effects into four categories and displaying them simultaneously. McLuhan designed the tetrad as a pedagogical/analytical tool, offering his laws as questions to to be asked of any technology, artifact or idea:

  1. What does the artifact enhance?
  2. What does the artifact obsolesce?
  3. What does the artifact retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does the artifact reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?

The laws of the tetrad exist simultaneously, not successively or chronologically, and allow the questioner to explore the “grammar and syntax” of the “language” of media. By flip or reverse, McLuhan meant that a technology or artifact “overheats”, or reverses into an opposing state, when pushed to its extreme. (adapted from



In this excerpt, innovation expert Jeff DeGraff applies the Laws of Media to the process of innovation, which illustrates how these laws can be applied to human processes or ideas:-

The late Marshall McLuhan, University of Toronto professor and cultural guru, suggested a functional definition for innovation that is easily recognizable by anyone in any type organization.



An innovation…

  1. Enhances something: Think about how Google was a late entrant into the search biz but lapped the field with its simple approach
  1. Eliminates [obsolesces] Something: Think about how Charles Schwab eliminated the need for stock brokers by connecting the back office of the trading house directly to the customer
  1. Returns Us to Something [Retrieves] in Our Past: Think about how the desire to have home cooked family meals has lead to the proliferation of underground dining and slow food restaurants
  1. Over Time Reverses [Flips] into Its Opposite: Think about how e-mail was going to set us all free but instead enslaved us with its ubiquitous and overwhelming demands

It is assumed that the more potent the innovation the more it embodies the four attributes and vice versa.

McLuhan understood that innovation was specific to the situation that gave rise to it or destroyed it. So he focused on its effects and not its causes. He warned that a one size fits all approach with its simple checklist would do more harm than good and lead to a form of intellectual and creative myopia.

Innovation has a transformative power for brief period of time when it produces the ability to create or destroy value. After that it becomes the standard, the norm and the ordinary. Like milk, it has a shelf life and goes sour over time. (Excerpted from )

Image 2: “Laws of Media: Mobile Phone”, Marshall McLuhan, from Laws of Media, 1988, page 153.


2 Responses to “The Laws of Media – A Conceptual Tool for Understanding Media”

  1. 1 The world that coronavirus makes (Part 1 of 2) – the next wave
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