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.


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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Isn’t that amazing!

Marshall McLuhan (August, 1973, age 62).  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.  Idea Consultants is back in action.  These long hot sweaty dog days of summer have been a positive inspiration to us both.  Ron has done the leg work.  They say genius is 99 per cent perspiration.  So perspiration is a good thing.  The problem is it stinks.  Ron came up with the science part of the solution.  Don’t mask the smell with perfume or deodorant.  Keep the good part of the sweat -those amazingly communicative pheromones.  Get rid of the stinky part.  Ron wanted to call his bio-chemical product “protex.”  As in “pro-tection” and  “tex-tile” – protect the fabric.  But I added, if I must say – and I will – what Corinne told me was “the distilled essence of genius.” I convinced him to add one little letter to the name which will spell all the difference in the world: the letter “h.”  We will call it “Prohtex.”  Get it? “Proh-ibit” and “tex-tile” – as in prohibit [the bad sweat on] the fabric.  Well perhaps not everyone will get it.  But when they do we’ll be rolling in it.  Or rather they will.  Must run I feel another idea coming on.  This could be the big one.

Me (January 2010, age 57):  Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea

I don’t know exactly what happened when Marshall McLuhan and his nephew pitched one of the big companies like Johnson & Johnson.  But I’m sure the brand guys dined out regularly on the story.  It is a wonder that the writers on “Madmen” don’t go more to the life of McLuhan for inspiration.  As you might expect nobody in the business world wanted to buy this idea.  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 don’t want to be sexually attentive.  (Tomorrow I’ll take a look at more of McLuhan’s amazing business ideas that business kept on turning down.)

Was the name the problem?  Or was it the product?  Say that it worked, would you use a product that kept the good sweat –sent the chemical messages of attraction – and got rid of the bad – the stinky part?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

W. Terrence GordonMarshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding, 1997, pp. 268-269.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, January 28th, 2010
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The power of the artist

Marshall McLuhan (Summer 1968, age 57).  You can give Mailer a compliment but he hasn’t the wit to accept it

That chat I had with Norman Mailer on the CBC’s TV program, “The Summer Way,” is still on my mind, largely because despite the title of the program, “Meeting of Minds,” there was so little meeting of minds.  Here’s how it went.  I’d make an observation.  (Violence is necessary to the formation of identity.) He’d say he didn’t like it.  So I made another observation, (the new electronic environment has abolished nature) and he’d say he didn’t like that and so it went.  I don’t have a problem with his liking or not liking my ideas.  But I don’t think liking or not liking is productive.  In fact I’m convinced it’s counter-productive.  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.  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.  He alone has the ability to tell us what is happening.  Poor Mailer was not delighted.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  Marshall McLuhan:  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.  McLuhan’s answer was no, he didn’t think of himself as an artist or a scientist.  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.  McLuhan’s answer then in effect was “I refuse to be lumped in a category.”

But of those two boxes, artist and scientist, he seems to fit most easily into the artist category.  Scientists he said are in the matching game. Matching ideas about the world with evidence of the world.  Artists are in the breakthrough game.  Looking for new patterns in the world.  McLuhan tries his hand at the matching game in his observations about media.  For example, radio is visual, TV is tactile and children who watch TV look at the world from an average distance of 4’6”and therefore are hunters not readers.  But this science is not the science you met in High School.  The matching is often difficult to separate from assertion.

What category would you place yourself?  Artist or scientist?  What about the people closest to you?  Family, friends, colleagues?  Should businesses be in the matching game or the breakthrough game?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, December 16th, 2009
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