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.

Logic: The magic number 2

Marshall McLuhan (May 1959, age 47).  Producers are becoming consumers

What an inauspicious day, Friday the thirteenth.  Thank God my flight was yesterday.  I flew in from Winnipeg where I spoke to the Winnipeg Ad and Sales Club.  I led off with one of my favourite anecdotes, “Whenever I fly, I always carry a powerful bomb with me.  This absolutely insures my safety, the probability of there being two such bombs on the plane being infinitesimally low.”  They also liked my Newfie joke:  “What’s written on the bottom of a Newfie beer bottle?  Open other end.”  Liked is a strong word, let’s say they were appreciative.

The ad men did a double take when I told them in the electric age, which is the age in which we live, things are moving so fast producers are becoming consumers.  It’s a complex phenomenon, but basically a simple idea.  Things are changing so fast producers have figured out ways to speed up, to go faster than the wave, and one way to do that is to understand consumers so well that you know them better than they do themselves.  And when you do that you can anticipate their wants.  That’s why the Russians launched Sputnik and why Prime Minister Diefenbaker is making a serious error in canceling the Avro Arrow.  The biggest investment business is making today is in research and development.  They do this not to create a lot of new machines, products, services but to speed up to stay ahead of all the change that’s built in to the system.

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  The rule of 2

If Marshall McLuhan believed in the magical power of 3, he also believed in the logical power of the number 2.  Pairs of concepts, the end points of a single dimension, opposites, either ors, this and that’s run through his work.  Hot and cool, high definition and low definition, figure and ground, right brain and left brain, cliché and archetype, medium and message, visual and acoustic, eye and ear.  So that even in his doctoral dissertation which he described as a history of the Trivium, the 3 disciplines of grammar rhetoric and logic which dominated schooling in the middle ages, for analytical purposes he reduced to a battle between 2 forces over time, the grammarians and the rhetoricians.

Twos are powerful precisely because they exclude grey middle possibilities. They force you to make clear distinctions, to make decisions, to avoid weaseling and waffling.  All media he taught are hot or cool, not hot, warm, or cool.  This bias for black or white bothered his quibble-prone academic readers, even those who viewed his work positively.  For example, in his review of The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media in the Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Kenneth Boulding argues that to McLuhan the key dimension on which hot and cool media differed was “involvement.”  But surely he argued other dimensions mattered too – such as “demandingness or effort,” “range in time and space,’ and,” “density or capacity.”  These quibbles it’s worth noting all implicitly reject McLuhan’s starting point that what matters is the medium not it’s content.

For McLuhan, however, the power of a single dimension with 2 possibilities only was greater than the power of safer equivocating and qualifying multidimensional thinking.  He believed in absolutes.  Qualifications were for the intellectually weak of heart.    

What other examples of 2s in McLuhan’s work are there?  Which is the one you have found most stimulating?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 252-255.

Boulding, Kenneth E.  “The Medium and the Message,” reprinted in McLuhan: Hot and Cool. Edited by Gerald Emanuel Stearn. New York: New American Library, 1967, pp. 68-75.

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Michael Hinton Friday, November 13th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Culture, Vol. 1 No Comments

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