A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

Archive for November, 2009

We don’t want our education

Marshall McLuhan (March 1957, age 45). Students learn more outside than inside the classroom

For your information, let me ask you a question.  Do you know why universities contain so much knowledge?  It’s because students enter knowing so much and leave knowing so little.  That however is not the problem with education today.  Knowing what you know that isn’t true is what universities do well.  What they do badly is: (1) Using the new media to teach and (2) Harnessing the student’s current enthusiasms and interests to teach.


Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  Do students know what’s best

Given Marshall McLuhan’s views, a recent article “Concordia gets passing grades in Globe and Mail’s annual report card,” by Amy Minsky, in the November 3, 2009 issue of The Concordian, a student newspaper at Montreal’s Concordia University provokes some thoughts.   According to Ms Minsky the most important finding of the Globe and Mail’s report card was that Concordia University, the university she attends, “earned a C+) as far the 700 Concordia students who were surveyed on the question of “career preparation.” Apparently this was the same grade students at the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto, St. George campus, assessed their schools.  And the highest grade for career preparation was given by students at the University of Waterloo, was an unexceptional B+.

The thoughts are: (1) Who is failing here, the universities or the students? (2) Given students come to university to learn rather than to teach, are their opinions the ones that should matter for the design of university programs?  (3) Given that surveys of business for many years have repeatedly shown that businesses want to hire recent graduates of university programs who can read, write, think analytically, solve problems, and get along with other people, all things a classic, impractical liberal arts education teaches, should universities offer less liberal arts and more project management, time management, and supply-chain management? (4) Given students are so very interested in practical, career preparation why are universities so poor at persuading students that the best career preparation is a liberal arts education?

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Reading for this post

McLuhan, Marshall.  “Classroom without Walls,” in Explorations, no.7, March 1957, reprinted in Explorations in Communication, Edited by Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan. Boston: Beacon Press, 1960. pp. 1-3.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, November 14th, 2009
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Logic: The magic number 2

Marshall McLuhan (May 1959, age 47).  Producers are becoming consumers

What an inauspicious day, Friday the thirteenth.  Thank God my flight was yesterday.  I flew in from Winnipeg where I spoke to the Winnipeg Ad and Sales Club.  I led off with one of my favourite anecdotes, “Whenever I fly, I always carry a powerful bomb with me.  This absolutely insures my safety, the probability of there being two such bombs on the plane being infinitesimally low.”  They also liked my Newfie joke:  “What’s written on the bottom of a Newfie beer bottle?  Open other end.”  Liked is a strong word, let’s say they were appreciative.

The ad men did a double take when I told them in the electric age, which is the age in which we live, things are moving so fast producers are becoming consumers.  It’s a complex phenomenon, but basically a simple idea.  Things are changing so fast producers have figured out ways to speed up, to go faster than the wave, and one way to do that is to understand consumers so well that you know them better than they do themselves.  And when you do that you can anticipate their wants.  That’s why the Russians launched Sputnik and why Prime Minister Diefenbaker is making a serious error in canceling the Avro Arrow.  The biggest investment business is making today is in research and development.  They do this not to create a lot of new machines, products, services but to speed up to stay ahead of all the change that’s built in to the system.

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  The rule of 2

If Marshall McLuhan believed in the magical power of 3, he also believed in the logical power of the number 2.  Pairs of concepts, the end points of a single dimension, opposites, either ors, this and that’s run through his work.  Hot and cool, high definition and low definition, figure and ground, right brain and left brain, cliché and archetype, medium and message, visual and acoustic, eye and ear.  So that even in his doctoral dissertation which he described as a history of the Trivium, the 3 disciplines of grammar rhetoric and logic which dominated schooling in the middle ages, for analytical purposes he reduced to a battle between 2 forces over time, the grammarians and the rhetoricians.

Twos are powerful precisely because they exclude grey middle possibilities. They force you to make clear distinctions, to make decisions, to avoid weaseling and waffling.  All media he taught are hot or cool, not hot, warm, or cool.  This bias for black or white bothered his quibble-prone academic readers, even those who viewed his work positively.  For example, in his review of The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media in the Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Kenneth Boulding argues that to McLuhan the key dimension on which hot and cool media differed was “involvement.”  But surely he argued other dimensions mattered too – such as “demandingness or effort,” “range in time and space,’ and,” “density or capacity.”  These quibbles it’s worth noting all implicitly reject McLuhan’s starting point that what matters is the medium not it’s content.

For McLuhan, however, the power of a single dimension with 2 possibilities only was greater than the power of safer equivocating and qualifying multidimensional thinking.  He believed in absolutes.  Qualifications were for the intellectually weak of heart.    

