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 March, 2010

Can you ever really say good-bye?

Marshall McLuhan (March 1, 1966, age 54).   All can be well.

I do not know how people can say I am a cheerleader for the new electric media.  Here’s a line from Harold Rosenberg’s 1965 New Yorker article on me: “Understanding Media is McLuhan’s good-bye to Gutenberg and to Renaissance, ‘typographic’ man; that is to the self-centered individual.”

Well, it may be, but my hope is that it is not.  I am, myself, after all, a typographic man.  What I have often said I will say again.  Our culture and values, which were nurtured and developed by print, need not disappear as a result of the rise of the new electric media.  By studying these new media we can ensure that we survive them.  But study them we must for if we play the role of helpless bystander we will surely go the way of the Dodo.

Me (March 2010, age 57).  An experiment

A month ago, the Hinton household said good bye to TV.  In other words we are now studying the effects of TV on us.  How is it going?  The first effect is that we have returned to the dinner table to eat dinner.  The second is that TV has reappeared in our lives as the contents of other, newer media such as the internet (PBS.com, CBS.com, CTV.com, Global.com, etc.) and DVD.   And as McLuhan said the new media (DVD and internet download) does make the old media (TV) look like classic fare.  At any rate, “Nurse Jackie” on DVD does not feel like TV.  It feels more like film.  Or rather filmish.

Do you know anyone who has said good bye to TV or other media?  What has been the effect?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 334

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, March 31st, 2010
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The 90-10 Rule

Marshall McLuhan (October 3, 1964, age 53).   10 beats 90

Peter Drucker puts it correctly in Managing for Results that 10 per cent of the events cause 90 per cent of the events.  To understand what’s happening then one only needs to attend to 10 percent of what’s happening.  But what is it that we have our eyes on?  That’s right, the 90 per cent.  The 90 per cent are the problems, the dead events.  They don’t influence anything.  They’re the results of what’s making the world spin.  What we need to do is attend to the critical 10 per cent.

Me (March 2010, age 57).  Attending to the critical 10 per cent

McLuhan goes on to say that sensible people deal with problems.  That is why they attend to the 90 per cent of the events that are the problems rather than the critical 10 per cent which are the opportunities or solutions.  The solution to this dilemma would seem to be evident:  be non-sensible.  If McLuhan is right the opportunities in any situation are the things you are not looking at.

For example, consider the problem of garbage in the streets, which seems to be a problem in large cities.  If we pay attention to the problem our eyes are drawn to the actions of people who don’t appear to care and throw stuff on the side walk.  Perhaps we should pay attention instead to the opportunities, the people who care, the people who design and support recycling programs that result inevitably in a small but significant amount of trash winding up on the streets?

What can you do to shake yourself out of the approaches and routines of sensible people? Ask yourself what isn’t a problem in your life.  If McLuhan is right that’s where you need to look to find your opportunities.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 311.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, March 30th, 2010
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The Marshall McLuhan approach.

Marshall McLuhan (January 13, 1966, age 54). Why I have no point of view.

It’s really quite simpIe, I want know what’s going on.  Have you noticed that people with points of view, theories to defend, axes to grind, are the most emotional?  In most organizations everyone has a point of view.  As a result they cannot see what’s going on.  They’re too busy getting hot under the collar – too busy looking at things from their fixed stance, to see what’s happening.

Me (March 2010, age 57). Why have a point of view?

What about the people where you work?  If everyone has their point of view, who is able to see what’s going on?  Instead of having ‘Casual Fridays’, why don’t you suggest that next Friday be declared, ‘No Point of View Friday’?

What if he’s right not to have a point of view?  Maybe you should drop your point of view, whatever it is?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 332.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, March 27th, 2010
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The Tom Wolfe approach.

Marshall McLuhan (November 22, 1965, age 54). What a delightful portrait!

Corinne and I have just finished reading Tom Wolfe’s delightful portrait of me.  He’s got a few details wrong, but I like the big picture.

