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 June, 2010

Marshall McLuhan: Cult Hero (cont’d)

Marshall McLuhan (1970, age 59).  Let’s be serious.

Marshall?

Yes.

That book Representative Men: Cult Heroes of Our Time. [see yesterday’s post]

What about it?

If you’re a cult hero, does that mean people think you have the answers?

Yes.  But as usual people are wrong.  I don’t have the answers.  I’ve got something far more important.  I have the questions.

Me (June 2010, age 57).   To find the questions look for the answers

Marshall McLuhan’s books would be easier to understand if he asked his questions in the form of questions.  Instead his questions appear in the form of bold unqualified statements, which he called probes.  Famously McLuhan said he made these statements not because he wanted people to believe him, but because he wanted them to think.

Here is an example: As technology advances, it reverses the characteristics of every situation again and again.  The age of automation is going to be the age of ‘do it yourself.’ (The Essential McLuhan, 1995, p. 283.)

Consider the number of ways our age is becoming a ‘do it yourself age.’  In McLuhan’s day someone else made appointments, dialed telephone calls, took messages, and typed and edited reports and presentations, and published.  Now with the help of technology, we do these things ourselves.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Representative Men: Cult Heroes of Our Time, edited by Theodore L. Gross.  New York: The Free press, 1970.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, June 16th, 2010
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Marshall McLuhan: Cult Hero

Marshall McLuhan (1970, age 59).  Corinne, look at this!

Look at what, Marshall?

This new book, Representative Men: Cult Heroes of Our Time.  I’m a cult hero.

A what?

A cult hero.  I quote – “the hero is an exceptional person who maintains authority over average people and seeks to realize an ideal.  In the pursuit of this ideal, the hero demonstrates certain characteristics.  He is a courageous, active social man whose passions are more intense than the people he represents; he is a man willing to dive, to take chances; he is someone  finally who sees more deeply into the experiences of the average man.”

Is that what you are?

It appears so.  But then who knows how long as my 15 minutes will last

Me (June 2010, age 57)   Yesterday and today

A book like Representative Men, which was published in 1970, reveals the extent of Marshall McLuhan’s fame and influence in the late 1960s.  Who made the list?  Just to read some of the names is to get a sense of high Marshall McLuhan flew in the 1960s and how far he has fallen in the public’s estimation today:  JFK, Jacqueline Onassis, J. D. Salinger, Malcolm X, Frank Sinatra, Arthur Miller, and Martin Luther King.

Certainly in the 1960s Marshall McLuhan was seen as someone who “sees … deeply into the experiences of the average man.”  A man who had the answers.  Whether he will ever be seen again as the man with the answers is doubtful.  But, as I hope this blog shows, whenever you turn to McLuhan insight and answers are possible.

More tomorrow

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Representative Men: Cult Heroes of Our Time, edited by Theodore L. Gross.  New York: The Free press, 1970.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, June 15th, 2010
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The coolness of TV and PowerPoint too

Marshall McLuhan (1965, age 54). TV is cool!

As I have pointed out in Understanding Media, TV is a cool medium.  It is low definition.  It provides information sparsely, not richly, which means it is extremely involving.  All the senses are put to work.  Naturally it induces high participation in an audience.

Me (June 2010, age 57).  So is PowerPoint!

Like TV, PowerPoint is a cool medium.  Although little recognized as such, PowerPoint’s coolness is one of the reasons – McLuhan would have said the chief reason – it has come to dominate the world of presentation and at the same time attract widespread criticism as a tool for oversimplifying communication.

Last year I saw a PowerPoint presentation given by the chief economist of a bank in which it was easy to see how cool the medium was.  The presentation took place in a large ballroom in a hotel in Montreal.   Two large screens glowed on either side of her.  While she was obviously a good speaker and the audience seemed to be very involved in the talk hardly anyone looked at her.  Instead all eyes were riveted on the screens.  After the presentation was over I asked someone at a neighbouring table what they thought of the talk.  Their answer: “Too simple.”

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1965, p. 319.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, June 12th, 2010
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The solution to the puzzle: Will the real Marshall McLuhan please stand up!

Marshall McLuhan (June, 2010, age 98).  Foul play!

I assure you I had nothing to do with this puzzle.  After all, as you should know, I’ve been dead and buried these past 30 years.  Heaven has its perks – as Corinne continues to remind me – but writing blogs is not one of them.  If you want my opinion, I think this puzzle was a bit of a cheat.

