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 July, 2010

What the Apollo program was really all about.

Marshall McLuhan (July 21, 1969, age 58).  A man on the moon?

As usual the networks have missed the real story.  I am not referring to their failure to report my birthday, but their coverage of the Apollo program moon landing.

“That’s one small step for man,” Neil Armstrong has been telling us on every newscast, “one giant step for mankind.”  But this isn’t about putting a footprint on the surface of the moon.  It’s about getting a look at ourselves.  To see us as others see us.  In other words, it’s been an “ego trip.”

Me (July, 2010, age 58).  Take a look for yourself.

As Homer teaches, getting home can be a long hard journey.

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, Who Was Marshall McLuhan, 1994, pp. 230.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, July 31st, 2010
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How to set an exam.

Marshall McLuhan (1969, age 57).  Are you ready?

At the beginning of this seminar on communications I said that you were to choose 3 books out the 30 on the reading list and that they will be the subject of your final exam.  No doubt you have been wondering what form this exam will take.   Wonder no more. It’s time to sit and deliver.  Have you got a pencil and paper?  Very good, you will have thirty minutes.  Write down three questions on each of the books you have read.

Me (July, 2010, age 58).  A brilliant solution

Fred Thompson, who was a student of McLuhan’s at Toronto in the year after he returned from Fordham in the academic year 1968/69, talks about this exam in his contributions to the books Who Was Marshall McLuhan and Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message.

Certainly, McLuhan chose a brilliantly eccentric and efficient way to set an exam.  A more direct approach would certainly have required a much longer exam with questions on each of the 30 books on the reading list.  Almost certainly the questions the students’ came up with revealed much about their understanding of the books they had read and the form of the exam sends the clear message that he believes the questions are more important than the answers. But, it is doubtful if a university professor today would be allowed to set such an exam either by their department or their students.

As a test of your understanding of Marshall McLuhan and his work come up with three questions about him. Here are mine:

(1) What did he mean by “the medium is the message?”

(2) What can we learn about McLuhan from the portrait Wyndham Lewis drew of him?

(3) “What if he’s right?”

Now, what do you think?  Are the questions more important than the answers?

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, Who Was Marshall McLuhan, 1994, pp. 178.

George Sanderson and Frank Mcdonald, eds., Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message, 1989, p. 135.

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Michael Hinton Friday, July 30th, 2010
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How much TV did Marshall McLuhan watch?

Marshall McLuhan (Summer 1952, age 41).  A delightful chap!

This afternoon Hugh Kenner who is one of my graduate students brought around a friend of his, Fred Rainsbury, to chat in the garden of my house on St. Mary Street.  Rainsbury is writing a Ph. D. thesis on The Irony of Objectivity in the New Criticism.  I suggested he pay special attention to analogy, after all what’s metaphor?

Me (July, 2010, age 58).  Apparently, more and more

According to Fred Rainsbury, who knew McLuhan in the early 1950s as a student, and went on to become Supervisor of Children’s Programming of Radio and Television at the CBC, “Marshall watched little television.”

Apparently over time McLuhan came to watch television more and more.  In the mid 1970s McLuhan said in an interview that he had no time to listen to radio, no affection for movies anymore, but he did “see a good deal of television.”  A remarkable admission from the man who is said to have pleaded with his children not to let his grandchildren watch too much TV and suggested the government limit the population’s access to TV.  Which leads me to wonder how worried McLuhan actually was about the effects of TV?   Did he change his mind?  Did he believe himself to be immune?  Was he purposely placing himself at risk in the pursuit of his research?

How much TV do you watch?  Are you at all concerned about the effects of TV?

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, Who Was Marshall McLuhan, 1994, pp.  207 and 239.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, July 29th, 2010
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The importance of the unimportant.

Marshall McLuhan (December, 1970, age 59).  Cavett’s right!

Today, Dick Cavett made a remarkable observation.  He and I were talking on his TV show and he asked me why it was that when people come out of a movie it takes them a while before they start talking to one another.  It’s as if they’re overwhelmed by what they’ve seen.  Film is a private rather than a corporate affair.  One does not have this kind of experience watching TV.  TV is corporate rather than private.  It encourages talk.

