#UMRG Links, Thoughts and Comments #6

Will Monroe shared two links with us this week.

The first is Mark Federman’s reply to danah boyd asking how to define work. He quotes from Understanding Media:

‘Work,’ however, does not exist in a nonliterate world. The primitive hunter or fisherman did no work, any more than does the poet, painter, or thinker of today. Where the whole man is involved there is no work. … In the computer age we are once more totally involved in our roles. In the electric age, the ‘job of work’ yields to dedication and commitment, as in the tribe.

The second resource is from the The Altantic and is titled Beyond McLuhan: Your New Media Studies Syllabus in which Christina Dunbar-Hester “walks [us] through her PhD-level class on technology and media. Along the way, she distills a quarter century of academic work that goes far beyond pop culture’s standard takes on how our world changes.”

In this course we ask, how can we think about media technologies in a smart and critical way? Do they “re-wire” society and drive social change, as is popularly (and ubiquitously) claimed? How do they reflect our social values and divisions? Is there anything special about media and information technologies in particular?

Do check out the reading list at the bottom of that post!


McLuhan on Innovation

This thinking about innovation is very common nowadays, but McLuhan wrote the following in 1964 and just has a particular way with words that I very much appreciate. From page 336 (of the ISBN 978-1584230731 edition):

Any innovation threatens the equilibrium of existing organization. In big industry new ideas are invited to rear their heads so that they can be clobbered at once. The idea department of a big firm is a sort of lab for isolating dangerous viruses. When one is found, it is assigned to a group for neutralizing and immunizing treatment. It is comical, therefore, when anybody applies to a big corporation with a new idea that would result in a great “increase of production and sales.” Such an increase would be a disaster for the existing management. They would have to make way for new management. Therefore, no new idea ever starts from within a big operation. It must assail the organization from outside, through some small but competing organization.

McLuhan in Wired Magazine

I stumbled on a faux interview with McLuhan in Wired from 1996. It is prefaced as follows:

Scholars agree that Marshall McLuhan’s earliest books were written by him, but there is mystery and uncertainty about who really wrote his subsequent works. McLuhan would lie on a couch, head on a pillow, and spout ideas, for hours. Sometimes assistants would transcribe as McLuhan dictated, sometimes they would later write down what McLuhan had said, and sometimes they would write down what they thought McLuhan had said. Somehow books were assembled from these notes and recollections, and then McLuhan signed his name to them. This indefinite manner of creation was never a problem for McLuhan, who often insisted that facts were not as important as fallacies.

The fallacies of this interview with McLuhan are as follows: About a year ago, someone calling himself Marshall McLuhan began posting anonymously on a popular mailing list called Zone (zone@wired.com). Gary Wolf began a correspondence with the poster via a chain of anonymous remailers. McLuhan (who would have been 85 this year) said he now lives in a beach town in Southern California named “Parma.” (This town does not exist.) One after another, tiny hints, confirmed by third parties close to McLuhan decades ago, convinced Wolf that if the poster was not McLuhan himself, it was a bot programmed with an eerie command of McLuhan’s life and inimitable perspective. After many rounds of e-mail, the conversation got down to the meat of the matter: What does McLuhan think about all this new digital technology?

The things Wolf makes “McLuhan” says are quite funny and smart. For example McLuhan is asked his thought on advertising. His reply is as follows:

Let me tell you about the economy of Parma, where I live. It has a secret economy, a mixture of software firms and natural-juice franchises whose factories are the unused rec rooms and converted triple-car garages of a suburban lifestyle that no longer holds interest. The juice franchises in Parma do not actually squeeze juice – this is handled remotely by friends and relatives of the franchisees, who strike deals with national distributors of organic produce. The franchise handles the marketing campaign: developing slogans, bottle designs, billboards, and TV commercials.

You see, the advertising is far more expensive and difficult than the juicing. This has been the case generally with advertising for several decades: by now it should be obvious that a product is merely an inducement to the consumer to purchase the advertising. The Net will only further this movement.

It is quite conceivable to me that a juice franchise could stop charging for its beverage altogether and simply give it away to people who pay to receive the advertising. (Emphasis mine)

Read it all here.

Wired has a page that lists all their references to McLuhan. I enjoyed The Wisdom of Saint Marshall, the Holy Fool and Kelly’s interview with Derrick de Kerckhove too.

#UMRG Links, Thoughts and Comments #5

Will Monroe shared the following Tweet with us:

This McLuhanesque interpretation of The Shining is quite entertaining:

My first impression when I saw it in 1980 was that there was a Marshall McLuhan subtext to The Shining. What grabbed me was what for me was the climactic, most horrifying moment of the film: when Wendy discovered Jack’s manuscript with nothing but “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” repeated on it. To someone who’s read a lot of McLuhan, this is the perfect visual metaphor for the horror of the “Gutenberg era” legacy.


Jack represents book culture not only as an aspiring writer but also as a former schoolteacher. His disdain for television is shown in the sarcastic way he says (in the car) “It’s OK, he saw it on television!” By contrast, he makes a sanctimonious appeal to a “written contract” when Wendy suggests that they should leave the Overlook Hotel in order to get help for Danny.

