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.


Products are becoming services.

Marshall McLuhan (May 8, 1967, age 55).  For example …

“Instead of going out and buying a packaged book of which there have been five thousand copies printed, you will go to the telephone, describe your interests, your needs, your problems … and they at once Xerox with the help of computers from libraries all over the world, all the latest material for you personally, not as something to be put out on a bookshelf.  They send you the package as a direct personal service.  This is where we’re heading under electronic conditions.  Products increasingly are becoming services.”

Me (February, 2011, age 58).  Sound familiar?

Cordially, Marshall and Me



Marshall McLuhan, “Predicting Communication via the Internet (1966),” interview with Robert Fulford, May 8, 1966, on CBC’s This Hour Has Seven Days in Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews, 2003, p. 101.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, February 5th, 2011
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The future of old age.

Marshall McLuhan (December, 1966, age 55).  Dear Diary:

Richard Kostelanetz, who is doing a piece on me for the New York Times, looked in today on my graduate seminar on communications, which I run at Toronto University.  He seemed to particularly enjoy my insights on what the elderly have to look forward to in the electric age.

I find a blunt approach to be effective in slashing through the students’ mental torpor.  “What,” I asked, “is the future of old age?”   The answer is obvious, although you’d never have known it by their faces.  Their silence was deafening.   “Why,” I said, “it’s exploration and discovery.”

Me (December, 2010, age 58).  As we are discovering, more and more, today …

But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.


Cordially, Marshall and Me


Richard Kostelanetz, “Understanding McLuhan (In Part),” The New York Times, January 29, 1967.  (“on the web”)

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, December 15th, 2010
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Seeing our present as future.

Me (October, 2010, age 58).  Another one for McLuhan.

The critics of Marshall McLuhan said he was a charlatan speaking gibberish.  Yet here he is in 1964, sounding remarkably sane to modern ears, predicting a now ubiquitous small, hand-held electronic device – cell phone, blackberry, i-phone – on which you can play a movie.  Granted he doesn’t see it as digital but 20/20 future sight is asking a lot.  Lesson – if you’re going to predict the future be ready for criticism if you get it right.

Marshall McLuhan (1964, age 52).  Clearly …

“At the present time, film is still in its manuscript phase, as it were; shortly it will, under TV pressure, go into its portable, accessible, printed-book phase.  Soon everyone will be able to have a small, inexpensive film projector that plays an 8-mm sound cartridge as if on a TV screen.  This development is part of our present technological implosion.”

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964, pp. 291-292.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, October 30th, 2010
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Marshall at the crystal ball.

Marshall McLuhan (February 25, 1965, age 54).  What’s in and what’s out.

“Professor McLuhan, how can you say, clotheslines, seams in stockings, books and jobs are all obsolete?

“Clotheslines, seams in stockings, books and jobs are all obsolete.”

“Seriously now, isn’t that a clothesline I see in your backyard?  Isn’t your current celebrity based on books?”

“Jane, these predictions follow from a close observation of the electric age in which we now live.  Everything is in flux.  But if you don’t like them, it doesn’t matter.  Here’s another.  Everything you thought you knew about children and their role in society is changing.  For example, one day it will be a commonplace for children to have credit cards.”

“Really, an American Express Card for little Bobby?”

“Well, if you don’t like that idea …”

Me (September, 2010, age 58).  What do you make of those apples?

These are just some of the predictions that showed up in the Life Magazine profile article on Marshall McLuhan by Jane Howard that I talked about yesterday.  Squint and they all seem bang on.  The question is what can we learn from them today?  Perhaps that any one as perceptive as this is still worth listening to.

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Jane Howard, “Oracle of the Electric Age,” Life Magazine, 25 February 1965, p. 92 and 96.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, September 9th, 2010
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Marshall McLuhan (1966, age 55). It seems inevitable.

As the world speeds up what was formerly separate becomes joined.  Politics is becoming entertainment and entertainment politics.  Within fifteen years I think it is safe to say an actor will be elected president of the United States.