Me (March 2010, age 57). What a delightful approach

In 1965, at the height of Marshall McLuhan’s celebrity, Tom Wolfe published a profile of McLuhan in New York, the Sunday magazine section of the New York World Journal Tribune.  In that article which he revised and included in his 1968 collection of essays, The Pump House Gang, he probably did exaggerate how much McLuhan was paid for speaking engagements ($25,000 seems high), and his description of McLuhan’s pre-tied tie as a ‘snap-on’ is probably better described as a ‘clip-on.’ [earlier post].  But these are small quibbles, this is still one of the best short descriptions of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas, celebrity, and personality

His approach – captured in the title of his article, ‘What if he’s right?’ – is I think the best way to approach McLuhan’s ideas.  Consider, for example, one of McLuhan’s ideas which people in the 1960s considered crazy:  in the future goods of all kinds will be sold unwrapped in bins.  Today, with the rise of stores such as Winner’s and Whole Foods, and the environmental movement McLuhan’s prediction is sounding more and more like common sense.

What if he’s right?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 330.

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Michael Hinton Friday, March 26th, 2010
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The rear view mirror.

Marshall McLuhan (October 6, 1965, age 54). Is this any way to live?

Unaware of the environment that surrounds them, people do not see the world for what it is.  Instead they insist on seeing it as it was.  The present which contains the future lies before them, but they do not see it.  Instead they see the past.  You might say this is like driving with your eyes firmly fixed on the rear view mirror.  Fortunately, I don’t drive.

Me (March 2010, age 57). Is there any other way?

If this is the human condition, what can we do about it? The possible courses of action would seem to be:  (1) Distrust your senses; (2) Hope there are no bends in the road; (3) Find ways to wake yourself up* and see the present; (4) Hope that McLuhan got this one wrong.

*The standard approaches are: read history, travel, and look for patterns

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 325.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, March 25th, 2010
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Don’t read your critics, write them!

Marshall McLuhan (March 9, 1965, age 53). Critics!

I’m delighted that Harold Rosenberg has written a review of Understanding Media in the New Yorker.  I don’t think I will ever get around to reading it, however, I do think I’ll drop him a line to tell him where he went wrong.

Me (March 2010, age 57). A critical response

Harold Rosenberg’s review of Understanding media published in the February 27, 1965, issue of the New Yorker was one of the pieces that helped make McLuhan famous.  (You can find it reprinted in Gerald Emanuel Stearn, ed. McLuhan: Hot & Cool, 1967)  McLuhan wrote to Rosenberg on March 1, 1965 to complain that Rosenberg was wrong to say that his writing was repetitive.   McLuhan insisted that he did not repeat things.  Rather – if I understand him correctly – with each return to an idea in a different context he was actually revealing small and subtly different meanings in it.  In his words the ‘scenery does not change but the texture does.’

It is remarkable that McLuhan would write to a critic to set him straight (this does not seem to me to be a wise thing to do) and even more remarkably that at the time he wrote him he had not actually read Rosenberg’s review himself (which also does not seem to me to be a wise thing to do.)

How do you deal with critics?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 318.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, March 24th, 2010
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Canada’s view of the U.S.A.

Marshall McLuhan (March 4, 1965, age 53). Americans cannot see what they are doing

I was just telling Claude Bissell, the President of Toronto University, about a new idea of mine.  The United States is Canada’s environment.  That is we are surrounded by the United States in every possible way, socially, culturally, economically.  The Americans of course are caught up in this environment but are numb to it.  They do not see it, but we do.  Canadians are able to see the unstated rules and ways of operating that Americans cannot see.

Me (March 2010, age 57).  What do Canadians see?

As a Canadian living in Canada there are things that stick out about America for me.  For example, the violence of the political debate about health care reform and Tea Party activists protesting taxation.   Also, Sarah Palin, the politicization of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the lionization of Teddy Kennedy.  But do these things stick out because – in McLuhan’s language – Canada is anti-environment to the U.S.A.’s environment?  Canadians do have a good seat from which to view what goes on in the U.S.A.  But whether it is a great seat is far from clear.