Me (June 2010, age 57).   Drum roll please!

Here are the four short passages once again.  As I explained yesterday only one of these was actually written by Marshall McLuhan.  Which one is the real McLuhan?  If you just found this blog you may wish to try and solve the puzzle for yourself before reading the answer.  If not simply scroll to “the solution to the puzzle.”

(1)    A modern movie actress who tries to play a role will seem old fashioned.  To cope with this, actresses have cooled themselves way down, become numb blanks.  Thus today’s stars are totally tranquilized.  The smart thing for a girl nowadays is to play numb.  Dumb actresses used to be in demand, now numb actresses are in demand.  Rigor mortis is de rigueur.

(2)    There is a current issue of the TV Guide which contains a survey of convicts’ attitudes towards TV.  That is people really up for a long time, many of them for life, and how they regard television.  All convicts are apparently supplied with good TV sets.  Such is the hardship of our prisons.  They pass the word along:  all the new gimmicks, all the new twists they find in crimes; and these are passed along quickly to the boys who are on the way out, and are tried out quickly in the community.  There really is an astonishing story of how much television has helped to improve the level of crime.

(3)    The owner of a Hollywood hotel in an area where many movie and TV actors reside reported that tourists had switched their allegiance to TV stars.  Moreover, most TV stars are men, that is, “cool characters,’ while most movie stars are women, since they can be presented as “hot” characters.

(4)    By filling the space of the TV with a mosaic of close-ups, The Hollywood Squares hypnotizes its audience by paralyzing their senses and numbing their eyes to other distractions.  The movie-world is literally chopped up into nine squares, each of which contains a close up.  The theme music is the ticktock of a hypnotists watch.

“The solution to the puzzle.”

The passage written by Marshall McLuhan is Number 3, which you can find on page 318 of Understanding Media.

Numbers 1 and 4 are the invention of Gary Wolf from his 1996 Wired magazine article “Channeling McLuhan.”  See www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.01/channeling.html.

Number 2 is by McLuhan, but was spoken in conversation in 1977 rather than written.  See the book edited by Barrington Nevitt and Maurice McLuhan, Who was Marshall McLuhan?, 1995, p. 61.

How did you do?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 1989, pp. 35-37.

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Michael Hinton Friday, June 11th, 2010
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Will the real Marshall McLuhan please stand up!

Marshall McLuhan (October, 1934, age 23).  A lesson from I.A. Richards.

I have had the most remarkable experience.  I. A. Richards whose lectures I am attending here at Cambridge invited us to participate in an experiment.  He handed out poems but did not tell us who wrote them and asked us to comment on them.  It really was quite embarrassing.  Thankfully not for me as I managed to escape for the most part with my dignity intact.  But many of my fellow students said the most laudatory things about pure doggerel and heaped undeserved criticism on poets of canonical standing.

Me (June 2010, age 57).   A lesson from McLuhan?

Here are four short passages.  It’s only fair to tell you that only one of these was actually written by Marshall McLuhan.  Which one is the real McLuhan?

(1)    A modern movie actress who tries to play a role will seem old fashioned.  To cope with this, actresses have cooled themselves way down, become numb blanks.  Thus today’s stars are totally tranquilized.  The smart thing for a girl nowadays is to play numb.  Dumb actresses used to be in demand, now numb actresses are in demand.  Rigor mortis is de rigueur.

(2)    There is a current issue of the TV Guide which contains a survey of convicts’ attitudes towards TV.  That is people really up for a long time, many of them for life, and how they regard television.  All convicts are apparently supplied with good TV sets.  Such is the hardship of our prisons.  They pass the word along:  all the new gimmicks, all the new twists they find in crimes; and these are passed along quickly to the boys who are on the way out, and are tried out quickly in the community.  There really is an astonishing story of how much television has helped to improve the level of crime.

(3)    The owner of a Hollywood hotel in an area where many movie and TV actors reside reported that tourists had switched their allegiance to TV stars.  Moreover, most TV stars are men, that is, “cool characters,’ while most movie stars are women, since they can be presented as “hot” characters.

(4)    By filling the space of the TV with a mosaic of close-ups, The Hollywood Squares hypnotizes its audience by paralyzing their senses and numbing their eyes to other distractions.  The movie-world is literally chopped up into nine squares, each of which contains a close up.  The theme music is the ticktock of a hypnotists watch.

