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.

Deborah Hinton

Marshall McLuhan, idea consultant!

Marshall McLuhan (June 3, 1955, age 43).  I’ve got a billion of ’em!

Bill Hogan and I have hit upon a scheme that will make us rich.  We’ve formed a business called Idea Consultants.  We’re the perfect team – I’m a good talker and he’s a good listener.  Here’s our slogan – “A headache is a million-dollar idea trying to get born.  Idea Consultants are obstetricians for these ideas.”

Here are three of our ideas:

  • See-through potties for toilette training children
  • Pollen-free package tours for hay-fever sufferers
  • Urine-coloured underwear

All we need now is our first customer.

Me (June 2010, age 57).  In part, Marshall, in part!

It’s easy to make fun of Idea Consultants and the ideas they came up with.  {see two earlier posts – first, second] McLuhan and Hogan ran the business for two years, but never made a sale.  However, some of their ideas were fascinating ideas for products that were far ahead of their time.  For example today Mrs Hinton Googled “Idea Consultants” and got 17,300,000 results.  One of their product ideas was for “television platters” – the DVD or video cassette.  Another was for a TV program in which viewers would be presented with a dramatized business problem and a prize would be offered for the best solution.  McLuhan believed that ordinary viewers were more likely to come up with innovative solutions than the experts.

Here’s your chance to test this idea: Imagine such a program on the BP gulf coast oil spill. Would amateurs be able to deal with the disaster better than the experts?   What do you suggest BP do to cap the well?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 1989, p. 109.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, June 3rd, 2010
Permalink 1930s and 40s, Business, Culture, Vol. 1 No Comments

The reading public no longer exists.

Marshall McLuhan (January 12, 1973, age 61). Thousands of reading publics exist

When I was at Cambridge, in the 1930s, the library of the English School maintained displays of a small number of relevant books covering a variety of different fields.  Looking over the shelves I came away with the distinct idea that this was what you needed to know to know what was happening in history, poetry, or any other field.  Today however such an impression is an impossibility.  So much is being published – in America alone 39,000 books are published every year –  there cannot be a reading public only publics.  We read what we will and except for very modest area of overlap our reading separates us from one another.

Me (May 2010, age 57).   Thousands have become millions.

Every book club is a reading public.  Each blog has its reading public, some large, most small.

What are the implications?  Are programs like “Canada Reads” necessary to maintain a sense of community?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 462.

Deborah Hinton‘s post @ Communication Matters

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, May 5th, 2010
Permalink 1970s and 80s, Communication, Culture, Technology, Vol. 1 1 Comment

Want to stand out?

Marshall McLuhan (January, 1964, age 52). Here’s the rule.

Just finished chatting with Wilfred Watson, as usual it was a highly productive conversation.  Wilfred is really quite a good listener.  I realized that one can toggle back and forth between standing out and blending in.  Anything that is part of the ground, the environment, is low definition, and goes unseen, unrecognized.  Anything that stands out is figure, high definition, and commands attention.  Stop reading and look at this page.  What do you see?  The words are figure, the space between them is ground.  You can make a part of the figure ground and thus involving and invisible by a simple rule: repeat it.  Thus:


To reverse the effect eliminate the repetitions. Thus:


Andy Warhol uses this technique to great effect in his Pop Art show.  Repetition is the trick that allows him to turn Marilyn Monroe – who I hope you’ll agree is quite the figure – into ground.  Ditto for Elvis.

Me (February 2010, age 57).  Can life imitate art?

This is an idea that strikes me as extremely useful if only it could be applied.  Say you’re at a party and you want to make an impression, to stand out.  What can you do to be “figure” rather than “ground.”  Or say you’re at the same party and you don’t want to be noticed.  What can you do to be “ground” rather than “figure”?

McLuhan says the key is repetition.  But how?  One way to go from ground to figure is to speed up.  To repeat is to slow down.  In the extreme if you stop moving entirely you are constantly repeating the same image of yourself.  This is what a wall flower does.

Some weeks ago Julien Smith asked the question; “Can you blend in and stand out at the same time?” McLuhan’s rule would seem to say no you can’t.  You can either be figure, stand out, or be ground, and blend in.  You can’t be both.

Or can you? [see earlier post]

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.297.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, March 4th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Vol. 1 No Comments

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
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Management, Vol. 1 No Comments

Marshall McLuhan’s speciality

Marshall McLuhan (November 15, 1967, age 65).  Don’t fence me in

I remember the excitement I felt when I first realized I didn’t have to restrict my studies to literature.  Innis taught me that I could roam through all history and all subjects in search of the true meaning of the medium is the message.  My friend Tom Easterbrook who teaches economics at Toronto University tells me that F. von Hayek (Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, 1967) says, “Nobody can be a great economist who is only an economist – and I am even tempted to add that the economist who is only an economist is likely to become a nuisance if not a positive danger.”  Likewise, no student of media studies can afford to be only a student of media studies.  A man who only reads about TV is as good for a man as a steady diet of coke and chips.

If pressed to state my specialty it is the pursuit of all meaning, all understanding of the significance of the medium is the message.  Once the fence of content analysis is smashed through what vistas open up.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  McLuhan the specialist-generalist

Marshall McLuhan’s specialization was in his approach to all literature, all subjects, rather than in the choice of any one particular field of discourse.  To everything he read, to everything he observed, he always asked himself how does this reveal the ways media work on us, the messages they send us by their being what they are and doing what they do.  Thus he found clues to the way media work on us in the writings of Adam Smith and Harold Innis (economics and economic history), William Blake and W. B. Yeats (poetry), and Edgar Allan Poe and Sigfried Giedeon (prose and architecture).

One of the questions I always ask myself is “How does this thought, event, phrase, or circumstance relate to the life and thought of Marshall McLuhan?”  I call it the Marshall McLuhan game.  For example, take the word “Economics.” How does Economics relate to the life and thought of Marshall McLuhan?  Answer: when Marshall McLuhan graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1933, he won the gold medal in English and the silver medal in Economics.  That same year his friend, Tom Easterbrook, won the Gold medal in Economics and the Silver medal in English.  I have only been stumped once since I started playing the game in August:  One morning Mrs Hinton says to me at breakfast, “We have to watch Dog Bounty Hunter on TV tonight, Baby Lyssa’s pregnant and Dog’s going to talk to her boyfriend.”

What is your speciality?  Do you have a question or group of questions you are pursuing ruthlessly? If you did imagine what power this concentration of focus would bring to your ability to understand the world.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Marshall McLuhan. The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962, p.265-279.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Education, Vol. 1 No Comments