What things Canadian, if any, stick out for Americans?  Tim Horton’s? The recent paraOlympics?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 319.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010
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Douglas Coupland’s Marshall McLuhan [cont’d]

Marshall McLuhan (March 20, age 98).  I failed!

Corinne went out shopping – heaven’s not what I thought it was going to be – which gave me the opportunity to take that test in Douglas Coupland’s book about me.  For the record my score was 21, which is a delightful result, particularly because it is divisible by three.

Me (March 2010, age 57).  So did I!

As I promised to do yesterday, I took the test, too.  My score was 19, which, sadly, is not divisible by three, but is a prime!

The test as Coupland explains in Marshall McLuhan was devised by psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues at Cambridge.  It is called the Autism-Spectrum Quotient, or AQ, and is ‘a measure of the extent of autistic traits in adults.’  According to Coupland ‘in the first major trial using the test, the average score of the control group was 16.4.  Eighty percent of those diagnosed with autism or a related disorder scored 32 or higher.’

Coupland suggests that to understand Marshall McLuhan it is helpful to view him as autistic.  What does that mean?  It does not mean, as Coupland says, that McLuhan couldn’t function in the world.   He clearly did and so do many people who are autistic.  It means in living his life he displayed particular traits.  According to the test, someone with autism is more likely to prefer to do things on their own, do things the same way over and over again, and when imagining something, find it hard to create a picture in their mind.  People without autism are just the opposite.  Moreover the autistic tend to notice small sounds when others do not, are fascinated by numbers, and don’t particularly enjoy reading fiction.

But looking through this list I find it hard to see Marshall McLuhan as ‘autistic’.  For example:  He was fascinated by some kinds of numbers (numbers divisible by three – he was superstitious) but not all numbers (he thought of himself as a word man not a number man); and reading fiction was both his passion and his profession as a teacher of English literature at the University of Toronto.  Admittedly, however, he did love his routines and often claimed to dislike change of any kind.  The question is does the profile of someone with autism give us a quick and dirty way to profile Marshall McLuhan?  Douglas Coupland says it does.  I say no.  I never met Marshall McLuhan.  My understanding of him is based on my reading (including 4 biographies, his letters and books, and papers held at the National archives) and interviews with some people who knew him (including Professor Abraham Rotstein – who was part of McLuhan’s discussion group on media and technology at Toronto in the 1960s -and Dr. Michael Easterbrook – who is the son of McLuhan’s closest and oldest friend – Tom Easterbrook.

To profile Marshall McLuhan as ‘autistic’ makes for good tabloid reading.  McLuhan did have some of the characteristics of autism.  His hearing – like Coupland’s, apparently – was preternaturally acute.  But many of the traits of autism seem to me to be wrong or smudgy ways to understand him.  For example, the autistic, it is said, are often the last to understand the point of a joke.  Marshall McLuhan was an irrepressible punning wise guy.

At bottom, my view is that to profile him as autistic is wrong on two levels.  First, and most basically, it is wrong because the traits of autism mislead as much as they help in understanding McLuhan.  And second, more fundamentally, it is wrong because it suggests, falsely, that McLuhan can be understood in one simple step.  The messy reality of McLuhan is that he was an eccentrically unique complex individual who can and cannot be understood simply.  A man of extraordinary gifts – creative genius, a photographic memory, the ability to make profound associations between people and events that at first sight would seem to be unrelated – he was a brilliant and unstoppable talker and a horrendous listener, oblivious social niceties and the needs of others.  To label him as ‘autistic’ is not to know him better but to know him less.

Did you pass the test?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Douglas Coupland, Marshall McLuhan, 2009

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Michael Hinton Saturday, March 20th, 2010
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Douglas Coupland’s Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan (March 19, age 98). Another biography!

‘Did you have a look at it?’