What other examples of 2s in McLuhan’s work are there?  Which is the one you have found most stimulating?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 252-255.

Boulding, Kenneth E.  “The Medium and the Message,” reprinted in McLuhan: Hot and Cool. Edited by Gerald Emanuel Stearn. New York: New American Library, 1967, pp. 68-75.

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Michael Hinton Friday, November 13th, 2009
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Superstition: The magic number 3, or is it 2?

Marshall McLuhan (1968, age 57).  The rule of 3

I’m told I’m so famous now I need an agent.  People are making money off my name and I mean to get my share.  My agent is Matie Molinaro.  I asked her if she was a secret agent.  She seems to like my jokes, obviously a woman of good taste, says if I’m going to do movie work I have to be a member of ACTRA and AFTRA.  Corinne says she hopes the films will all be talkies.  I said, me too, silent film will not do me justice, and I’m also hoping for a predominance of black and white. Colour is an unnecessary technical change and in my case not an improvement.  Not incidentally, I asked Matie to make sure my ACTRA and AFTRA numbers are divisible by 3.  I’m convinced, no, I’m persuaded by experience, that the number 3 and numbers divisible by three are lucky.  Consider: I have 6 children; I live at 3 Wychwood Park; and Corrine and I were married in 1939. Q.E.D.

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  The rule of 2

Marshall McLuhan was adamant about the luckiness of the number 3 and numbers divisible by 3.  As a result the number 3 works its way through almost everything McLuhan touched. For example, he often said that the best place to test-read a book was on page 69.  If that page was interesting then he said the book was worth reading, if not then you should move on.  Understanding Media: The extensions of man, (6 words) is comprised of 33 chapters.  The Gutenberg Galaxy (3 words, 8 if you count the subtitle) is a bit more complicated example.  In manuscript the book consisted of 399 pages.  The book is comprised of 111 mosaic bits – ‘Prologue’, plus ‘Gutenberg Galaxy’, the 107 ‘chapter glosses’, ‘The Galaxy Reconfigured’, and ‘Bibliographic Index’.  112, however, if you count the ‘Index of Chapter Glosses.’)  In setting up this blog you will see that the magic number 3 has played a role. For example, I’ve promised to do a total of 300 ideas, 300 days, and 300 posts.  And the headline for this blog is 9 words.

The power of 3 on the mind of Marshall McLuhan notwithstanding, a strong case can be made that Marshall McLuhan felt the number 2 was as powerful if not more powerful than 3.  (To be continued tomorrow.)

What are you superstitious about?  Certain numbers?  Avoiding black cats and walking under ladders?    Do you have a lucky shirt, lucky shoes, or a lucky colour?   Any other 3s in Marshall McLuhan’s life and writing that you would like to add?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Molinaro, Matie Armstrong.  “Marshalling McLuhan,” in Marshall McLuhan: the man and his message. Edited by George Sanderson and Frank Macdonald. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum, 1989, pp. 88.

W. Terrence Gordon, Marshall McLuhan: Escape into understanding, 1997, pp.185-190.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, November 12th, 2009
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Marshall McLuhan’s war

Marshall McLuhan (March, 1944, age 32).  Uncle Sam may want me, but I don’t want to go

According to the draft board here in St. Louis I am 1A and have been so for the last three months, that is since getting my Ph.D.  (Cambridge giveth and Uncle Sam threatens to taketh away!)  If I am drafted I have two choices serve Uncle Sam or return to Canada to fight for King and country.  I’d rather do neither.  My friend Wyndham Lewis [see previous posts] has been giving me dark looks about this.  No matter here is my thinking. (1) I need to support my family, Eric is 3, and Corinne is expecting.  (2) I want to be with my family.  Assumption College in Windsor may make me an offer , if so I will bundle up the family and leave St Louis on the first train, and say “Adios St. Louis.”

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  McLuhan was no hero

In 1944 my Father was 17 years old when he signed up with the British Fleet Air Arm, after being turned down because of his age by the Royal Canadian Air Force.  He had a good war.  The war ended just as he completed his training to be a pilot.  In 1918 my Grandfather was 15 and fighting in France with the British Army.  He had a goodish war, he lived, but never talked about it.  Today with Canadian troops in Afghanistan and the peace movement forgotten behind us, it’s difficult to look back non-judgementally at McLuhan’s avoidance of the war and his frank admission that he wanted no part of it.  McLuhan’s biographers say little about this episode.  But it is hard not to look at it with the dark unwanted thought that McLuhan was afraid, and for good reason.  Teenagers do what they do for many reasons and unreasons.  What motivates a boy of 15, or 17 to want to fight in a war may be just as dark and forbidding to look at as what motivates a man in his 30s with a pregnant wife and a three-year old son not want to fight.

