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 January, 2010

Lucky, I’m so lucky

Marshall McLuhan (December 1968, age 57).  I’ve got this thing about the number 3.

My new agent Matie Molinaro is working out splendidly.  You wouldn’t believe the liberties people were taking with my radio interviews and TV and film appearances.  She is making sure my good name is protected and my wish is her delight.  An arrangement in which I assure you I delight.  For instance, Matie didn’t bat an eye when I asked her to make sure that when she enrolled me in ACTRA that my membership number was divisible by three.  You see, I am a firm believer that the number 3 and numbers divisible by three are lucky.  If they’re not then why am I so lucky?

Me (January 2010, age 57).  The rule of 3.

There is no doubt that Marshall McLuhan believed that the number 3 and numbers divisible by 3 are lucky.  He arranged his life to surround himself with these lucky numbers.  For example, he had 6 children, the Coach House, the home of his Centre for Culture and Technology was at 39A Queen’s Park Crescent East, and there are 33 chapters in his best selling Understanding Media.   Not surprisingly, his rule for determining whether a book is worth reading is to peruse page 69 – a number divisible by 3 both in whole and in its parts.  If that page is enlightening then the book is worth reading.

Superstitions are notoriously difficult to shake.  If 3 and numbers divisible by 3 are so lucky, and Marshall McLuhan surrounded himself with them, then you might well ask:  Why was he so unlucky when it came to his health, suffering from repeated strokes, a brain tumor, and, in the last 18 months (a number divisible by 3) of his life, aphasia?  The answer, of course, is that but for the presence of 3 things would have been much worse.

How superstitious are you?  If you are superstitious how much effort do you make to insure the Gods are on your side?  Is it just a coincidence that this blog closes with 3 questions?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Matie Armstrong Molinaro. “Marshalling McLuhan,” in Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message.  Edited by George Sanderson and Frank Macdonald. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum, 1989, pp. 81-88.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, January 30th, 2010
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Isn’t that amazing! (How it all began)

Marshall McLuhan (March 31, 1956, age 44).  We’re in the money!

The deal is signed!  Bill Hagon, Murray Paulin, and Marshall McLuhan are now, officially, a consulting partnership named Idea Consultants.  We’ve got a letter head. And we’ve got ideas, boy do we have ideas.  For instance: see-through diapers – no more sniff, pull, and peek; a hose you hook up to the exhaust of the family car to kill pesky front-lawn rodents while you eat your dinner; or, my personal favourite –  how to sell beer to dentists – tell them it’s better for the teeth than soft drinks.  All we need now is a client.  And unless tight-fingered Toronto University gives me a raise, it’s clients we need.  The last time I counted Corinne and I’ve had acquired six kids to feed.  Poetry is fun, but it’s not paying the bills.

Me (January 2010, age 57).  Pitching the impractically practical.

Idea Consultants was a business disaster.  They unsuccessfully pitched lunch-sized beer cartons to the J.Walter Thompson advertizing agency.  They advised a vice president of Colgate Palmolive that the company needed to develop products that in the age of conformism appeal to the individual.  (The principle of reversal.)  He may have been interested but now that they had told him the idea didn’t think he needed to pay them for it.  Life and Holiday magazines both rejected Idea Consultants’ pitch of some kind of in-store display case to promote their magazines.  Life just said no.  Holiday added the idea was an old one, but not a good one.

As a business Idea Consultants is most remarkable for two things:  (1) the number of remarkably creative ideas the partners generated; (2) their failure to sell any of them.  The true mark of an Idea Consultants’ idea is its impractical practicality.  For example, their notion that underwear should be dyed a delicate shade of urine yellow, the establishment of a summer holiday retreat for hay fever sufferers, head lights for lawn mowers, and a gasoline-motor powered pencil sharpener.

And yet ideas do emerge that anticipate products that would appear 20 to 30 years in the future: devices such as: the video-cassette and DVD, aluminum soft drink cans, and pre-recorded audio guided tours.  Who knows, perhaps there is a future for urine-coloured underwear.  Boomers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your dignity.

Which of these Idea Consultants ideas do you think is the best of the worst?  Who else in business history was as creative and as unsuccessful as Marshall McLuhan was with Idea Consultants?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

W. Terrence GordonMarshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding, 1997, pp. 168-171.

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Michael Hinton Friday, January 29th, 2010
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Isn’t that amazing!