Me (July, 2010, age 58).  But, does it matter?

The experience Cavett talks about of leaving a movie theatre at a loss for words is I think a common one.  We’ve all had it.  And it was the exactly this type of real world observation that fascinated McLuhan and which he loved to talk to people about.  (Others being that radio is a visual medium, the telephone a non-visual medium, and children like to watch TV close up.  Still others that radio as background “noise” at work is not visual.  People tend to shout on cell phones.  And listening to music with ear buds while running or biking can blind you to the visual.)

These seemingly unimportant experiences may be the keys to understanding the effects of media.  At least McLuhan was drawn to them.

What do you think?  Was McLuhan on to something.

Are there other seemingly unimportant media effects have you observed?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Listening for this post

The Dick Cavett Show, December 1970.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, July 28th, 2010
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I just don’t understand.

Marshall McLuhan (1960, age 49).  Try the Coleridge method.

People can be a great mystery.  Why do they think what they think?  Or do what they do?  The key is to understand them.  But how?  As I have often told my son Eric the Coleridge method (see his Biographia Litteraria) is most efficient.  To find out what someone knows start with what they don’t know and work from there.

Me (July, 2010, age 57).  OK, let’s try it.

Eric McLuhan notes that “Going the other way, it can take you as long (or nearly) to learn a man’s knowledge as it took him.  Life is too short!”

What does this method tell us about Marshall McLuhan?  There are two things McLuhan often professed ignorance of:  small talk and numbers.  What do these areas of ignorance tell us about what McLuhan knew?  The absence of small talk implies the presence of big talk, suggesting that McLuhan was comfortable in the world of abstractions.  The blank in numbers suggests, perhaps, that McLuhan’s explorations in understanding media were qualitative rather than quantitative.  That is when he said TV had changed the world he was not saying it had changed a great deal because of TV.  He was simply saying it had changed.  He implied that it may have changed a great deal, but he had no way of telling how much.

What do you think?  Is the Coleridge method helpful in understanding McLuhan?

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Reading for this post

Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, Who Was Marshall McLuhan? 1994, p. 242.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, July 27th, 2010
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Marshall McLuhan (1966, age 55). It seems inevitable.

As the world speeds up what was formerly separate becomes joined.  Politics is becoming entertainment and entertainment politics.  Within fifteen years I think it is safe to say an actor will be elected president of the United States.

Me (July, 2010, age 58). And vice versa?

This is one of McLuhan’s predictions that seems spot on (Ronald Reagan) incredibly perceptive (who else would have thought such a thing) and a bit too good to be true (one wonders how seriously he took the idea.)

As I was playing with the idea it struck me that it should work the other way too.  A politician should eventually succeed as an actor.  It took a bit longer but Al Gore did win an Oscar for his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

What predictions of Marshall McLuhan’s do you find most startling?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

P.S.  From Marshall:  Corinne tells me it’s your birthday.  Happy Birthday Michael.  May there be many more.

Reading for this post

Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, Who Was Marshall McLuhan? 1994, p. 198.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, July 24th, 2010
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Working with others.

Marshall McLuhan (October 8, 1966, age 55).  What a day!

I spent the day with George Leonard, who is a Senior Editor at Look Magazine.  We talked without interruption from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. about the future of education.  Quite frankly education isn’t what it used to be since the coming of TV.  George is going to write up our conversation and the article will appear in Look.  I can’t wait to see the expression on the face of the Dean of Graduate Studies when I show him my latest publication.  He’ll be apoplectic.

Me (July, 2010, age 57)  Which raises questions

“The Future of Education: The Class of 1989,” appeared in Look (February 21, 1967) as an article jointly written by Marshall McLuhan and George B. Leonard.  But, as Leonard explains in his memoir, “Jamming with McLuhan, 1967,” McLuhan had nothing to do with the writing of it.  Leonard says that he enjoyed the intellectual experience of working with McLuhan.  But after writing only one other article – “The Future of Sex” – Leonard decided to end the partnership.  In short, Leonard thought he wasn’t getting the credit he deserved.  He was doing the hard work of writing and a good deal of the thinking, but readers were assuming the ideas were all McLuhan’s.

