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.

Surely you’re joking Professor McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan (October, 1967, age 56).  The Fire Engine caused slum housing

I spoke at The Museum of New York City on the subject “Media and the Museum.”  My colleague and research assistant, Harley Parker, led off with a history of New York recounted in a mix of film, jingles and slides.  I’m told it was a disaster.  They didn’t like my talk any better.  Didn’t expect them to.  Nevertheless, I wish my expectations had proved to be less accurate.  Thought there was going to be a riot when I told them that the advent of the Fire Engine had caused the proliferation of slum housing in 19th century cities like London, Paris, and New York.  But then you can’t expect clear thinking from museum people whose heads are firmly stuck into the ground of the past.    

Michael Hinton (October, 2009, age 57).  The idea’s not as crazy as it might appear  

According to Thomas Hoving, then a curator at The Cloisters, and who was in the audience that afternoon, Parker’s presentation looked like it was thrown together at the last minute and McLuhan’s talk dumbfounded the audience because McLuhan “seldom … [allowed] reason or common sense to get in the way of his unquestionable brilliance.”  After McLuhan came out with his observation about the Fire Engine, apparently, a member of the audience interrupted him.  “I’m sorry, but I must have misunderstood you.  I thought you said the Fire Engine caused slums.  Surely I’m mistaken.”  No said McLuhan.  “Definitely the Fire Engine caused the crowding and congestion, and definitely not the opposite.”  After this exchange the audience sat shell shocked in silence until shortly afterward, at 3:15, the director of the museum stood up and suggested that the talk and the meeting – which had been scheduled to continue to 5 pm – be adjourned.

I spoke with Professor Deirdre McCloskey, recently, about McLuhan’s Fire Engine idea.  (Professor McCloskey is among other things an expert on economic history, rhetoric and communications.) She laughed.  And then she told me that the idea has some merit.  Before the advent of the Fire Engine, she explained the slums of big cities would be regularly destroyed by fires.  With the coming of the Fire Engine this type of crash and burn city planning came to an end.

What’s the relevance to your life?   The case of the Fire Engine and slums is a striking example of how technologies can have unexpected negative and positive effects.  They give and they take.

Were slum dwellers in the 19th century better off before or after the coming of the Fire Engine?   Is the Internet one the new Fire Engines of our age?  

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Reading for this post

Hoving, Thomas. “Marshall McLuhan,” Park East, Thursday, October 19, 1967, pp. 6 and 8.

Marchand, Philip. Marshall McLuhan: the medium and the messenger, 1989, pp. 207-208.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, October 27th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Technology, Vol. 1 No Comments

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