Sunday, October 28, 2012

Timmi and McLuhan's 4 Laws of Media

A few weeks ago, I suggested the creation of a new technology: a trans-media, multi-instance, holographic (TMMIH) avatar – aka “Timmi”.  This week, I want to apply Marshall McLuhan’s Tetrad (4 Laws of Media) to my new innovation.  First, a quick review of the technology I proposed. Timmi is a 3-dimensional holographic image of me or another character (perhaps a cartoon or movie character) of my choosing.  The hologram speaks in my voice or the voice of my chosen character and both acts as my assistant (reading messages e-mails, texts, or speaking meta-data to a search or inquiry when requested), and as my representative on other people’s devices and displays. The hologram becomes a trans-media image when it makes itself instantly available on my device of choice (smartphone, touchpad, personal computer) and when appropriate, appears in my car’s heads-up display while I’m driving. As my representative, I can “push” my hologram to my friends and family, to speak on my behalf when I send a message or voicemail their way.

In looking at this innovation through the filter of McLuhan’s Tetrad, we find a couple of interesting insights. McLuhan’s Tetrad outlines in metaphoric fashion his four laws of media. These four laws suggest that for every new technology, new medium, or innovation, there is something gained (extended), something lost (amputated), something retrieved from our past and, when taken to its extreme, the innovation reverses or flips on us. 
First, with Timmi, we gain a presence in every social situation and community which is important to us. This is more than just being available through text on a screen, or a disembodied voice of voicemail. This is having a likeness of ourselves or a representative of our choosing available to be seen and heard by others, when they are connected. Additionally, as an assistant, Timmi becomes an acoustic interface to what was predominantly a visual and tactile medium (reading messages and responding with typing). This makes our environment of communicating within our communities a two-way, acoustic environment. The medium moves to the “ground” as the hologram image moves to “figure”.

However, with these gains, what do we lose? One of the amputations is the separation of the personal self from relationships that deal with the “agent” self. As this happens, our personal connections to communities we care about can be co-opted by an impersonal likeness as we delegate our presence to a representation of ourselves. The danger in this arrangement is that our real community becomes the relationship we have with our holographic assistant/agent, and we move toward isolation and individualism like the literate man.  

From the past, we retrieve expression, intonation, and the nuances of meta-data which were all amputated in our social media explosion. In the current world of social media, communication by text (words, acronyms, code, cryptic slang, etc.) and emoticons drive the preponderance of our messages. In the visual and tactile domain of smartphones, touch pads and personal computers, our thumbs and fingers and eyes are our “transmitters and receivers”. As Timmi is deployed, we have the opportunity to convey to friends, family and acquaintances more than what can be portrayed by text and emoticons on a display.

What happens to Timmi when taken to its limits?  As Timmi becomes ubiquitous, it reverses or flips on us. We lose real presence in any of our communities, and end up having to show up in person in those communities we really care about, as Timmi can’t convey caring, sympathy and empathy. What started out to be a way to provide an immediate presence, ends up being no presence, as Timmi has become “us”, and our personal presence is really nowhere to be found.

It’s important, as McLuhan maintains, that we think about these things as new innovations arrive, so that we can decide a way of “evasion and survival”. Otherwise, we will be left to deal with the consequences of “the maelstrom created by our own ingenuity.”

McLuhan’s Laws of Media. Retrieved from:

McLuhan/ Laws of Media. Retrieved from:
McLuhan’s Wake (2003). The Disinformation Company. New York, NY.

Ohler, Jason (2010). Digital Community: Digital Citizen. Corwin. Thousand Oaks, CA. (p.134-135)


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