A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.Â Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday,Â I present one of McLuhanâ€™s observations and talk about its relevance today.Â 300 ideas. 300 days.Â 300 posts.
Marshall McLuhan (March, 1962, age 50).Â 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 heâ€™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.Â I told him, Gordie, youâ€™ve got it all wrong.Â When it comes to scientific research, youâ€™re the only one who understands the science who can afford to take risks, to make a big mistake. The boys in administration wonâ€™t take chances because they donâ€™t understand the science.Â The young guys just out of graduate school are too busy worrying what will happen to them and their jobs if things donâ€™t work out.Â Gordie, I said, youâ€™re the one who has to do it.Â You understand whatâ€™s going on.Â Youâ€™ve already proved your worth.Â You can afford to get things wrong.Â So go out and take a chance.Â What if you turn out to be right?Â Â
Me (February, Â 2010, age 57). Â What if heâ€™s right?
Marshall McLuhanâ€™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.Â The conventional wisdom says the old are the spokesmen for stasis.Â Itâ€™s the young you need to look to for change.Â McLuhan says no.Â Of those who can take risks in science the young arenâ€™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.Â 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:Â Margaret Atwood, Myrill Streep, Leonard Cohen, Stephen King, Stephen Hawking, David Susuki, Bill Gates â€¦
Who are the risk takers in your business?
Cordially, Marshall and Me
Reading for this post
Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan:Â The medium and the messenger, 1989, p. 186.
Marshall McLuhan (August, 1973, age 62).Â My contribution is an h!
Just got off the phone with Cousin Ron – Dr. Ron Hall, now – who you will remember is a biochemist at McMaster.Â Idea Consultants is back in action.Â These long hot sweaty dog days of summer have been a positive inspiration to us both.Â Ron has done the leg work.Â They say genius is 99 per cent perspiration.Â So perspiration is a good thing.Â The problem is it stinks.Â Ron came up with the science part of the solution.Â Donâ€™t mask the smell with perfume or deodorant.Â Keep the good part of the sweat -those amazingly communicative pheromones.Â Get rid of the stinky part.Â Ron wanted to call his bio-chemical product â€śprotex.â€ťÂ As in â€śpro-tectionâ€ť andÂ â€śtex-tileâ€ť â€“ protect the fabric.Â But I added, if I must say – and I will â€“ what Corinne told me was â€śthe distilled essence of genius.â€ť I convinced him to add one little letter to the name which will spell all the difference in the world: the letter â€śh.â€ťÂ We will call it â€śProhtex.â€ťÂ Get it? â€śProh-ibitâ€ť and â€śtex-tileâ€ť â€“ as in prohibit [the bad sweat on] the fabric.Â Well perhaps not everyone will get it.Â But when they do weâ€™ll be rolling in it.Â Or rather they will.Â Must run I feel another idea coming on.Â This could be the big one.
Me (January 2010, age 57): Â Maybe it wasnâ€™t such a great idea
I donâ€™t know exactly what happened when Marshall McLuhan and his nephew pitched one of the big companies like Johnson & Johnson.Â But Iâ€™m sure the brand guys dined out regularly on the story.Â It is a wonder that the writers on â€śMadmenâ€ť donâ€™t go more to the life of McLuhan for inspiration.Â As you might expect nobody in the business world wanted to buy this idea.Â Perhaps business people today might be more interested, providing that is that the product does not prove to have unwanted and fundamentally deal-breaking side-effects, for example the attractions of the sexual attention of people you donâ€™t want to be sexually attentive.Â (Tomorrow Iâ€™ll take a look at more of McLuhanâ€™s amazing business ideas that business kept on turning down.)
Was the name the problem?Â Or was it the product?Â Say that it worked, would you use a product that kept the good sweat â€“sent the chemical messages of attraction â€“ and got rid of the bad â€“ the stinky part?
Cordially, Marshall and Me
Reading for this post
W. Terrence Gordon.Â Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding, 1997, pp. 268-269.
Marshall McLuhan (Summer 1968, age 57).Â You can give Mailer a compliment but he hasnâ€™t the wit to accept it
That chat I had with Norman Mailer on the CBCâ€™s TV program, â€śThe Summer Way,â€ť is still on my mind, largely because despite the title of the program, â€śMeeting of Minds,â€ť there was so little meeting of minds.Â Hereâ€™s how it went.Â Iâ€™d make an observation.Â (Violence is necessary to the formation of identity.) Heâ€™d say he didnâ€™t like it. Â So I made another observation, (the new electronic environment has abolished nature) and heâ€™d say he didnâ€™t like that and so it went.Â I donâ€™t have a problem with his liking or not liking my ideas.Â But I donâ€™t think liking or not liking is productive.Â In fact Iâ€™m convinced itâ€™s counter-productive.Â Liking and not liking, which is so often masked as truth-seeking interferes as I said yesterday with just observation of the world.
I decided to try a new tactic.Â Norman, I said, you will be delighted with this – the artist is the only one who is able to face the present and see it for what it is.Â He alone has the ability to tell us what is happening.Â Poor Mailer was not delighted.
Me (December 2009, age 57).Â Marshall McLuhan:Â Artist or scientist?
At this point, the moderator of the meeting, Ken Lefolii, stepped in and asked McLuhan whether he thought of himself as an artist or a scientist.Â McLuhanâ€™s answer was no, he didnâ€™t think of himself as an artist or a scientist.Â He said he rejected these categories as unhelpful, fragmenting, nineteenth century devices, and in particular he implied they were not helpful for thinking about him as an observer of the unfolding electric 20th century world.Â McLuhanâ€™s answer then in effect was â€śI refuse to be lumped in a category.â€ť
But of those two boxes, artist and scientist, he seems to fit most easily into the artist category.Â Scientists he said are in the matching game. Matching ideas about the world with evidence of the world.Â Artists are in the breakthrough game.Â Looking for new patterns in the world.Â McLuhan tries his hand at the matching game in his observations about media.Â For example, radio is visual, TV is tactile and children who watch TV look at the world from an average distance of 4â€™6â€ťand therefore are hunters not readers.Â But this science is not the science you met in High School.Â The matching is often difficult to separate from assertion.
What category would you place yourself?Â Artist or scientist?Â What about the people closest to you?Â Family, friends, colleagues?Â Should businesses be in the matching game or the breakthrough game?
Cordially, Marshall and Me