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

What went wrong?

Marshall McLuhan (September 17, 1964, age 52). Not the Hawthorne experiment!

Why do people insist on seeing the Hawthorne experiment as a failure?    Is it really a case of the observer getting his finger stuck in the experiment and screwing up the results?  Or was it actually a great success.  If you think about it, what the Hawthorne experiment actually teaches is that the testing finger is a marvelous way to establish conditions to ensure learning and productivity.  Which reminds me, I’ve got to run, I’ve a stack of exams to grade.

Me (March 2010, age 57). Testing can be good for you.

In 1927 a group of Harvard business school professors were invited by Western Electric to study ways of increasing productivity at their Hawthorne, Illinois plant.  The company believed that by improving lighting in the plant they could increase productivity in the making of telephone equipment.  But they were getting odd results.  No clear relationship could be found between improved lighting and productivity.  The Harvard professors increased the sophistication of the tests.  A group of woman workers were isolated from the rest and one-by-one changes were introduced: lighting, rest periods, hours, pay.  As a result with careful measurement the professors could isolate the effect of each variable by holding the others constant.  For example they could compare the output of the group working x hours a day with lighting level y and pay level z to the output of same group working x hours a day with lighting level y and pay level 2z – the difference in output being the effect of increased pay.  Unfortunately the results didn’t seem to make sense.  They found that output shot up when controlled changes were made.  They also found it shot up when no changes were made.  What was going on?  The professors concluded that the women’s productivity went up because of the fact of testing.  The testing, it was thought, rather than the conditions under which groups worked, had shaped them into cohesive highly productive teams that wanted to perform better and had an audience (the professors) to perform for.

Should managers be doing Hawthorne-type testing today?  Why don’t our schools spend more time on testing and less on the content of the curriculum?  How can you and I put the lessons of Hawthorne to work in our organizations and our lives?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.310

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, March 17th, 2010
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Sensible people don’t get it.

Marshall McLuhan (July 10, 1964, age 52). Copernicus had no common sense.

This morning as I was shaving it struck me that sensible people look at media with pre-Copernican / pre-Galileo / pre-Newtonian spectacles.  After all is it sensible to believe that the earth we are standing on is round?   That it is spinning at a rate of 1000 miles per hour?  And that the force that brings an apple to the ground explains the tides and the passage of the moon in the night sky?  Why then should anyone believe TV is changing us?   

Me (March 2010, age 57). The medium is the message.  Again…

We are back to “the medium is the message.”   It is sensible to think that electronic media are like windows we look through.  They can distort our vision but they cannot change what we see.  But media are not passive planes of glass.  They reach out to us and into us rearranging the world to suit their needs – cities, roads, buildings, rooms – and rewiring our consciousnesses.

It is not sensible to think about media this way.  Our senses tell us the opposite, that we control our media.  That they’re simple tools we pick up and put down as we will.  McLuhan believed that media change us.   This is an idea most people will reject.

What do you think?  Do media change you?

Speaking of ideas some may find hard to accept, a new biography of McLuhan by Douglas Coupland is now in the bookstores.

I will be reading Coupland’s biography of McLuhan with two questions in mind (Thanks to Douglas John Hall, Professor Emeritus of Theology at McGill for this approach): (1)  What is it that Coupland wants to present, praise, or build up about McLuhan and his work?  And what is it that he wants to deflate, criticize, or pull down?   More on it later this week once I’ve had a chance to read it.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.306

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, March 16th, 2010
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New media are hungry

Marshall McLuhan (August 10, 1964, age 53). Here’s a new idea!

This is an idea that hit me too late to be incorporated into Understanding Media, which I might add – and I will – has been doing ‘vurry’ well at the book stores.  New media have a habit of swallowing old media and in so doing transforming them.  The newspaper swallowed the book.  Film swallowed newspapers and books.  TV swallowed film.  Film on TV became something quite different from what it was  – shlock transformed into a high-class art form.  Books when printed serially in newspapers became something quite different, too.  Dickens and Conan Doyle ceased to be writers of pot-boilers and became literary masters.  Here’s the rule:  new medium eats old medium and the old becomes high art while the new is seen as low art.

Me (March 2010, age 57). Does the rule still work?

Let’s see.  Are the series ‘Magnum PI’ or ‘Murder, She Wrote’ seen on DVD today different from what they were on TV in the 1980s?  Seriously though the rule seems to have two parts:

  • new media eat or swallow or contain old media; and
  • the new media are seen as low class (kitsch, grade B, cliché) and the old media as high class (art, grade A, archetype).

And the first part is easier to swallow than the second.  The cell phone has swallowed the watch.  Watches have become chronometers.  E-mail has swallowed the letter and the letter has become art.  The computer has swallowed the filing cabinet (and a great many other things) and filing cabinets are becoming classy collectables.

What’s becoming art in your home?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.308

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Michael Hinton Saturday, March 13th, 2010
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Twitter’s changing the world

Marshall McLuhan (July 10, 1964, age 52). Complex.