Marshall McLuhan (August, 1973, age 62).  My contribution is an h!

Just got off the phone with Cousin Ron – Dr. Ron Hall, now – who you will remember is a biochemist at McMaster.  Idea Consultants is back in action.  These long hot sweaty dog days of summer have been a positive inspiration to us both.  Ron has done the leg work.  They say genius is 99 per cent perspiration.  So perspiration is a good thing.  The problem is it stinks.  Ron came up with the science part of the solution.  Don’t mask the smell with perfume or deodorant.  Keep the good part of the sweat -those amazingly communicative pheromones.  Get rid of the stinky part.  Ron wanted to call his bio-chemical product “protex.”  As in “pro-tection” and  “tex-tile” – protect the fabric.  But I added, if I must say – and I will – what Corinne told me was “the distilled essence of genius.” I convinced him to add one little letter to the name which will spell all the difference in the world: the letter “h.”  We will call it “Prohtex.”  Get it? “Proh-ibit” and “tex-tile” – as in prohibit [the bad sweat on] the fabric.  Well perhaps not everyone will get it.  But when they do we’ll be rolling in it.  Or rather they will.  Must run I feel another idea coming on.  This could be the big one.

Me (January 2010, age 57):  Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea

I don’t know exactly what happened when Marshall McLuhan and his nephew pitched one of the big companies like Johnson & Johnson.  But I’m sure the brand guys dined out regularly on the story.  It is a wonder that the writers on “Madmen” don’t go more to the life of McLuhan for inspiration.  As you might expect nobody in the business world wanted to buy this idea.  Perhaps business people today might be more interested, providing that is that the product does not prove to have unwanted and fundamentally deal-breaking side-effects, for example the attractions of the sexual attention of people you don’t want to be sexually attentive.  (Tomorrow I’ll take a look at more of McLuhan’s amazing business ideas that business kept on turning down.)

Was the name the problem?  Or was it the product?  Say that it worked, would you use a product that kept the good sweat –sent the chemical messages of attraction – and got rid of the bad – the stinky part?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

W. Terrence GordonMarshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding, 1997, pp. 268-269.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, January 28th, 2010
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Trying to sell Snow to sell the Galaxy

Marshall McLuhan (February 1, 1962, age 50).  C.P. Snow’s the bloke!

My editor at U of Toronto press, a canny Scot, came up with a great idea for the dust jacket testimonial for The Gutenberg Galaxy of which I hope to see the page proofs in the coming weeks.  We will get C.P. Snow – Sir Charles now – to write something complimentary.  Turns out he, and Lady Snow, met Walter Ong – my former student – at Wesleyan University and they had a meeting of minds.   How delightfully serendipitous are the ways of fate.  As you may know we are both Cambridge men and individually represent the opposite divides of the Two Cultures he has banged on about to great effect and acclaim.  The Gutenberg Galaxy is at heart about the making of the two cultures; two being one more than there was before the advent of printing.  I hope he agrees.  It will certainly make a world of difference to the sales of good old Galaxy if we can get the author of the Two Cultures to go to bat for me.  Must go, I have a letter to write.

Me (January 2010, age 57).  I don’t think Snow had a hard time saying no.

C.P. Snow did not write a phrase for the dust jacket of the Galaxy.  As far as I have been able to learn he did not reply to McLuhan’s letter.  In that letter McLuhan writes, somewhat obsequiously, “The Gutenberg Galaxy … undertakes, almost as a sequel to your Two Cultures, to explain the historical divergence of these two cultures, both before and since Gutenberg.  I dreamed, therefore, of seeing a phrase of yours on the jacket.”

If Sir Charles bothered to read the page proofs of  The Gutenberg Galaxy – assuming that McLuhan actually went to the trouble and expense of sending them to him as he promised in his letter –  it is difficult to believe that Snow would have seen himself as a natural dust jacket testimonial writer for the book.  The first two opening sentences alone I suspect would have had this plain speaking Yorkshire man shaking his head:  “The present volume is in many respects complementary to The Singer of Tales by Albert B. Lord.  Professor Lord has continued the work of Milman Parry, whose Homeric studies led him to consider how oral and written poetry naturally followed diverse patterns and functions.”

