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.



Marshall McLuhan (April 11, 1974, age 62).  Bad vibes?

You wouldn’t believe it.  Two months ago, when our youngest daughter Elizabeth was about to be married and the house was full of guests, the water main burst.  Now, just as the water main is being replaced at home and the lawn is completely dug up, we’ve had to replace the water main at the Coach House – which as you know is my office at Toronto University and the Center for Culture and Technology.  What’s next?  Thank God I don’t have a cottage.

Me (May 2010, age 57).  Coincidence?

Two water mains in the same year?  Bad luck?  Bad vibes?  Coincidence?  Certainly uncomfortable.  Someone once told me that when they lived in Kingston (Ontario) they lived on Montreal Road, but when they moved to Montreal (Quebec) they wound up living on Kingston Road.


What coincidences – comfortable or uncomfortable – come to mind for you?


Cordially, Marshall and Me


Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 490, 491, and 496.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, May 12th, 2010
Permalink 1970s and 80s, Culture, Vol. 1 3 Comments

Lucky, I’m so lucky

Marshall McLuhan (December 1968, age 57).  I’ve got this thing about the number 3.

My new agent Matie Molinaro is working out splendidly.  You wouldn’t believe the liberties people were taking with my radio interviews and TV and film appearances.  She is making sure my good name is protected and my wish is her delight.  An arrangement in which I assure you I delight.  For instance, Matie didn’t bat an eye when I asked her to make sure that when she enrolled me in ACTRA that my membership number was divisible by three.  You see, I am a firm believer that the number 3 and numbers divisible by three are lucky.  If they’re not then why am I so lucky?

Me (January 2010, age 57).  The rule of 3.

There is no doubt that Marshall McLuhan believed that the number 3 and numbers divisible by 3 are lucky.  He arranged his life to surround himself with these lucky numbers.  For example, he had 6 children, the Coach House, the home of his Centre for Culture and Technology was at 39A Queen’s Park Crescent East, and there are 33 chapters in his best selling Understanding Media.   Not surprisingly, his rule for determining whether a book is worth reading is to peruse page 69 – a number divisible by 3 both in whole and in its parts.  If that page is enlightening then the book is worth reading.

Superstitions are notoriously difficult to shake.  If 3 and numbers divisible by 3 are so lucky, and Marshall McLuhan surrounded himself with them, then you might well ask:  Why was he so unlucky when it came to his health, suffering from repeated strokes, a brain tumor, and, in the last 18 months (a number divisible by 3) of his life, aphasia?  The answer, of course, is that but for the presence of 3 things would have been much worse.

How superstitious are you?  If you are superstitious how much effort do you make to insure the Gods are on your side?  Is it just a coincidence that this blog closes with 3 questions?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Matie Armstrong Molinaro. “Marshalling McLuhan,” in Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message.  Edited by George Sanderson and Frank Macdonald. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum, 1989, pp. 81-88.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, January 30th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Business, Culture, Vol. 1 No Comments

Logic: The magic number 2

Marshall McLuhan (May 1959, age 47).  Producers are becoming consumers

What an inauspicious day, Friday the thirteenth.  Thank God my flight was yesterday.  I flew in from Winnipeg where I spoke to the Winnipeg Ad and Sales Club.  I led off with one of my favourite anecdotes, “Whenever I fly, I always carry a powerful bomb with me.  This absolutely insures my safety, the probability of there being two such bombs on the plane being infinitesimally low.”  They also liked my Newfie joke:  “What’s written on the bottom of a Newfie beer bottle?  Open other end.”  Liked is a strong word, let’s say they were appreciative.

The ad men did a double take when I told them in the electric age, which is the age in which we live, things are moving so fast producers are becoming consumers.  It’s a complex phenomenon, but basically a simple idea.  Things are changing so fast producers have figured out ways to speed up, to go faster than the wave, and one way to do that is to understand consumers so well that you know them better than they do themselves.  And when you do that you can anticipate their wants.  That’s why the Russians launched Sputnik and why Prime Minister Diefenbaker is making a serious error in canceling the Avro Arrow.  The biggest investment business is making today is in research and development.  They do this not to create a lot of new machines, products, services but to speed up to stay ahead of all the change that’s built in to the system.

