From Marshall & Me

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.

Papyrus and the Roman Empire: The story continues

Marshall McLuhan (May, 1964, age 52).  Don’t underestimate the power of papyrus

Finkelstein (see yesterday’s post) has no interest in the truth.  He’s another one of those small minds entranced with facts.  One should never let the facts get in the way of a good story.  Empire rises and falls because of papyrus is definitely a good story.  To be sure the causal relationship I have in mind is more what Aristotle would have called material and formal cause than efficient.  But no mater, if Finkelstein would only open his mind and start thinking he’d see that not all is as he thinks it is.

Michael Hinton (October, 2009, age 57).  Don’t overestimate the power of papyrus

I asked two economic historians about the papyrus story:  Abraham Rotstein, Professor Emeritus in Economics at the University of Toronto and Deirdre McCloskey, Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Professor Rotstein who was a member of McLuhan’s speaking circle in the 1960s (more on this later) told me that he doubted whether papyrus provided much of an explanation for the rise or fall of the Roman Empire.  At any rate he said he didn’t think it was in Gibbon.  Professor McCloskey pointed out that even if the Romans were cut off from supplies of Egyptian papyrus they could have obtained it by trade with India.

What you might ask has this to do with my life?  What is McLuhan trying to say?  Surely not that he is making a contribution to our understanding of ancient history.  But rather I think to our understanding of our own age. What biases in time or space do our dominant means of communication have? Innis [see yesterday] believed papyrus favoured the growth of Empires in space and the parchment codex growth over time. Is the Internet more like papyrus or the parchment codex? What about Facebook?  What about Twitter? And other forms of social media?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Finkelstein, Sidney. Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan.  New York: International Pub., 1968, pp. 13-17.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media, 1964, pp. 100 and 134.

Innis, H.A. The Bias of Communication, (1951) Second ed. Toronto: U. of T. Press, 2008, pp. 47-49.

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Michael Hinton Friday, October 30th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Education, Technology, Vol. 1 No Comments

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