McLuhan might have found it crystal clear that Snow’s Two Cultures correspond to Lord and Parry’s “oral” and “written” “patterns and functions,” but I don’t think Snow would have found it either obvious or enlightening.

What was McLuhan thinking?  That, of course, C. P. Snow would want to be a part of the Marshall McLuhan fan club?  What should he have done differently?  (I can think of quite a few things.  For example I imagine the last thing Snow would have wanted was to see the page proofs to the Galaxy.)  Perhaps the real lesson of this story is that McLuhan was at this time totally consumed with the ideas he was creating. What do you think?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 282-284.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, January 27th, 2010
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Things change but we do not know it (continued)

Marshall McLuhan (November 18, 1961, age 50). The medium is invisible.

As I was saying no one sees the medium at work. It is invisible. It does its work on us and we go on differently, but do not see that everything has changed.

Me (January 2010, age 57). Another example?

PowerPoint has not only changed the world of work it has also dramatically changed the world of education. Consider this. Most lectures at universities – even in graduate school – are given using PowerPoint. Lecturers (or should I say PowerPointers) like it because they feel more in control of the lecture process. It gives them more confidence to have the slides at their command when they stand up to speak, say, for 1 to 2 hours in a large lecture hall. Students (the PowerPointed), however, also like it because it gives them more control over what they have to learn. How? PowerPoint typically reduces what students have to know for “the exam.” More and more, by tacit agreement between professor and student, what students are required to know is what is on the slides. And the slides reduce what students need to know. Conservatively, the maximum information you can reasonably get on a slide is 125 words. (Half the number of words you can fit on a single type-written, double-spaced 8½-by-11 inch page. But this is far in excess of the ideal of educational PowerPoint. The ideal is 5 to 7 bullet points each with no more than 5 to 7 words (The 5X5 rule or the 7X7 rule). The ideal reduces 125 words to 25 to 49 words a saving to students of 60.8 to 80 percent.

The medium of PowerPoint may be one of the more powerful and unseen forces that has driven the much-discussed decline in university education over the last generation. In education, unlike architecture or design, less may not be more.

Do you agree? Is PowerPoint enabling students to get by knowing less?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post
Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 280-281.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, January 26th, 2010
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Things change but we do not know it

Marshall McLuhan (November 18, 1961, age 50).  Thank goodness for Walter Ong.

It was a delight to have Walter Ong, Father Ong, S.J., that is, come to visit at 29 Wells Avenue here in Toronto.  Corinne fixed quite a spread for us.  He was my first and best graduate student – a damn good study he wrote on Gerald Manley Hopkins for his M.A. under me at St. Louis and an absolutely brilliant one on Ramus, a long neglected figure in Renaissance theology for his PH. D. under God knows who at Harvard.  It was Walter through his study of Ramus who helped me see that the world turned up-side down after the advent of printing.  The auditory world of rhetoric gave way to the visual world of the logic.  And from this everything western grew– rationality, the nation state, modern economic growth.

Of course no one sees the media at work.  They are invisible.  The good old medium does its work on us and we go on differently, but do not see that everything has changed.

Me (January 2010, age 57).  For example?

PowerPoint has made dramatic changes to the way people work and study.  Today I want to talk about the world of work.   Next week I’ll talk about the world of education.

If you want to see very clearly how a new medium can reshape the environment, literally, and work us over at the same time, the next time you’re watching a presentation stop listening and watching the presentation and look around you.  What do you see?

Here’s what I saw at one presentation.  I’m sitting in a darkened, windowless room.  The room is dominated by a screen filling the center of the wall ahead.  The speaker is standing with her back to the audience enthralled with the slide show appearing on the screen.  She is the audio-visual aide to – or the electric bride of – the PowerPoint slide show.  A long time passes.  The audience appears to be very involved with the screen.  Very little appears to have been accomplished.

