To understand how I came to write “From Marshall and Me” you need to know how I came to meet Marshall. Today Marshall McLuhan is so much a part of my life that it is hard to imagine how I managed to get along without him. Once I got to know him it was inevitable that eventually I would start a blog on Marshall.
It would of course have been easier to get to know him if I had met him when I had the chance. But I never did, even though he was very much on campus when I was a graduate student at Toronto, in economic history, in the late 1970s. Why? It is true that his college, St. Michael’s, was a long way from St George Street, where I spent most of my time, in classes and at the John Robarts Library. It is also true that I had a conflict with his Monday night seminars. That was also the night of the economic history workshop, but that was only once a month. The decisive factor I must admit was that at this time I had no interest in McLuhan, or Innis, who had helped McLuhan discover media study. Innis was dead and the staple theory in decay. Tom Easterbrook, McLuhan’s old friend, an economic historian, had retired. Abe Rotstein, Ian Parker, and Mel Watkins, the keepers of the flame for Canadian economics, did not excite me. What I gathered from the economists and economic historians who did, Ian Drummond, John Dales and Don Moggridge, was that McLuhan was not worth talking about. And as a result – it shames me to say – I never bothered to meet him.
Nevertheless, quite accidentally, I did get to know him, when, about four years ago I picked up Philip Marchand’s biography of McLuhan in a second hand book store. I was struck, particularly, by a story Marchand tells about McLuhan in the 1950s. Once, Marchand says, McLuhan gave some advice to a Toronto businessman who had come to him with a problem. He couldn’t talk on the telephone to his boss without getting extremely nervous. In person, no problem. On the telephone, a big problem, “his voice shook and his breathing became difficult.” McLuhan told him that the telephone “was an extremely auditory medium” and had limited visual sensory completion. What the businessman needed to do was “to try and visualize his superior as he spoke.” “This suggestion,” Marchand writes, “would have sounded far-fetched to many people, but the businessman tried it and it worked.” It certainly sounded far-fetched to me, but at times I get nervous on the telephone, so I tried it. Miraculously, I found that it worked. That discovery was a revelation to me. And that is how I first met Marshall McLuhan.