Are unequal partnerships of this type destined to fail?  How much of the writing of the later McLuhan – particularly in his co-authored work – is actually McLuhan?

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Reading for this post

Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, Who Was Marshall McLuhan? 1994, pp. 227-230.

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Michael Hinton Friday, July 23rd, 2010
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Yesterday’s Speeches.

Marshall McLuhan (1966, age 54/55). Nobody wants yesterday’s speech?

Tony Schwartz, the New York sound wizard, has done it again.  He has embarrassed me.  I asked Tony if he would record one of my big speeches.

He said, “No!  Who wants to listen to something you said yesterday, Marshall.  They want to hear what you have to say today!”

He’s absolutely right, bless him.  Information is coming at us so fast that anything I said yesterday must be obsolete.

Me (July, 2010, age 57).  Why do people collect them?

Speeches in business age quickly.  Yet many people continue to ask conference speakers for copies of their presentation slides.  Why?  (I am not talking about the presentations of celebrity speakers, but rather the hard-copy of Joe and Mary director of marketing.) It is difficult to believe there is much to be learned from these slides.  Perhaps the collectors believe they are paying the speaker a compliment.  Most speakers I would guess do not feel complimented.  Most have better things to do.  Perhaps the collectors hope they can use a slide or two in an upcoming talk.  But I see little sign that these collected speeches or presentations are actually used in this way.  Which leads me back to the question.

Why do people collect yesterday’s speeches?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, Who Was Marshall McLuhan? 1994, p. 153.

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The difference involvement makes

Marshall McLuhan (1966, age 54/55).  Tony understands.

I was talking with Tony Schwartz, the New York sound wizard, again today.  I must say he embarrassed me with his total understanding of something I have written about in Understanding Media.  In this electric age in which we live, I was saying, we are bombarded with instant information on all sides at once.  The result is all our senses are involved in depth.

“Marshall,’ he said, “it’s the difference between getting a telephone call that your house is burning and receiving a letter telling you that your house has burned!”

Me (July, 2010, age 57).  Is involvement a Trojan horse?

Businesses often say they want their employees to be more involved.  Whether you’re a manager or an employee you might ask yourself whether it would actually be a good thing if all employees were more involved.  Involvement, as McLuhan suggests, comes at a psychic price.  Ringing phones may raise your heart rate, but do they make it easier to put out fires?

How involved are employees at the place where you work?  Is increased involvement what businesses really want?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

PS:  From me.  Happy birthday Marshall!  Please join us [virtually] as we raise a glass to toast the 99th birthday of Marshall McLuhan.

Reading for this post

Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, Who Was Marshall McLuhan? 1994, p. 152.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, July 21st, 2010
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Marshall McLuhan (1966, age 54/55).  A suggestion …

Tony Schwartz, the sound wizard, was telling me about his latest project.  He was doctoring a tape recording of one of New York City Mayor Lindsay’s speeches.

“Marshall, the idea is to take out all his ‘ahs’ so he can hear how great he would sound if he didn’t use them.  For example, in his speech Lindsay says: ‘It is ah … a great pleasure to be with you ah … tonight.’  Now listen to it without the ahs.”

No Tony I have a better idea.  Why don’t you add a ‘hah’ after every ‘ah’ it will give the mayor’s speech the element of surprise!”

Me (July, 2010, age 57).  A favourite anecdote

McLuhan liked to begin his speeches with terrible one-liners.  For example, ‘cash is the poor man’s credit card,’ ‘a streaker is just a passing fanny,’ ‘he was never so humble but there’s no police like Holmes,’ ‘he lived as if each moment was his next,’ and ‘diaper backwards spells repaid, think about it.’  Humour ages quickly.  Who knows at one time some of these may have been funny.

In his speaking McLuhan rarely used narrative-style jokes to make a point.  He seems to have preferred to use one-liners to encourage the audience to be more open to the unexpected.  There are however exceptions to this rule.  In a speech apparently given at Johns Hopkins in the 1970s, he opens and closes the speech with traditional narrative-style jokes, both of which I think are still funny.


What is your favourite McLuhan joke? [search ‘joke’ on this blog for inspiration]

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, Who Was Marshall McLuhan? 1994, p. 190-191.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, July 20th, 2010
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