Stop and look around at the next presentation you see.  What do you see?   How does what you see affect how you think?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 280-281.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, January 23rd, 2010
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The practical side of Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan (January 4, 1961 age 49).  The President needs me

I don’t know what our President would do without me.  Claude Bissell that is, the President of dear old Toronto University, not Ike, the President of the United States, who by the way I do not like.  Claude has asked me to give his advisory group of senior academics the benefit of my views on the changes in higher learning necessitated by the electric age.  It pains me to think of the changes sweeping through our leather-patched, tweed-ridden, and chalk-dusty world of which this august body is totally oblivious.  No matter, it is my duty to tell them what they do not know.  In short they are obsolete.  I wonder how they will take the news.

Me (January 2010, age 57).  I wonder?

Claude Bissell was one of Marshall McLuhan’s great supporters at U. of T.  Both were professors of English and had known each other since the late 1940s.  Bissell is said to have woken up to the brilliance and rising celebrity of McLuhan shortly after he had become President of the university. He was surprised on a speaking tour of American universities when the first question he was asked after one presentation was not about the university but about McLuhan:  Could he explain the new theories of Professor McLuhan?  Toronto, he realized, had an asset the value of which he and the school was unaware.   How Bissell’s senior academic advisory group reacted to McLuhan’s presentation is not known.  However, I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting.  The points McLuhan planned on making are almost certainly ones designed to raise the blood pressure of senior academics – even today – to dangerous levels.  For example, he predicted that increases in information in the electric age will result in startling reversals of role for and within the university.  For example:  The ivory tower will become the city center.  Students will become teachers.  TV will replace the book in the curriculum.

This news – especially when presented in the opaque language of “changes in centre-margin roles” – McLuhan must have known would be met with considerable rolling of eyes and raising of brows among the assembled professors.  And therefore it is understandable that at the same time as he agreed to Bissell’s request McLuhan also asked if he could make “an initial presentation to you” (that is Bissell.)  For people who only know about Marshall McLuhan from the pages of Playboy, Wired, or Rolling Stone, this hard-headed, practical strategy will come as quite a shock.   And even to those familiar with McLuhan’s books this may come as a shock.  Marshall McLuhan the practical rhetorician?   The sensible persuader?  However easily forgotten, this is a part of McLuhan, too, and one from which we can all learn.

What presentation do you or someone you know have to make that would benefit by being preceded by an initial presentation to one or two key people?

 

Cordially, Marshall and Me

 

Reading for this post

Marshall McLuhan and George B. Leonard.  “The Future of Education: the Class of 1989,” Look, February 21, 1967, pp. 23-25.

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Michael Hinton Friday, January 22nd, 2010
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Is everything a medium?

Marshall McLuhan (January 4, 1971 age 59).  Yes!

He who is tired of London, said Dr. Johnson, is tired of life.  I’m not tired of London or life but I’m getting bloody tired of people asking me what I mean when I say “the medium is the message.”  Mr. Edwin Newman opened up our talk today, thankfully, with at least a variation on this bloody question: why he asked me is the medium the message?  Why isn’t the message the message?   Poor old Ed.  He does get himself wound up in visual knots.  Ed, I said, what .. is … the … message … of… the … electric … light?  He didn’t know.  Asked me if there was one.  Bloody cheek.  The answer is obvious.  The medium and the message are one.  The message is the medium.

Me (January 2010, age 57).  No!

From his discovery of communications as the proper subject for his study in the early 1950s Marshall McLuhan moved on in the 1960s and 1970s to view everything made by man as a medium of communications and thus an appropriate subject for his study.  This shift opened up endless subjects for his study but sharply reduced his ability to say anything useful about them.

Consider the “media” he devoted chapters to in Understanding Media.  One of the many reasons people found the book hard to understand was the all encompassing meaning of media.  Things ordinary people would think of as communications media are discussed:  newspapers, radio, television.  But then so are things people don’t naturally think of as media, such as numbers, clocks, money, comics, and weapons.  The result is Babel.  Naturally, Marshall McLuhan has fascinating things to say about the wheel, the bicycle and the aeroplane as media, but what he has to say about them makes far less sense and is far less interesting than what he has to say about the traditional communications.

