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.


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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The meaning of it all

Marshall McLuhan (April 29, 2010, age 98).  “Corinne, come and look at this!”

“What is it, now, Marshall?”

“The PowerPoint slide from a military presentation in Afghanistan everyone’s talking about.”

“What in Heaven’s a PowerPoint slide?”

“One in a sequence of overheated overhead slides.  This one’s a doozy.”

“Looks to me like a plate of spaghetti.”

“Forget the spaghetti.  Consider the medium.  PowerPoint is an electronic overhead or magic lantern slide show, one damn slide after another.  The business of the medium is push things through, relentlessly, to resolve difficulties to get it all over.  Its great advertising, but it’s not a conversation.”

“Why, Marshall, would they want a conversation in Afghanistan?”

“To come up with fresh ideas.”

Me (April 2010, age 57).   Another problem with PowerPoint

Every medium creates its own environment that for the most part is invisible.  But every now and again something happens to make the environment visible.  Seen outside it’s natural context, the military briefing, the slide reveals the hubris and waste of military resources that’s taking place in Afghanistan.  At home and in the field PowerPoint Rangers are fighting it out in an escalating war.  A war to present the illusion of the capture of the most detail in a single slide.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

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Michael Hinton Thursday, April 29th, 2010
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What’s wrong with competition?

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

It’s amazing when a new idea hits home.  Take today, I’m talking with George Leonard, who’s an editor with Look.  We start at my house on Well’s Avenue at 10 am and finish up at 11 pm.  I know we had lunch and dinner together but I only remember the conversation.  The subject of competition and education came up.  Everyone knows it has negative effects on students’ performance, but the races still keep on going.  Why?  Well I said what if your goal isn’t helping kids to think but to conform?  The competition is great because it encourages kids to be alike to resemble one another more and more closely, albeit with some doing things faster and some better.

Me (April 2010, age 57)  Have a look at Look

The heartland of competition is sports.  Everyone knows what they want to do and goes about doing it – which turns out to be what everyone else is doing – as quickly as possible.  But is this the model that is wanted for the workplace and education?  To all have the same goal, to run on the same track, to go quicker, faster?  The conventional wisdom says yes, the only down side being the stress.  But is the best of all world’s one where everyone winds up resembling everyone else?

How well does competition serve your ends?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Marshall McLuhan and George Leonard. “The Future of Education.”  Look, February 21, 1967.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, April 14th, 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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How productive are you?

Marshall McLuhan (December 25, 1960 age 49).  Its time!

I’ve been too busy writing to write you a letter.  It seems that Sunday is the only day I can look up from what I’m doing.  For years I’ve been reading other people’s stuff.  Reading it and re-reading it.  Now it’s time for me to see what I’ve got to say.  Actually, I’ve found I have a lot to say.  I’ve just finished the big book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, my book about yesterday, the world that has ended – 400 typescript pages in less than 30 days.  Must go, I’ve got proof reading to do if I’m going to meet my deadline and get this off to the publisher the day after tomorrow.  And then I begin the next one, my book about today, the world about us which no one can see, Understanding Media.

Me (January 2010, age 57).  McLuhan uses deadlines to speed up.

From what’s said about Marshall McLuhan in magazines, on the web, deadlines are not something you would expect the philosopher of pop cult to be using to get work done.   And of course he does use them.  McLuhan was a very practical if eccentric genius.  For example, he once took a speed reading course to get a fresh take on what it means to read in the electronic age.  He said that the main benefit of the course was that he was able to read and dispose of junk mail faster.  There are at least two ideas here worth following up.  And I will do so in the questions.

If speed reading’s benefit is to allow you to wade through junk writing faster is there a way to tell what’s junk without having to read it?  I profile.  What strategies do you use? And, in what way do you use deadlines in your own work? School is all about deadlines.  But those deadlines don’t work for everyone.  Do they, or did they, work for you?  Here’s what Julien Smith said about deadlines in a recent blog post.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, p. 276.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, January 20th, 2010
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What do managers do?

Marshall McLuhan (December 14, 1960 age 49).  They get someone else to do it and they make sure no one else gets in the way

I just sent off a letter to Claude Bissell, the President of Toronto University, to give him the benefit of my most recent thinking.  Hope he finds it useful.  I know I do.  For example, what do top executives do?  Most people say executives make decisions.  But that’s not the job.  Decision making is impossible in a world that’s changing at high-speed.  That’s why so many executives settle for non-decision-making.  That’s the easy but ultimately ineffective way out.  What’s hard and more effective is to organize or rather coordinate people to make their own decisions when and where they have to and work with one another to achieve results.  That is what a symphony conductor does.  As information levels and the speed of change keep rising the coordinating or conducting job of the manager-conductor will get greater and greater.