Today is Remembrance Day in Canada.  What would you have done in Marshall McLuhan’s position?  Who and what are you remembering today?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Handbook for Conscientious Objectors.  Edited by Arlo Tatum.  Published by the CCCO, an agency for military and draft counciling, established in 1948.  12th edition, April, 1972.

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 156-157.

Michael Hinton Wednesday, November 11th, 2009
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Marshall McLuhan’s sexual adventure

Marshall McLuhan (1965, age 54).  What this restaurant is exhibiting is inhibiting

We went to one of those new restaurants manned by topless waitresses, the Off Broadway in North Beach, here in San Francisco.  Ad men, Howard Gossage and Dr. Gerald Feigen, who are orchestrating the marketing of me, thought it would be a great experience.  It was an experience.  One of the party was a Mr. Herb Caen a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.  He ordered the strip steak sandwich and carefully kept his eyes averted from our waitress’s breasts while she was taking his order.  Claimed he was inhibited.  I told him inhibited is an interesting word it’s the opposite of exhibited, and what is exhibited causes you to be inhibited.

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  The extensions of woman is man

Marshall McLuhan was not inhibited by what was being exhibited by the topless waitresses at the Off Broadway restaurant when he went there in August 1965 with Tom Wolfe, Herb Caen, Howard Gossage, and Gerald Feigen.  He was it seems too busy observing to be inhibited. Two examples:

(1) During lunch a topless fashion show took place in which the announcer a fully dressed woman told the audience they were too quiet. They should be clapping more.  “Where,” she said, “was the applause?”  “Now ,” McLuhan said, “the word applause comes from the latin ‘applaudere,’ which means to explode.  In early times, audiences applauded to show their disfavour; they clapped their hands literally to explode the performer off the stage.  Hence you might say that, that the silence here is a form of approbation, at least in the classical sense.”

(2) McLuhan at one point looked around and said something like “the girls are wearing us.  They’re wearing our eyes.”

Who is wearing who?  How do you think McLuhan reported this excursion to his wife Corinne?  What were the ad men, whose mission it was to celebritize Marshall McLuhan, up to in taking McLuhan to this restaurant with two journalists in tow?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Tom Wolfe, The Pump House Gang. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968, pp 129-168.

Herb Caen, “Rainy Day Session.” San Francisco Chronicle, Thursday, August 12, 1965, p. 25.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, November 10th, 2009
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The sartorial splendor of Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan (1965, age 53).  Tom Wolfe got it wrong

Corinne read a bit to me out of that article Tom Wolfe wrote about me for the Sunday Magazine section of the New York World Journal Tribune, What if He’s Right? He said I like to wear 89-cent, Pree-Tide clip-on ties, the kind you can get in drug stores.  Said something about the clip on mechanism being some sort of plastic cheater.   Corinne says we should send him one of my ties so he could see how they really work.  I told her we have better things to do than ship my ties, made to stay on by a comfortably fitting elastic band that goes around the neck, to the ever observant Mr. Wolfe for inspection.

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  Tom Wolfe got it more right than wrong

“Clothes may not make the man,” said Kingsley Amis in a book about the James Bond novels, “but they can tell you quite a lot about him.”  Whatever the clothes of James Bond tell you about the character of 007, the clothes of Marshall McLuhan, the extensions of his skin as he declared them to be, tell quite a lot about the character of high priest of pop cult, as Playboy was to call him.  So much so that Tom Wolfe obtains a complete character analysis out just one piece of McLuhan’s clothing, his tie.

The tie in question is the opening subject of Wolfe’s essay:  “The first thing I noticed about him was that he wore some kind of trick snap-on neck tie with hidden plastic cheaters on it. … I couldn’t keep my eyes off it.”  And the tie is a subject Wolfe returns to repeatedly in the essay.  While Wolfe did get – as Corinne pointed out – a key detail wrong, he was right, I think, about the importance of the tie for what it can tell us about McLuhan.  It is, however, a symbol that cuts at least two ways.  It is a fake tie.  And the first image that pops up about McLuhan is that he like his tie is an imposter, a dealer in fake learning.  The fake tie however has another message.  The tie declares McLuhan to be middle class with no pretensions to style.  Here is a way for a logical man in the tie-wearing 1950s and 1960s to bow to convention and obtain the virtues of comfort, low cost, and ease of wear.