People raised on books have some very simple-minded ideas about TV and other electric media.  TV is not simply a new way to deliver news and entertainment.   Just because people have these ideas does not mean electric media do not have complex effects on psyche and society.  Change is all about us, but it is convenient for the vested interests to pretend that nothing has changed.

Me (March 2010, age 57).  Complex.

People raised on TV seem to have a hard time understanding the new social media.  Take Twitter for example.  If there is anything obvious about what Twitter is doing to psyche and society it is that it is recreating the world as virtual high school.  We all want to know what the cool kids are doing right now.  Brad’s shooting hoops.  Brittany’s nabbed a great pair of Manolo Blahnik pumps.  Leo’s stuck at LAX.  Life as we knew it is collapsing to 140 characters.  But of course one could chose to believe that nothing has really changed.  Twitter’s a faux-fad.   There’s nothing to it.  If we hold our breath it will all go away.

What’s your take?  Simple or complex?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.306-07

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Michael Hinton Friday, March 12th, 2010
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Everything can be checked out

Marshall McLuhan (July 3, 1964, age 52).  My statements are not opinions.

People seem to believe that I make things up out of thin air.  It simply isn’t true.  Everything that I say can be checked out, and if it doesn’t check out – à la Popper – it can be chucked out.  If I was simply expressing a personal opinion I wouldn’t bother to say it.

Me (February 2010, age 57).  Can we check this out?

Here is one of the statements of Marshall McLuhan: since the advent of TV Americans have become less visual.

(The visual he said perceive the world as “uniform, continuous, and connected”  – like a page of printed text.  To be visual is to view the world from a distance – to be uninvolved, objective, and rational.  To view the world less visually is to perceive it more acoustically – acoustic space is “fluctuating, discontinuous, and disconnected” – the world  viewed up close – intimately, emotionally and tactically.  The less visual are less objective, less rational.  They are involved.)

A case can certainly be made that this is true.  Compare “The Dick Cavett Show” to “Oprah”, the “The Twilight Zone” to “Numbers” or “Perry Mason” to “Boston Legal.”  America today has a more tactile less visual feel.  Granted, it’s not a scientific test, but in a rough and ready way it does provide support for Marshall McLuhan’s statement.

Are we all becoming more or less visual?  Is each generation less visual than its predecessor?  If so, what difference does it make?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.304

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Michael Hinton Thursday, March 11th, 2010
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We are not visual creatures any more

Marshall McLuhan (May 1964, age 52). North Americans are biased.

It is odd that North Americans will accept no other way of perceiving the world apart from the visual.  The Brits have never gone this far, nor the French.  To North Americans there is only one way for rational people to understand the world:  in visual space.  Visual space is continuous, uniform, and connected.  That is the bias the North American brings to his understanding.  Here only seeing is believing.  There is no other way.

Me (February 2010, age 57).  Today feeling is believing.

If Marshall McLuhan was right about the power of new electric media North Americans – especially those who are the second, third and fourth generations of TV kids – are no longer visually biased.  The new bias is that of acoustic space, which is discontinuous, non-uniform, and disconnected.

Today seeing is no longer believing – feeling is believing.  The good life is tactile:  It’s “cool” “sweet” or “juicy.”

How many of the trends and assumptions of the world today fit with this new bias?  Shortening attention spans, illiteracy and innumeracy, the failing of teachers rather than students, relative truth, the importance placed on intuition and feelings, emotional intelligence, grade inflation, political correctness?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.300

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, March 10th, 2010
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The problem with points of view

Marshall McLuhan (June, 1964, age 52). Observe!

Why do people assume that to write about something that you must have a point of view?  Robert Fulford makes this mistake in his review of Understanding Media, which at long last has been published.  I’m an observer not a point of viewer.

Me (February 2010, age 57).  It’s hard to observe when you’re judging.

Marshall McLuhan often denied he had a point of view, which struck his critics as odd.  Surely they said you must have some idea about what it is you are writing about.  But that is not what Marshall McLuhan was denying.  What he was saying is that as much as possible he tried not to make value judgments about the world, but instead observe it.  “A point of view,” says the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, “[is] a mental standpoint from which a matter is considered.”  Marshall McLuhan believed that to have a “mental standpoint” is be on a slippery slope to judgment.

What if you carried a note book around with you in which you kept a record of your approval or disapproval of every person, place or thing you encountered in the course of the day?  Would this be a good day or a bad day?  What kind of person would an impartial observer consider you to be?  Creative, observant, and involved?  Or critical, judgmental, and arrogant. Would you have actually seen anything that day?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.300

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, March 9th, 2010
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Why do communications fail?

Marshall McLuhan (June 15, 1964, age 52).  That’s a good question.

I’m constantly amazed that anyone at any time can communicate anything to anyone else.  This morning, for example, Corinne asked me, “Do you think this dress makes me look fat?”

“What do you mean?” said I.

“Just what I said.”

“What was that?”


