A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan continues. If he had lived Marshall would have been 100 on July 21, 2011. Join me in the countdown to his centennial, and an exploration of more of his observations on the way media work in the electric age in which we live.


How did Russia beat the U.S. into space?

Marshall McLuhan (August 24, 1964, age 53).  They didn’t have a nineteenth century.

The Russians are people of the ear rather than the eye.  They didn’t have an Industrial Revolution.  They went directly from an oral age to an electric age, skipping the mechanical age.  This acted like a sling shot to fire them into space.

Me (February, 2011, age 58).  Again, no wonder his colleagues at Toronto University thought he was nuts.

And on this one I’m inclined to agree with them.  And yet it is a thrilling idea.  And certainly a more entertaining one than, say,  the Soviets were good at engineering and math and not shy of spending resources on a space program their economy couldn’t sustain.

Cordially, Marshall and Me



David Thompson, “How to learn economics in a rowboat,” Toronto Daily Star, August 24, 1964.

Tags: , , , , ,

Michael Hinton Tuesday, February 1st, 2011
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Culture, Technology No Comments

You are living a “gigantic flashback.”

Marshall McLuhan (1970, age 59).  Think about it.

“In our time we are reliving at high speed the whole of the human past.  As in a speeded-up film, we are traversing all ages, all experience, including the experience of prehistoric man.”

Me (January, 2011, age 58).  Is it any wonder you sometimes feel dizzy?

But, as Marshall says, relief is possible.  You “can turn it off.”

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Marshall McLuhan, Counterblast, 1970, p. 115.

Tags: , , ,

Michael Hinton Friday, January 21st, 2011
Permalink Communication, Culture No Comments

Be careful how you mark-up your books

Marshall McLuhan (November 19, 1952, age 41).  Writing in books

I have more fun writing in books than I do writing books.  The End of the Gutenberg Era book is taking longer than I thought.  Not surprising, as Corinne tells me I seem to be reading all literature for it.  Here’s how I attack a book.  First I dip into it and grab the big message then I go back and talk with the writer, that is I write to him in the margins.  Take this new book that just came out, by William H. Whyte, Jr., and the editors of Fortune magazine, Is Anybody listening? Here’s the heart:  PR types at G.M., G.E. and I.B.M. are spending a fortune selling capitalism and democracy to the world.  And Whyte delivers the shocking news that despite the all expenses paid field trips to New York, London, Paris, and L.A. nobody’s listening!

Here’s one of the conversations I had with Whyte in the margins of his book.  “Of course they aren’t.  Nobody expects people are going to read advertizing copy before they actually buy it.  You should talk with David Ogilvie he’ll give you the low down.  It’s a well understood fact on Madison Avenue that people only read ad copy after they buy the product.”  That’s what Corinne did when I went out and bought her that new vacuum cleaner she’s been asking for.  Spent a whole lunch hour pouring over the glossy pamphlets provided by the good folks at Hoover.  And that’s why Canadian teenagers don’t like Canadian history; they haven’t bought the product yet.

Me (November 2009, age 57).  The problem with highlighting

Marshall McLuhan wrote in his books.  If you go to the national archives you can see his writing in his copies of Saussure, Joyce, and the rest.  I do much the same myself with McLuhan’s books.  Except that I often write orders to myself.  Things like “compare this 1952 outline for The End of the Gutenberg Era to the final table of contents of 1962 The Gutenberg Galaxy.”  Or “See Postman.”

There are different ways of marking in books.  Many students I see studying at McGill and Concordia University seem to prefer highlighting.  That is you work your way through a photocopied article or textbook assiduously highlighting in pink, yellow, or blue everything you think is worth keeping and ignoring the rest.  This approach is a method of summarization.  In the olden days, before highlighters, students would underline using coloured pencils or ball point pens to obtain a similar result.  The idea being, I think, that the highlighted or underlined material was what you should pay attention to when you re-read the article or text when it was time to study for your final exams.

The problem is highlighting or underlining does not make you the equal of the article or text, it makes you subservient to it.  May be that’s what you need to do to get an undergraduate degree at university; talking, conversing, writing in the margins is what you need to do to be the equal or the better of the writers of the books you read.

Do you write in your books?  Do you underline?  Do you highlight?  Do use post it notes?  Is it possible to read an electronic book or an article or book on your computer’s screen with understanding if you cannot mark it or make notes on it in some way?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

William H. Whyte, JrIs Anybody Listening? New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Michael Hinton Friday, November 27th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Education, Technology, Vol. 1 2 Comments

What would you do differently the second time around?

Marshall McLuhan (November 20, 1967, age 56).  What I would do

There is a parlor game Corinne likes to play called “Second time around.”  Everyone has to answer the question, “If you could live your life over again what would you do differently?”  Prizes go to the person who answers the question most honestly and most entertainingly.  I did not win.  My marks for honesty were credible but my marks for entertainment were as Mr. Jed Clampett would say on The Beverly Hillbillies “pitiful.”

I said I would do everything I did the first time around plus I’d do more, much more.  My biggest regret, you see, is that I have so many projects now in various stages of incompletion. And I’m afraid with this operation coming up that I’ll never complete them.  Corinne said I was being a downer that I was being too hard on myself, but I think not.

Me (November 2009, age 57).  The dangerous thrill of discovering new things

Marshall McLuhan toyed with many ideas and started many projects he never completed.  For example, he spent a great deal of time making notes and assembling files for the rewrite of his Ph.D. thesis for publication as a book, and his study The Laws of Media, which was to be his magnum opus on media.  Both projects were eventually completed.  But not until many years after his death, in 1980, and of course by other people, the thesis by his biographer Terry Gordon in 2006, 16 years later, and the Laws of Media by his son, Eric McLuhan in 1988, 8 years later.

I believe Marshall McLuhan left so much undone because he could not resist the lure, the thrill of discovering new things.  The constant pursuit of the new stopped him from getting things done.  This is a temptation I know that I also am suffering from myself.  Right now I have 12 projects on the go, five of which have to do with McLuhan, this blog being one of them.  I don’t have time to do anything more over the next year, yet new ideas come to me and I’m tempted to run after them.  Marshall McLuhan is a great teacher.  The fool it is said learns from his own mistakes, the wise man learns from the mistakes of others.  Thank you Marshall.

If you could live your life over again what would you do differently?  (Remember marks go for honesty and entertainment.)

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand. Marshall McLuhan: The medium and the messenger, 1989. P. 223-247.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Michael Hinton Thursday, November 26th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Education, Vol. 1 No Comments

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.

Tags: , , , , ,

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