Me (July, 2010, age 58). And vice versa?

This is one of McLuhan’s predictions that seems spot on (Ronald Reagan) incredibly perceptive (who else would have thought such a thing) and a bit too good to be true (one wonders how seriously he took the idea.)

As I was playing with the idea it struck me that it should work the other way too.  A politician should eventually succeed as an actor.  It took a bit longer but Al Gore did win an Oscar for his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

What predictions of Marshall McLuhan’s do you find most startling?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

P.S.  From Marshall:  Corinne tells me it’s your birthday.  Happy Birthday Michael.  May there be many more.

Reading for this post

Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, Who Was Marshall McLuhan? 1994, p. 198.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, July 24th, 2010
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Marshall McLuhan and the Future of the Book

Marshall McLuhan (August 1967, age 56).  Read fast, read deep.

Eric told me the Evelyn Wood course in speed reading course would give me some ideas about the Future of the Book and he was right.  Speed reading – by the way – is like X-raying a book to get a picture of what the author is thinking.  In this sense it’s about reading in depth.  Of course it’s very tactile and involving.  And of course it does motivate you to read faster.

Me (June 2010, age 57).   The future of the book is now

I’m not sure what ideas about the Future of the Book (a book project of McLuhan’s that was never finished), or anything else Marshall McLuhan actually got from taking a speed reading course.  Philip Marchand says in his biography that McLuhan did find the course useful for reading advertising fliers.

His big idea about the Future of the Book seems to have come from his contemplation of Xeroxing or photocopying rather than speed reading.  Xeroxing, of course, is a technology in which all who use it are publishers and loosely speaking writers too.  Today the new social media allows more and more people to be writers and publishers.  Given the millions of blogs that exist today, as McLuhan predicted, readers have truly become publishers and writers in the electronic age.  And as usual not all are happy with the way this future has played out:  especially the newspapers, magazines, book publishers and others whose markets have been shifted by the internet.

In this new world , publishing may be as solitary an activity as reading.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post:

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, p. 345.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, June 8th, 2010
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The Tom Wolfe approach.

Marshall McLuhan (November 22, 1965, age 54). What a delightful portrait!

Corinne and I have just finished reading Tom Wolfe’s delightful portrait of me.  He’s got a few details wrong, but I like the big picture.

Me (March 2010, age 57). What a delightful approach

In 1965, at the height of Marshall McLuhan’s celebrity, Tom Wolfe published a profile of McLuhan in New York, the Sunday magazine section of the New York World Journal Tribune.  In that article which he revised and included in his 1968 collection of essays, The Pump House Gang, he probably did exaggerate how much McLuhan was paid for speaking engagements ($25,000 seems high), and his description of McLuhan’s pre-tied tie as a ‘snap-on’ is probably better described as a ‘clip-on.’ [earlier post].  But these are small quibbles, this is still one of the best short descriptions of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas, celebrity, and personality

His approach – captured in the title of his article, ‘What if he’s right?’ – is I think the best way to approach McLuhan’s ideas.  Consider, for example, one of McLuhan’s ideas which people in the 1960s considered crazy:  in the future goods of all kinds will be sold unwrapped in bins.  Today, with the rise of stores such as Winner’s and Whole Foods, and the environmental movement McLuhan’s prediction is sounding more and more like common sense.

What if he’s right?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 330.

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Michael Hinton Friday, March 26th, 2010
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Who’s afraid of the unknown?

Marshall McLuhan (January, 1964, age 52). You should be!

Corinne says I should be more careful what I say in front of the children.  She said the twins were in tears after I told them nuclear war was not only possible but probable.  Reality, I see is an acquired taste.