To a young boy with a hammer, the old saying goes, everything is a nail.  Marshall McLuhan’s new hammer was his theory that communications media themselves rather than their contents exert a powerful and neglected influence on the way we think and behave.  Over time Marshall McLuhan broadened his definition of what a medium is.  So much so that by the 1970s “the medium is the message” had become in effect “everything is the message?”  As interesting as this thought is I can’t help thinking, and I think rightly, that the message of the rocking chair, soap-on-a-rope, or the pocket fisherman is less interesting than the message of twitter, the internet, or PowerPoint.

Take a look at Understanding Media. Which of all the media that McLuhan talks about do you think are the ones that are least like traditional communications media?   My personal favourite is ‘games.’

Take a look at your world. Do the people you know in sales look on everything as if it was a sale?  Do researchers think everything needs more research?  Do teachers think everything needs teaching?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Viewing for this post

Marshall McLuhan and Edwin Newman:  “Speaking Freely” hosted by Edwin Newman, 4  January 1971.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, January 21st, 2010
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How productive are you?

Marshall McLuhan (December 25, 1960 age 49).  Its time!

I’ve been too busy writing to write you a letter.  It seems that Sunday is the only day I can look up from what I’m doing.  For years I’ve been reading other people’s stuff.  Reading it and re-reading it.  Now it’s time for me to see what I’ve got to say.  Actually, I’ve found I have a lot to say.  I’ve just finished the big book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, my book about yesterday, the world that has ended – 400 typescript pages in less than 30 days.  Must go, I’ve got proof reading to do if I’m going to meet my deadline and get this off to the publisher the day after tomorrow.  And then I begin the next one, my book about today, the world about us which no one can see, Understanding Media.

Me (January 2010, age 57).  McLuhan uses deadlines to speed up.

From what’s said about Marshall McLuhan in magazines, on the web, deadlines are not something you would expect the philosopher of pop cult to be using to get work done.   And of course he does use them.  McLuhan was a very practical if eccentric genius.  For example, he once took a speed reading course to get a fresh take on what it means to read in the electronic age.  He said that the main benefit of the course was that he was able to read and dispose of junk mail faster.  There are at least two ideas here worth following up.  And I will do so in the questions.

If speed reading’s benefit is to allow you to wade through junk writing faster is there a way to tell what’s junk without having to read it?  I profile.  What strategies do you use? And, in what way do you use deadlines in your own work? School is all about deadlines.  But those deadlines don’t work for everyone.  Do they, or did they, work for you?  Here’s what Julien Smith said about deadlines in a recent blog post.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, p. 276.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, January 20th, 2010
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What do managers do?

Marshall McLuhan (December 14, 1960 age 49).  They get someone else to do it and they make sure no one else gets in the way

I just sent off a letter to Claude Bissell, the President of Toronto University, to give him the benefit of my most recent thinking.  Hope he finds it useful.  I know I do.  For example, what do top executives do?  Most people say executives make decisions.  But that’s not the job.  Decision making is impossible in a world that’s changing at high-speed.  That’s why so many executives settle for non-decision-making.  That’s the easy but ultimately ineffective way out.  What’s hard and more effective is to organize or rather coordinate people to make their own decisions when and where they have to and work with one another to achieve results.  That is what a symphony conductor does.  As information levels and the speed of change keep rising the coordinating or conducting job of the manager-conductor will get greater and greater.

Me (January 2010, age 57).  McLuhan versus Mintzberg

Recently Henry Mintzberg wrote a book, Managing, that is a rewrite and update of his 1973 book, The Nature of Managerial Work.  Among Mintzberg’s more controversial views is his claim that the job of the manager hasn’t changed in thousands of years.  Marshall McLuhan, it’s safe to say would have disagreed with Mintzberg.  McLuhan’s fundamental point (see above) is that in the high information flows of the electronic age things are moving too fast for executives to make the decisions.  They need to be conductors or organizers, of the other people in their organizations who need to be the ones who decide and act.

What do you think?  Has the job of the manager changed?  Is Mintzberg right that the President of SNC Lavalin, say,  and Cheops’ contractor could switch positions and the great pyramid of Giza and a rail system in Algeria would still get built without a hitch?

(Announcement:  The winner of the classify Marshall McLuhan contest is Deborah Hinton,  for her entry, “I’d say McLuhan is the third person in our marriage.” )

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Henry Mintzberg.  Managing. San Francisco:  Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009.

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, pp. 274-276.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, January 19th, 2010
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