Which is the real McLuhan?  Which one does Tom Wolfe believe is the real McLuhan?  What message(s) do the clothes you wear send?  What message(s) would you want them to send?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Tom Wolfe, The Pump House Gang. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968, pp 129-168.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, November 7th, 2009
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The oral method of Marshall McLuhan … continued

Marshall McLuhan (1962-1963, age 51-52).  The good of talking it out

I am happiest talking.  Talk is a technology to deliver understanding of what you think right now.  Writing is a technology for preserving what it was you used to think.  I prefer to talk about what I’m thinking now rather than what it was I used to think.  The academic boys don’t get this.  Plato got it.  He has Socrates say that writing is a dangerous technology that allows you to deliver someone else’s thinking as if it’s your own.

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  How Marshall McLuhan talked it out

To find out more about Marshall McLuhan and his methods of thinking and preference for talking over writing, a conversation I told you a bit about yesterday, I spoke with Professor Abraham Rotstein, professor emeritus in economics, at the University of Toronto, who was a member of McLuhan’s circle in the 1960s.  Here is what he told me about McLuhan’s methods for talking it out.

Rotstein:  McLuhan worked as an oral man in research.  He spoke through his books dozens of times.  His monologues [it is said that McLuhan was a very polite listener, he never started to speak until he saw your lips had stopped moving) were his way of writing books.  He had a hierarchy or stable of people called to whom he would rattle on.  Basically there were four groups of people [he would phone to talk to in the evenings]: (1) 9pm-10pm graduate students; (2) 10 pm-11pm faculty; (3) after 11pm special people; and (4) up to 1 am [Tom] Easterbrook and other close buddies.

When McLuhan called he would rattle on at great speed. McLuhan presented orally work that later became written.  He put down on paper what he had already thought out through extensive oral repetition.

Compare McLuhan’s style in his letters or interviews with his style in his books. Can you see the difference?  How do you think the people in McLuhan’s stable handled being phoned and rattled on to?  Is this the price they were willing to pay to be close to genius?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

See the pre-1968 interviews of McLuhan on www.digitallantem.net/mcluhan

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Michael Hinton Friday, November 6th, 2009
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The oral method of Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan (1962 – 1963, age 51 – 52).  Talking it out

I am primarily an oral man, a word man, not a numbers man.  Writing is not my genius, talking is my genius.  That is why I like to talk my books out.  The problem is that it’s easy to undershoot and overshoot.  With some books I probably should have stopped earlier with others I should have spent more time.  The ideas got me going, always more ideas.  I had to keep moving on, so much to discover.

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  To understand McLuhan is to hear McLuhan

I spoke with Professor Abraham Rotstein, a professor emeritus, at the University of Toronto, who was a member of McLuhan’s circle in the 1960s.  We spoke on the phone in August.  I had a picture of him in my mind as we spoke, Professor Rotstein in the late 1970s, which was when I first met him, at the Monday night economic history seminars, which I attended as a graduate student in economics at Toronto.  He’s wearing I imagine a dark jacket and tie, his hair is thinning and slicked back, he has a cigarette going in holder which lends him the appearance of a scholarly Jewish FDR.  His trade mark was the question with such a long preamble that you had to fight to remember the question. Fortunately I’m asking the questions.  I begin by asking him about how he first met Marshall McLuhan.

Rotstein:  I was invited to a seminar, in 1962 or 1963.  McLuhan was a friend of my thesis supervisor, Tom Easterbrook.  I gave a presentation to McLuhan’s graduate students and onlookers on the idea of the various senses as extensions of man.  I pointed out that the idea was present in the writings of the early Marx: the idea that man’s economic activities are extensions of man and in extending him they alienate him.  McLuhan nodded when I said this but you could tell he wasn’t paying very much attention.

Me:  The extensions of man, of course, is the subtitle of Understanding Media, which is probably McLuhan’s best bought if not best read book.  Many people find it hard to read.  I did myself.  Was that your experience?

Rotstein:  I don’t know if I’ve ever had a lot of difficulty understanding McLuhan.  Understanding McLuhan is basically an oral exercise.  I was always listening to him.  I never read Understanding Media.  Didn’t have to, McLuhan spoke it to me.

(The interview continues tomorrow)

What is your experience reading McLuhan?  Do you find him difficult to understand?  Can you think of ways to recreate the oral experience Professor Rotstein is talking about?