The real problem, however, as I told the girls and Corinne, is this electric age of ours – TV, Radio, Telephones – has for the first time extended our central nervous system.  This is absolutely unprecedented.  In the past, the mechanical age, we extended particular body parts.  The car extended the foot, the telescope the eye, the gun the fist.  All these things have predictable results.  They increase our power to act, numb us to their action, and magnify the rational, uninvolved, logical man in us.  But the electric forms of new media as they extend us are taking us in the opposite direction.  We are becoming more tribal, involved, and emotional.  Who knows how far this will take us?  And what will happen to us as a result?  No one.  Welcome to the world of the unknown.   

Me (February 2010, age 57).  There’s even more to be afraid of today

In the 1960s the unknown became a regular visitor – brought each day to families through the western world by radio and TV – the drop out, the hippie, rock music, Vietnam, protests and riots, women’s rights, civil rights.  Today with the spread of computers, social software, and the internet, the speed of change is even greater, and the unknown doesn’t just drop in to visit, she’s become a member of the family.  What this is doing to us – how it is changing us – is just as unclear today as it was to McLuhan in the 1960s.  Marshall McLuhan said he would be happiest in a world in which nothing changed.  He recommended one extremely effective way to control the effects of new technology:  find the off button and push it.

Could you live without the electric technologies you use today for a month, a week, a day?  Would your life be diminished or improved by eliminating some or all of these technologies?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.295.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010
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Haiti will soon be a distant memory

Marshall McLuhan (April, 1965, age 53).  War on TV.

I was telling Tom Easterbrook just the other day The Vietnam War cannot be won on TV.  It could be won on radio, but not on TV.  TV is too involving.  One other thing, which I think is “verra” interesting.  Have you noticed that the media can only follow one war at a time?

Me (February, 2010, age 57).  What if he’s right?

Marshall McLuhan’s observation that the media can only follow one war at a time, suggests a prediction about the three week-old now disaster in Haiti. Sooner or later, the will media move on to some other bad news story to sell their good news (the advertisements).  Somalia, New Orleans, Bangladesh where are they on the 6 o’clock news?  Can Haiti, no matter how deserving of our attention remain long in the electronic eye once another story pops up.  At least Tiger is getting a break.  However, the hurricane season is fast approaching.  Haiti’s only chance is to suffer new disaster.

Is there a difference between radio coverage of the story and TV coverage?  If so, what is it? Does TV coverage, while it lasts, increase the likelihood that something will be done to rescue Haiti?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore.  War and Peace in the Global Village, 1968.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, February 4th, 2010
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Who should take the risks?

Marshall McLuhan (March, 1962, age 50).  Risk is not for the young scientist!

Gordie Thompson, one of the boffins – one of the senior engineers, that is – in the research group at Bell, was telling me that as one of the old buggers he’s the one who has to be the guy who puts the breaks on, who slows things down, who is the sober voice of second thoughts.  I told him, Gordie, you’ve got it all wrong.  When it comes to scientific research, you’re the only one who understands the science who can afford to take risks, to make a big mistake. The boys in administration won’t take chances because they don’t understand the science.  The young guys just out of graduate school are too busy worrying what will happen to them and their jobs if things don’t work out.  Gordie, I said, you’re the one who has to do it.  You understand what’s going on.  You’ve already proved your worth.  You can afford to get things wrong.  So go out and take a chance.  What if you turn out to be right?  

Me (February,  2010, age 57).  What if he’s right?

Marshall McLuhan’s genius was to be able to pick the counter-intuitive out of thin air, brush it off and get you to look at it and the world in a new way.  The conventional wisdom says the old are the spokesmen for stasis.  It’s the young you need to look to for change.  McLuhan says no.  Of those who can take risks in science the young aren’t strong enough in their position in their jobs, in their world to be truly creative.

What McLuhan says about science, I think applies equally to the Arts and every other area of life in which there is a discipline to be mastered.  To hazard a prediction of my own, the people I would suggest you look to for the next truly innovative risky technical moves are the old:  Margaret Atwood, Myrill Streep, Leonard Cohen, Stephen King, Stephen Hawking, David Susuki, Bill Gates

Who are the risk takers in your business?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan:  The medium and the messenger, 1989, p. 186.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010
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