A tetradic analysis of GIS and society using McLuhan's law of the media

Daniel Z. Sui, Michael F. Goodchild

Research output: Contribution to specialist publicationArticle

31 Scopus citations


The social implications of GIS have been debated over the past five years among scholars in several disciplines. GIS have been either conceived by practitioners as value-free, neutral tools for problem-solving or castigated by critical social theorists as socially biased technologies serving only corporate and state interests. Neither of these polarized views is very helpful in understanding the complex relationship between GIS and society. This paper argues that GIS are increasingly becoming media for communicating various crucial social and environmental information to the general public. By reconceptualizing GIS as media, the paper conducts a detailed tetradic analysis on the social implications of GIS using Marshall McLuhan's law of media. The analysis reveals the paradoxical and ambivalent nature of GIS technology. To make GIS fulfill democratic ideals in society, this paper calls for a shift of perspective, from viewing them as instruments for problem-solving to viewing them as media for communication. This shift from instrumental to communicative rationality enables us to examine more critically and holistically how space, people and environment have been represented, manipulated and visualized in GIS and thus promotes a more critical and democratic GIS practice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Number of pages13
Specialist publicationCanadian Geographer
StatePublished - Mar 2003
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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