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
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Education, Technology, Vol. 1 No Comments

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