‘A look at what, Corinne?’

‘Douglas Coupland’s new book of course.’

‘Why should I?’

‘It’s about you!’

‘Very well, let’s take a look at page 69.  Oh boy, it’s some sort of women’s magazine test. By God it’s a test for Autism.  The bloody fool thinks I’m autistic!’

‘No he doesn’t Marshall. Look at page 66.’

‘I am.  And it’s not helping.  The point is he’s trying to label me.  Stick me in a box.  Put me in a hole.  Well. I won’t have it.  Besides, the damn thing’s shot full of errors.  He’s got my birth date wrong on page 36, July 20th indeed.’

‘Calm yourself, Marshall.  You know what the doctor said before you died.  No excitement.’

‘July 20th.  Ought to be able to get my birth date right.’

‘Marshall, put that book away.’

‘I thought you wanted me to have a look at it.’

‘I did and now I want you to stop looking at it.’

Me (March 2010, age 57). But not just any biography

In turns brilliant, playful, infuriating, clever, self-promoting, and self-indulgent, Douglas Coupland’s new biography of McLuhan – in bookstores this month – will be required reading for anyone who wants to understand Douglas Coupland.   Whether anyone who wants to understand Marshall McLuhan needs to read him is less certain.  At this time, I am not sure myself.  I am sure, however, that anyone who wants to understand Marshall McLuhan will take pleasure reading this book.  Right or wrong, Coupland is a writer of great talent, and great talent is displayed.

There is great anagrammatical word play on McLuhan’s name.

There are excerpts from Coupland’s novel, Generation A – the sequel to Generation X – which he wrote at the same time as he was researching his book on McLuhan – which he says are there because the first excerpt reveals the ‘apocalyptic thinking that permeated much of Marshall’s later years,’ and the second because it was inspired by the stroke McLuhan suffered in 1979.

There are strong assertions about McLuhan.  He was Coupland says:

A Momma’s boy

A Performance artist

A Genius

Arrogant

Charming

Funny

Boring

Inflammatory

Clueless

Stoked

Godlike

Full of horseshit

I will return to this book.  And you should go and see the test he presents for autism that infuriated McLuhan and was created by Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues.

Do you pass the test?  (The Autism-Spectrum Quotient, or AQ – ‘a measure of the extent of autistic traits in adults.’) I’ll post my score and Marshall’s tomorrow.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Douglas Coupland, Marshall McLuhan, 2009

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Michael Hinton Friday, March 19th, 2010
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People don’t get ‘the medium is the message’

Marshall McLuhan (October 3, 1964, age 52).  It’s the environment!

Why didn’t I think of it before?  Of course the medium is the message, but when I say it – and I do love saying it – I just get a bunch of blank stares.  ‘What do you mean by that Professor McLuhan?’  The full answer would take some time.  But I’ve discovered a way to say it that people can get.  The new version is that every new technology creates its own environment which contains as its content the old environment.  For example the automobile has built up a vast sprawling network of roads, highways, gas stations, roadside restaurants, and populations of commuters living in their suburbs.  This new environment contains the old environment created by the railroad.  We all see the old environment big cities strung out on the railway lines in sharp relief. What is invisible to us is the new environment.  Why else would you think it normal to spend 2 to 3 hours a day commuting?

Me (March 2010, age 57). How to see the new environment

The next time you’re in a restaurant look around.  Chances are you’ll see people at neighboring tables talking animatedly to people who are somewhere else.  The cell phone and blackberry have created their own new environment which contains the old environment of the land-line phone and face-to-face conversation.  Before the spread of these inventions people would stay at home or at the office to be connected now people can go out and stay connected.   Today people are no longer tied to their homes or offices, but there is a price for this.

Can you ever not be connected?  Under what circumstances would you not take a call or respond to a text message.  When would you?  While shopping or driving?  At dinner with friends?  In bed with your wife, husband, or partner?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.311

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Michael Hinton Thursday, March 18th, 2010
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