Me (January 2010, age 57).  McLuhan versus Mintzberg

Recently Henry Mintzberg wrote a book, Managing, that is a rewrite and update of his 1973 book, The Nature of Managerial Work.  Among Mintzberg’s more controversial views is his claim that the job of the manager hasn’t changed in thousands of years.  Marshall McLuhan, it’s safe to say would have disagreed with Mintzberg.  McLuhan’s fundamental point (see above) is that in the high information flows of the electronic age things are moving too fast for executives to make the decisions.  They need to be conductors or organizers, of the other people in their organizations who need to be the ones who decide and act.

What do you think?  Has the job of the manager changed?  Is Mintzberg right that the President of SNC Lavalin, say,  and Cheops’ contractor could switch positions and the great pyramid of Giza and a rail system in Algeria would still get built without a hitch?

(Announcement:  The winner of the classify Marshall McLuhan contest is Deborah Hinton,  for her entry, “I’d say McLuhan is the third person in our marriage.” )

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Henry Mintzberg.  Managing. San Francisco:  Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009.

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, pp. 274-276.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, January 19th, 2010
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What’s in the cards?

Marshall McLuhan (1969 age 58).  The solution to life’s problems

My son Eric and Eugene Schwartz tell me that The Marshall McLuhan DEW-LINE Newsletter is selling like hot cakes.  I send them stuff when I can and they send it on to my subscribers.  Great idea that the Distant Early Warning (Card) Deck.  Worked that one out several years ago.  Eric put it together from my notes and Eugene came up with the cracking idea to charge the subscribers an extra $5 if they want to get the deck.  The card deck is a technology for delivering creative solutions to life’s problems.  I call it The Management Game.  Actually Games.  Here is how to play the simplest one:  Take any card.  On the card is an aphorism.  Relate the aphorism to your current hang up.  I drew the 5 of clubs.  The aphorism reads: “since life is short our faces must be long.”  My current hang up is my health.  Nothing seems the same since that brain surgery in November of 67.  Well, as Corinne says I must take each day as it comes.  Is that my solution, or is that my problem?

Me (January 2010, age 57).  Playing a different game

The distant early warning or DEW line was a 1950s cold-war radar alert system Canada and the United States built in Northern Canada in the 1950s.  The system was designed to give Americans and Canadians a heads up if Russia attacked by sending planes or missiles over the Arctic circle.  McLuhan liked to announce himself in speeches as a voice from the DEW-line.  That is he had to come to warn of dangers ahead.  But in naming his card deck – which if you live in Montreal you can see on display at the Canadian Center for Architecture until February 25th, 2010 – after this famous piece of cold-war technology, McLuhan misleads.  The name doesn’t quite fit.  The deck says you can find answers for your hang-ups or problems by contemplating the aphorisms on the cards.  Yet the DEW line was not a system for finding solutions to a problem (say nuclear attack), but a system for knowing whether you have a problem (look there’s a bomber!).

Let’s play McLuhan’s Management Game differently.  Instead of calling “to mind a private or corporate problem as you shuffle the cards,” as the game suggests,  and then picking  “a card and … [applying] its message,’  let’s  shuffle, select a card, look at the aphorism, and only then decide whether in fact we have a problem.

The card I’ve drawn for us all is the 4 of spades: “When all is said and done more will have been said than done.”  Sounds like a call for action.  I know what I’m going to do.  (Tell you about it on Tuesday.)  What will you do?

(Look next week for the announcement of a winner to our classify Marshall McLuhan contest.)

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Readings for this post

Marshall and me, Reading Marshall McLuhan’s Cards, December 3, 2009

Marshall and me, What’s Marshall McLuhan’s Stuff Worth, December 4, 2009

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Michael Hinton Saturday, January 16th, 2010
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What’s Marshall McLuhan’s stuff worth?