Relevance to your life:  Are you an oral man or woman?  How do you think things through?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

See the pre 1968 interviews of Mcluhan on www.digitallantem.net/mcluhan

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Michael Hinton Thursday, November 5th, 2009
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The legacy of Marshall McLuhan … continued

Marshall McLuhan (March 14, 1951, age 39).  Literature is dead

I wrote today to Innis.  He has written a dazzling book, Empire and Communications. I shared with him some of the ideas that flowed from our meeting of minds, both in writing and in conversation.  For example, literature today is in decline.  (Innis shows in his book how few the ages of literature have been and how short.)  The end of the present epoch of the book is evident in so many symptoms exhibited in our world today – for example the shortness of the attention span of young people. 

A young man came to see me in my office today.  He asked me what was the use of reading Edgar Poe.  I decided to do a Euclid on him.  I said, “Have you read ‘A Descent into The Maelstrom’?”  “Yes,” he said.  “Good,” I said, “here’s a dollar.”

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  With friends like Peter Drucker who needs enemies  

Marshall McLuhan’s claim that literature is dead was one of many statements McLuhan would make over his career that drove his enemies and quite a number of his friends crazy.  Consider for example what Peter Drucker, “the father of management,” said about McLuhan in 1994 when he was asked to reflect on what he had learned from Marshall McLuhan.  “Not one of McLuhan’s specific predictions has come true and not one of them is likely to come true.”  If Drucker meant this statement seriously, either it reveals his ignorance of McLuhan’s thinking or his willingness to engage in the slander of the reputation of a man who thought of him as a friend and colleague. 

To give but one example of a McLuhan prediction that came true, consider this anecdote recounted by Professor Abraham Rotstein, Professor emeritus, economics, at the University of Toronto, and a member of McLuhan’s circle in the 1960s, in a conversation I had with him in August about McLuhan.  “Mcluhan comes into class sometime in the 1960s and waves a plastic card at the students.  ‘This, ladies and gentlemen is a new kind of credit card, it lets you pay in cash.”   

Is Drucker right?  Are McLuhan’s predictions all bogus?  Is Drucker simply being a cranky old man?     

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Reading for this post

Marshall McLuhan, edited by Corrine McLuhan, Matie Molinaro, and William Toye. Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 223.

Barrington with Maurice McLuhan Nevitt, Who was Marshall McLuhan? 1995, pp.122-126.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, November 4th, 2009
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The legacy of Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan (1955, age 44).  Photography killed conspicuous consumption

I spoke today to Professor Louis Forsdale’s class at Teachers College, Columbia University.  The $100 dollar honorarium will come in useful.  Corinne wants a new bed, says we’ve worn it out.  I told her six children is more than most people get out of a bed.  During my talk one young chap, Neil Postman, I think Forsdale said his name was, sat with his mouth open for the whole 55 minutes. 

Thought the class was going to burst a collective blood vessel when I told them my three latest ideas: that the invention of eyeglasses in the 13th century caused scientists to discover genetic manipulation, that the telegraph caused the decentralization of information, and finally, my favourite, that photography killed conspicuous consumption.  I told them that if they didn’t like those ideas I had others.  Also I told them my current favourite punning anecdote – “Though he may be more humble, there is no police like Holmes.”  The groans were deafening.   

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  With friends like Neil Postman who needs enemies  

Somewhere in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes pays Watson, his friend and companion in detection, one of the greatest backhanded compliments in fiction.  He tells Watson that while he is not himself a source of light he is a stimulus to, or reflector of, light in others.  Forty-odd years after Neil Postman heard McLuhan speak at Columbia, Postman paid a similar backhanded compliment to McLuhan.  In the forward to Philip Marchand’s biography of McLuhan, Postman writes, “I was … charmed, refreshed, inspired by McLuhan’s story.  I’m older now, but I think I never really believed in his story.”  (The story, of course, is McLuhan’s big idea that the advent of writing and the printing press created the Western World as we know it – visual, logical, rational – and the coming of the new electric media of the 20th century returned us to a pre-Gutenberg, pre-writing primitive, tribal world – oral, intuitive, irrational.)

The mark of every great philosopher it has been said is that they got it wrong.  But it is quite a different thing to say they got it all wrong, which is what Postman says about McLuhan. 

Is McLuhan more a Watson than he is a Holmes?  Is Postman right?  Is the real legacy of Marshall McLuhan that he was a great stimulus to the thought of others but not himself a source of worthwhile thinking on media?  In other words, what he has to say, for example, about photography is wrong, but it gets other people like Postman thinking about other things rightly?   

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Postman, Neil.  “Forward,” to Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The medium and the messenger. 1989, pp. vii-xiii. 

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Culture, Education, Technology, Vol. 1 2 Comments