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  The rule of 2

If Marshall McLuhan believed in the magical power of 3, he also believed in the logical power of the number 2.  Pairs of concepts, the end points of a single dimension, opposites, either ors, this and that’s run through his work.  Hot and cool, high definition and low definition, figure and ground, right brain and left brain, cliché and archetype, medium and message, visual and acoustic, eye and ear.  So that even in his doctoral dissertation which he described as a history of the Trivium, the 3 disciplines of grammar rhetoric and logic which dominated schooling in the middle ages, for analytical purposes he reduced to a battle between 2 forces over time, the grammarians and the rhetoricians.

Twos are powerful precisely because they exclude grey middle possibilities. They force you to make clear distinctions, to make decisions, to avoid weaseling and waffling.  All media he taught are hot or cool, not hot, warm, or cool.  This bias for black or white bothered his quibble-prone academic readers, even those who viewed his work positively.  For example, in his review of The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media in the Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Kenneth Boulding argues that to McLuhan the key dimension on which hot and cool media differed was “involvement.”  But surely he argued other dimensions mattered too – such as “demandingness or effort,” “range in time and space,’ and,” “density or capacity.”  These quibbles it’s worth noting all implicitly reject McLuhan’s starting point that what matters is the medium not it’s content.

For McLuhan, however, the power of a single dimension with 2 possibilities only was greater than the power of safer equivocating and qualifying multidimensional thinking.  He believed in absolutes.  Qualifications were for the intellectually weak of heart.    

What other examples of 2s in McLuhan’s work are there?  Which is the one you have found most stimulating?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 252-255.

Boulding, Kenneth E.  “The Medium and the Message,” reprinted in McLuhan: Hot and Cool. Edited by Gerald Emanuel Stearn. New York: New American Library, 1967, pp. 68-75.

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Michael Hinton Friday, November 13th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Culture, Vol. 1 No Comments

Superstition: The magic number 3, or is it 2?

Marshall McLuhan (1968, age 57).  The rule of 3

I’m told I’m so famous now I need an agent.  People are making money off my name and I mean to get my share.  My agent is Matie Molinaro.  I asked her if she was a secret agent.  She seems to like my jokes, obviously a woman of good taste, says if I’m going to do movie work I have to be a member of ACTRA and AFTRA.  Corinne says she hopes the films will all be talkies.  I said, me too, silent film will not do me justice, and I’m also hoping for a predominance of black and white. Colour is an unnecessary technical change and in my case not an improvement.  Not incidentally, I asked Matie to make sure my ACTRA and AFTRA numbers are divisible by 3.  I’m convinced, no, I’m persuaded by experience, that the number 3 and numbers divisible by three are lucky.  Consider: I have 6 children; I live at 3 Wychwood Park; and Corrine and I were married in 1939. Q.E.D.

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  The rule of 2

Marshall McLuhan was adamant about the luckiness of the number 3 and numbers divisible by 3.  As a result the number 3 works its way through almost everything McLuhan touched. For example, he often said that the best place to test-read a book was on page 69.  If that page was interesting then he said the book was worth reading, if not then you should move on.  Understanding Media: The extensions of man, (6 words) is comprised of 33 chapters.  The Gutenberg Galaxy (3 words, 8 if you count the subtitle) is a bit more complicated example.  In manuscript the book consisted of 399 pages.  The book is comprised of 111 mosaic bits – ‘Prologue’, plus ‘Gutenberg Galaxy’, the 107 ‘chapter glosses’, ‘The Galaxy Reconfigured’, and ‘Bibliographic Index’.  112, however, if you count the ‘Index of Chapter Glosses.’)  In setting up this blog you will see that the magic number 3 has played a role. For example, I’ve promised to do a total of 300 ideas, 300 days, and 300 posts.  And the headline for this blog is 9 words.

The power of 3 on the mind of Marshall McLuhan notwithstanding, a strong case can be made that Marshall McLuhan felt the number 2 was as powerful if not more powerful than 3.  (To be continued tomorrow.)

What are you superstitious about?  Certain numbers?  Avoiding black cats and walking under ladders?    Do you have a lucky shirt, lucky shoes, or a lucky colour?   Any other 3s in Marshall McLuhan’s life and writing that you would like to add?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Molinaro, Matie Armstrong.  “Marshalling McLuhan,” in Marshall McLuhan: the man and his message. Edited by George Sanderson and Frank Macdonald. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum, 1989, pp. 88.

W. Terrence Gordon, Marshall McLuhan: Escape into understanding, 1997, pp.185-190.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, November 12th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Culture, Vol. 1 No Comments