Streaming Video and McLuhan’s 4 Laws

After reading about the tragedy of a 12-year-old Georgia girl, who streamed her suicide, I have to wonder about streaming technology’s ubiquity. What criteria should we use to evaluate such technologies, which have great capacity for good and evil? Marshall McLuhan, the father of media ecology studies, suggested a Media tetrad, 4 “Laws of Media.” The questions were intended to help establish the effects of media. The laws/questions are:

  1. ENHANCEMENT: What does the medium enhance (or extend)?
  2. OBSOLESCENCE: What does the medium make obsolete?
  3. REVERSAL: What does the medium reverse into?
  4. RETRIEVAL: What does the medium retrieve?

I have already been working through the laws with my high school rhetoric/thesis class (a capstone experience at my school). Our discussion began with reading an excerpt from Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), and we are extending it using Shane Hipps’s The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture (2005)Hipps includes the tetrad in Chapter 2, applying it to security cameras, though he opts for a more straightforward square, rather than the usual diamond.


Rather than publish a completed post, my definitive understanding of the tetrad’s application, I instead record my initial impressions. A blog post such as this invites some discussion and interaction from readers, if less vibrant than that of a classroom or in-person conversation. (See here for a fuller application of the tetrad, but to Facebook.) So here goes.

  1. Streaming technology amplifies or enhances the voice, in a certain sense, enabling an ordinary person the power to reach millions via the Web.
  2. I’m not sure about obsolescence, but streaming certainly changes the function of so-called live television and eyewitness reports. News reporter Christine Chubbuck committed suicide on live television in 1974, but no video survives. This most recent suicide will live on forever, because while it was removed from her Facebook page, it had already been shared via other platforms. No laws govern its removal from the Internet, nor does any technology exist that could permanently delete it from the collective memory of the Web. So streaming cannot really be evaluated apart from its delivery system, namely the Internet.
  3. Taken to its extreme, it extends the “surveillance network” that social media has helped to develop. Live streaming removes even the flimsy wall of “review and share” that is typical of other shared video.
  4. Does streaming retrieve or revive anything, particularly anything made obsolete before? I’m not sure. Our experience of live broadcast television has diminished, except where sports are concerned, with the advent of time-shifting technologies, such as DVR, and on-demand and commercial streaming services. I guess it does retrieve a sense of immediacy and realism, because no censor exists to prevent or guide access.

Worth continuing to think about, especially since streaming has transcended a single app. Many now exist.

As I tell my students, I’m not advocating a wholesale rejection of new media or technologies. But the widespread adoption of new media, made possible by independent distribution via the Web, has collapsed the perimeter of wisdom. Before we can even consider the wisdom of, say, Snapchat:

  1. It’s almost everywhere. Nearly 60 million Americans use it.
  2. It captures a key demographic, then expands. 60% of smartphone users between 13 and 34 are Snapchatters, and the number of older users is growing.
  3. It capitalizes on the addictive nature of apps. Over half of Snapchat’s users visit the app at least once a day.

If these things are true, we have lost some essential evaluative equipment. A new technology is often adopted before it’s evaluated, and it’s over (or evolved) before it’s achieved complete saturation. What’s next matters; how we approach what’s next matters, too.



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