That I think is pretty typical of conversations between married couples.  And yet It seems to me that most of us assume that most of the time when we are communicating we are actually communicating even though, of course, we’re doing nothing of the sort.  The better assumption to make if you want to communicate is to assume you’ll be misunderstood.  Must run, I’m being interviewed at the CBC in 30 minutes.  I wonder where my lucky jacket is?

“Corinne?  Do you know where my tartan jacket is?

“The red or the green?

“The red, of course.”

“In the closet, on the right.”

“It’s not there.”

“Marshall, if I come up and find it hanging there.”

“Never mind.  I’ll find it myself.”


Me (February 2010, age 57).  That’s a good answer.

What if you began every conversation with the assumption that it was highly unlikely that you would be able to get your message across instead of the assumption that it was highly likely that your message would be understood?  You might want to keep a mental diary today, I know I will, to keep note of the number of successful and unsuccessful conversations you have – successful meaning understood and unsuccessful meaning misunderstood.  So far, as I write this, it’s early in the day and I’m 1 for 2.

Are misunderstandings more or less likely at home or at work?  In which setting are you more likely to assume you will be understood?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.303

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Michael Hinton Saturday, March 6th, 2010
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Want to write like Milton?

Marshall McLuhan (April 20, 1964, age 52). Hendiadys is the key.

At breakfast I remarked to Corinne and the children that Ernest Sirlock’s remarkable article on Milton’s prose got me thinking about Milton’s use of the grammatical figure of Hendiadys.  Blank looks all around.  No matter – this is important.  Hendiadys is the mark of the 17th century mind.  A mind conditioned to look at the world ambivalently.  Not simply as “A” or “B” but “A” and “B”.  I looked again at Paradise Lost.  Do you know that Milton uses this device 19 times in the first 100 lines? “Death and Woe,” “Restore and regain,” “Raise and support” et cetera and ad infinitum!  Someone should study this.

Me (February 2010, age 57).  Let’s study it

But let’s study it not in Milton’s prose but Marshall McLuhan’s.  “Hendiadys” is a figure of speech, a “striking or unusual configuration of words or phrases.”  It is a Greek word meaning, “one by means of two.”  Richard Lanham (A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms) defines it as the”expression of an idea by two nouns connected by “and” instead of a noun and its qualifier.”  He gives as an example, “Not  you, coy Madame, your lowers and your looks,’ for “your lowering looks.”  If we apply this model to McLuhan’s examples from Milton we get the following translations: “deathly woe,” “restorative regain,” and “raising support.”

McLuhan is struck by the number of times he finds hendiadys appearing in the first 100 lines of Paradise Lost – 19.  How many times do you think we could find hendiadys appearing in the first 100 lines of his best seller Understanding Media published in 1964?  2 or 3?  I counted 20.  Here are the first three: “fragmentary and mechanical,” “space and time,” “collectively and corporately.”

Did Marshall McLuhan have a 17th century mind?   Did he intentionally edit his prose to increase its “complexity and ambivalence” (excuse my hendiadys)?  Would this feature, rather than the number of new ideas, say, be the real reason Understanding Media is difficult to understand?  Can you use hendiadys to effect in your writing to increase its power and profundity?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.298.

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Michael Hinton Friday, March 5th, 2010
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Want to stand out?

Marshall McLuhan (January, 1964, age 52). Here’s the rule.

Just finished chatting with Wilfred Watson, as usual it was a highly productive conversation.  Wilfred is really quite a good listener.  I realized that one can toggle back and forth between standing out and blending in.  Anything that is part of the ground, the environment, is low definition, and goes unseen, unrecognized.  Anything that stands out is figure, high definition, and commands attention.  Stop reading and look at this page.  What do you see?  The words are figure, the space between them is ground.  You can make a part of the figure ground and thus involving and invisible by a simple rule: repeat it.  Thus:


To reverse the effect eliminate the repetitions. Thus:


Andy Warhol uses this technique to great effect in his Pop Art show.  Repetition is the trick that allows him to turn Marilyn Monroe – who I hope you’ll agree is quite the figure – into ground.  Ditto for Elvis.

Me (February 2010, age 57).  Can life imitate art?

This is an idea that strikes me as extremely useful if only it could be applied.  Say you’re at a party and you want to make an impression, to stand out.  What can you do to be “figure” rather than “ground.”  Or say you’re at the same party and you don’t want to be noticed.  What can you do to be “ground” rather than “figure”?

McLuhan says the key is repetition.  But how?  One way to go from ground to figure is to speed up.  To repeat is to slow down.  In the extreme if you stop moving entirely you are constantly repeating the same image of yourself.  This is what a wall flower does.

Some weeks ago Julien Smith asked the question; “Can you blend in and stand out at the same time?” McLuhan’s rule would seem to say no you can’t.  You can either be figure, stand out, or be ground, and blend in.  You can’t be both.

Or can you? [see earlier post]

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.297.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, March 4th, 2010
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