McLuhan (November 14, 1968, age 56). “The victor belongs to the spoils”

You will find the aphorism “The victor belongs to the spoils” on the 8 of clubs in my DEW-LINE card deck.  The deck is a technology I invented some years ago to quickly produce creative solutions to puzzles by playing the management game.  There are in fact four games you can play:  let’s play the first one.  “Take any card.  Relate the aphorism to your current hang up.”  My card is the 8 of clubs and my current hang up is money.  You see a year ago I had what the English would say was “a bit of bad news.”  I had an operation to remove a brain tumor.  Hurt like hell and cost a fortune.  The operation was in New York City.  I survived.  But haven’t felt much like myself ever since.  What with their poking around my brain for 22 hours and those damn drugs they say I have to keep taking. Can’t seem to match names up with faces and a lot of stuff I know I should know – dates, books, characters, plots – for the life of me I can’t remember.  On top of all that everyone says I need to make as much money as I can while I am a top celebrity.  Question is, how does the 8 of clubs aphorism relate to my hang-up?

Me (December 2009, age 57). Okay, Let’s play

“To the victor goes the spoils” is the way the original proverb reads.  Marshall McLuhan plays around with this to get “the victor belongs to the spoils.” The question is what controls what?  Do victors possess the spoils, the money, or do the spoils, the money, actually control or possess them.  If the latter, which is the message on the 8 of clubs, Marshall McLuhan would be well advised to spend less time worrying about money, or rather let other people continue to use his name (the McLuhan brand as people now say) to make money, and spend time on the preservation and growth of his intellectual reputation.

How much money was involved?  Who was cashing in?  Consider the year 1967 before it all went bad with the brain surgery.  Marshall McLuhan had won a $100,000 Schweitzer chair at Fordham University.  At that time a Professor of English literature, which is what McLuhan was, earned a salary of $14,000 a year.  $100,000 was big money.  Today adjusting for inflation $100,000 would be worth something like $500,000.  Of course this sum did not go all to McLuhan, others got a part of it.  For example, McLuhan hired his colleagues and friends at Toronto Ted Carpenter, Harley Parker, and his son Eric McLuhan to be his research team to help him teach a course called “Understanding media,” and do some projects.   And that was part of the problem.  Marshall McLuhan was now a business, an industry.  What was good for the business was not always good for Marshall McLuhan.

Challenge: Try Marshall McLuhan’s Management game and tell me how it goes.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: the medium and the messenger, 1989, p. 227.

Tom Wolfe, “What If He’s Right,” reprinted in The Pump House Gang. 1968, pp. 163-166

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Michael Hinton Friday, December 4th, 2009
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The legacy of Marshall McLuhan … continued

Marshall McLuhan (March 14, 1951, age 39).  Literature is dead

I wrote today to Innis.  He has written a dazzling book, Empire and Communications. I shared with him some of the ideas that flowed from our meeting of minds, both in writing and in conversation.  For example, literature today is in decline.  (Innis shows in his book how few the ages of literature have been and how short.)  The end of the present epoch of the book is evident in so many symptoms exhibited in our world today – for example the shortness of the attention span of young people. 

A young man came to see me in my office today.  He asked me what was the use of reading Edgar Poe.  I decided to do a Euclid on him.  I said, “Have you read ‘A Descent into The Maelstrom’?”  “Yes,” he said.  “Good,” I said, “here’s a dollar.”

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  With friends like Peter Drucker who needs enemies  

Marshall McLuhan’s claim that literature is dead was one of many statements McLuhan would make over his career that drove his enemies and quite a number of his friends crazy.  Consider for example what Peter Drucker, “the father of management,” said about McLuhan in 1994 when he was asked to reflect on what he had learned from Marshall McLuhan.  “Not one of McLuhan’s specific predictions has come true and not one of them is likely to come true.”  If Drucker meant this statement seriously, either it reveals his ignorance of McLuhan’s thinking or his willingness to engage in the slander of the reputation of a man who thought of him as a friend and colleague. 

To give but one example of a McLuhan prediction that came true, consider this anecdote recounted by Professor Abraham Rotstein, Professor emeritus, economics, at the University of Toronto, and a member of McLuhan’s circle in the 1960s, in a conversation I had with him in August about McLuhan.  “Mcluhan comes into class sometime in the 1960s and waves a plastic card at the students.  ‘This, ladies and gentlemen is a new kind of credit card, it lets you pay in cash.”   

Is Drucker right?  Are McLuhan’s predictions all bogus?  Is Drucker simply being a cranky old man?     

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Reading for this post

Marshall McLuhan, edited by Corrine McLuhan, Matie Molinaro, and William Toye. Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 223.

Barrington with Maurice McLuhan Nevitt, Who was Marshall McLuhan? 1995, pp.122-126.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, November 4th, 2009
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