See you tomorrow with the answer to this puzzle.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 1989, pp. 35-37.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, June 10th, 2010
Permalink 1930s and 40s, Communication, Education, Vol. 1 2 Comments

The brevity of Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan (October 3, 1964, age 53).  Watch out for the meat!

T. S. Eliot said the message of a poem is the meat thieves throw to the dog to distract its attention while they break into your house.  Running this backwards, then, if you want to nail down the message of a poem or a book it’s not hard to do.  All you need to look for is the meat that’s being thrown at you.

Me (June 2010, age 57).   Is it that easy?

My apologies for putting this idea into Marshall’s mouth.  You will not find it in anything Marshall McLuhan wrote or said.  But aside from the fact the focus is on the message not the medium, it does sound like something McLuhan might have said in a lucid, unmystical moment.  Marshall McLuhan’s uncanny ability to go to the heart of a book with very few words was something that was very real and frequently impressed his friends and colleagues.  For example, Ted (Edmund) Carpenter with whom McLuhan first began to work on media studies in the 1950s, says in an interview which you can find appended to the documentary film McLuhan’s Wake:  “He had a way of getting to the point.”  And “[I was] stunned by the brevity he could summarize things.”

For example, in a letter to Pierre Trudeau, McLuhan summarizes the famous Shannon-Weaver model of communication this way:  “Shannon and Weaver were mathematicians who considered the side–effects of noise.  They assumed that these could be eliminated by simply stepping up the charge of energy in a circuit.”  [for more] And here is McLuhan’s summary statement of Peter Drucker’s Managing for Results:  “[I]n every situation 10% of the events cause 90% of the events.  The 10 % is the sector of opportunity, the 90 % is the area of problems.  [Typically] the opportunity or environmental and innovational area is ignored.  All sensible people deal first with problems – that is, the dead issues.”

Can McLuhan’s power of “brevity” be learned?  If it can, how?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post:

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 311 and 542.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, June 9th, 2010
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Marshall McLuhan and the Future of the Book

Marshall McLuhan (August 1967, age 56).  Read fast, read deep.

Eric told me the Evelyn Wood course in speed reading course would give me some ideas about the Future of the Book and he was right.  Speed reading – by the way – is like X-raying a book to get a picture of what the author is thinking.  In this sense it’s about reading in depth.  Of course it’s very tactile and involving.  And of course it does motivate you to read faster.

Me (June 2010, age 57).   The future of the book is now

I’m not sure what ideas about the Future of the Book (a book project of McLuhan’s that was never finished), or anything else Marshall McLuhan actually got from taking a speed reading course.  Philip Marchand says in his biography that McLuhan did find the course useful for reading advertising fliers.

His big idea about the Future of the Book seems to have come from his contemplation of Xeroxing or photocopying rather than speed reading.  Xeroxing, of course, is a technology in which all who use it are publishers and loosely speaking writers too.  Today the new social media allows more and more people to be writers and publishers.  Given the millions of blogs that exist today, as McLuhan predicted, readers have truly become publishers and writers in the electronic age.  And as usual not all are happy with the way this future has played out:  especially the newspapers, magazines, book publishers and others whose markets have been shifted by the internet.

In this new world , publishing may be as solitary an activity as reading.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post:

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, p. 345.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, June 8th, 2010
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The eccentric Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan (June 1966, age 54).  I do it my way!

No, Corinne, I definitely will not.

But Marshall I can’t always be available to run down to your office to tell you it’s time to go to a meeting at the CBC.

Why not?

Might I remind you, I’m one woman and we have six children?

A point Corinne, I admit it, a point.

Then for Pete’s sake, wear the wrist watch I bought you for your birthday.

I’ll think about it.  Isn’t it time we left studio?

 

Me (June 2010, age 57).  The problem with eccentricities

Here are some of Marshall McLuhan’s eccentricities:

For many years he refused to wear a watch or have a clock in his office.

He judged a new book not by its cover but how interesting it was on page 69.

He did not know his children’s birthdays.

He dictated letters to his secretary lying flat on the floor beneath his desk.

He fell asleep at departmental meetings

He wore pre-tied ties that were held on by an elastic band.

He regularly phoned people at all sorts of hours, some times in the middle of the night.

He thought numbers divisible by 3 to be lucky and avoided numbers not divisible by 3 for such things as addresses, appointment dates, and membership numbers.

He felt it was possible to judge the merit of a Ph.D. thesis on the first 3 pages and frequently said so at oral examinations.

He once claimed that it took him no more than 5 minutes to read Milton’s Paradise Lost.

He disliked being photographed or tape recorded.

He was a notoriously bad listener.  But – as one who knew him said – was polite enough to wait till your lips stopped moving before speaking.

The problem with eccentricities is that in focusing on them you lose sight of the man.  Instead of a real person with thoughts, desires, and feelings, you are left with a card board cut-out man.  A figure of quirky fun.  Someone you have categorized and now cease to think about.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

 

Reading for this post:

Douglas Coupland, Marshall McLuhan, 2009.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, June 5th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Culture, Vol. 1 2 Comments

Understanding McLuhan: The less is more approach

Marshall McLuhan (May 7, 1966, age 54).  New York City here I come!

Today, Eric reminded me, I’m booked to speak at the Kauffman Art Gallery on 92nd street in New York City.  My talk is about the way the media work us over.  The title of the talk is “The Medium is the Massage.”   I’m bubbling over with ideas I want to talk about.  I only hope there’s time for me to say everything I want to say.

What’s that Corinne? My cab’s at the door?  Must run, wish me luck.

Me (June 2010, age 57).   Good luck, Professor McLuhan!

Reading this speech today it’s easy to understand why so many people, then and now, find it hard to understand Marshall McLuhan.  In some ways McLuhan’s speech has the standard characteristics of great public speaking:  an opening that grabs attention (“I have been introduced recently as Canada’s revenge on the United States); a clear statement of a theme (an electronic medium “massages the population in a savage way); humour (a cat is hunting a mouse, the cat imitates the barking of a dog, the mouse thinks the cat’s been chased away by a dog and it’s safe to come out from its hiding place, the cat eats the mouse and remarks – it pays to be bilingual); a personal and conversational style (“when our thirteen-year-old saw this, he said, “Dad that’s real cool …”).

But McLuhan cancels out its good features and pushes his talk across the line from understandable to overwhelming because he can’t stick to one or two main subjects.  Instead, by my count, he deals with 52 subjects: including, the problem with value judgments, the world as teaching machine, memory and discovery, the future of work, the future of the book, perception and science, how to study media, computers and social change.

To understand McLuhan I think you must read him very slowly and in bits and pieces.  For example consider just one idea from his talk:  If you want to lose your job be sure to specialize:  eventually someone will figure out a way for a computer to replace you.  Something to think about.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Massage,” in Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews, 2003, pp. 76-97.

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Michael Hinton Friday, June 4th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Vol. 1 1 Comment

Marshall McLuhan, idea consultant!

Marshall McLuhan (June 3, 1955, age 43).  I’ve got a billion of ’em!

Bill Hogan and I have hit upon a scheme that will make us rich.  We’ve formed a business called Idea Consultants.  We’re the perfect team – I’m a good talker and he’s a good listener.  Here’s our slogan – “A headache is a million-dollar idea trying to get born.  Idea Consultants are obstetricians for these ideas.”

Here are three of our ideas:

  • See-through potties for toilette training children
  • Pollen-free package tours for hay-fever sufferers
  • Urine-coloured underwear

All we need now is our first customer.

Me (June 2010, age 57).  In part, Marshall, in part!

It’s easy to make fun of Idea Consultants and the ideas they came up with.  {see two earlier posts – first, second] McLuhan and Hogan ran the business for two years, but never made a sale.  However, some of their ideas were fascinating ideas for products that were far ahead of their time.  For example today Mrs Hinton Googled “Idea Consultants” and got 17,300,000 results.  One of their product ideas was for “television platters” – the DVD or video cassette.  Another was for a TV program in which viewers would be presented with a dramatized business problem and a prize would be offered for the best solution.  McLuhan believed that ordinary viewers were more likely to come up with innovative solutions than the experts.

Here’s your chance to test this idea: Imagine such a program on the BP gulf coast oil spill. Would amateurs be able to deal with the disaster better than the experts?   What do you suggest BP do to cap the well?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 1989, p. 109.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, June 3rd, 2010
Permalink 1930s and 40s, Business, Culture, Vol. 1 No Comments