#UMRG Links, Thoughts and Comments #4

JR Dingwall posted the following on quote on Twitter:

Tom Nickel posted his thoughts on individualism and unity. I quote some paragraphs:

Of course we are all separate instances of homo sapiens, but the issue is — how do we see ourselves? Or did we even see ourself as a self? That separate-self view of things, McLuhan says, is an artifact of technology, in this case, the technology of the written word. The written word extended us as a species is such deeply transformative ways that it produced the means of social control needed to go beyond small bands or settled villages to urban forms of organization in which everyone doesn’t know everyone else. This is what McLuhan means by new media altering social organization.


Which brings us to the question of losing our individualism. I hope we do. Or I should say, I hope (and expect) that newer extensions of ourselves, extensions of our entire central nervous system and brain will alter sense ratios and social organization in such a way that our very sense of self and our so-called unique and separate individual consciousness will change. The feeling of losing something is anticipatory. As it actually happens, which it is right now even as we are having our Reading Group, it is experienced just as the way things are.

Glen Cochrane then commented on Tom:

I do disagree with your example and statement about “not a loss of your individualism” Yes it is. It’s not a loss of an ability to express one’s individualism, but for anyone who did express it in that particular territory and now cannot, it is a loss of that part of their own individualism. Humans are adaptable, but when it comes to defining the self, my self, continuity is important. I think this is true for humanity as well: continuity is important. There’s also the domino effect to worry about in your example.

Hans Haringa thinks the notion of the web as a democratizing force is idealistic:

The ‘genie’ is out of the (Facebook) bottle and time will tell where that leads us. I personally subscribe to the model that we will ‘end-up’ in World State, a unified government which administers the entire planet, with a few isolated exceptions. This if we don’t blow ourselves up before.

Finally, Daniel Erasmus told us why phone sex works…

UMRG Links, Thoughts and Comments #3

UMRG Links, Thoughts and Comments #3

Norman Constantine tweeted the following:

According to Norman: “Electric communication (the internet) has made school completely obsolete yet it hangs on with a vengence by the old power elite and will not ‘go quietly into that good night'”.

McLuhan taught me why it is that we call cowards “pussies”. On page 100 he uses the term pusillanimity. On Wiktionary this is defined as:

The quality or state of being pusillanimous; the vice of being timid and cowardly, and thus not living up to one’s full potential

Rhonda Jessen tweeted the following:

This refers to a piece on Mcluhan by Robert K. Logan titled McLuhan Misunderstood:

The purpose of this of this expository essay is to clear up some of the misunderstandings and misconceptions about his work. No attempt will be made to apologize for McLuhan’s scholarship or ideas, as no apology is needed. Rather the objective is to make his work more accessible to a larger audience and to identify the origin of some of his key concepts.

Well worth the read.

Al Jazeera English’ Listening Post devoted the complete show to McLuhan last Saturday in a show titled Of Mediums and Messages. They gave an very quick overview and history of McLuhan and then spent a long time interviewing Evgeny Morozov about his lastest book:

#UMRG Links, Thoughts and Comments #2

Mark Federman, co-author of McLuhan for Managers writes in a comment:

McLuhan did not have the vocabulary of complexity at his disposal, although the effects he observes and about which he writes are indeed complex and emergent effects. In that sense, the changes – or messages – that act on an individual create perturbations in the social system of which an individual is a member; hence, an effect on an individual potentially ripples through to become transformative effects on a society.

Mark also shared a link to an article that he has written titled What is the Meaning of The Medium is the Message?. That article links to this PDF that explains how one could read McLuhan.

Finally he shared some insight information about McLuhan’s appearance in Annie Hall:

In fact, Marshall regularly used the “do you think my fallacy is wrong?” as a probe to counter the many criticisms and critiques of his work and observations. By claiming his observations were fallacious they are by definition “wrong,” thereby not only disarming the critic, but making him look foolish in the process. He would then calmly walk away, leaving the would-be attacker puzzled in his wake.

Stephen Downes reflects on the first sentence of the book:

The first sentence is a cure, telling us to watch communications for what appears to be being said, and what is really being said, where what is really being said is understood through understanding this underlying reality of the medium. The ‘appearance’ is the furniture in the room illuminated by the electric light; the reality is the fact of seeing the contents of rooms that would ordinarily be dark.

Will Monroe pointed us to MoocLuhan where Mark Guzdial tries to use McLuhan to understand the hottest trend in the educational world MOOCs. The blog post mentions a fabulous quote by McLuhan:

Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.

Will is still looking for the source of this quote. Is this maybe something McLuhan said on TV sometime?

Glenn Cochrane has written a reply to Tom Nickel’s question on whether modern financial instruments are extensions of ourselves. He refers to Michael Sandel’s latest book in which he explores how we are turning everything into markets (essentially commodifying things that shouldn’t be commofied, paid for prison cell upgrade anyone?). Glenn writes:

To continue with Sandel’s example in a McLuhan light, when culture is put wholly through the medium of market we become numb to any cultural goals except for accumulating money (perhaps with a nice side order of justification). It becomes a closed system that tends not to consider any outside suggestion about what to do with our lives, imploding on itself as all activities start to fit this ultimate goal.

I’ll finish by sharing some of my favourite quotes about art and artist in the introduction to the second edition of Understanding Media:

The power of the arts to anticipate future social and technological developments, by a generation and more, has long been recognized. In this century Ezra Pound called the artist “the antennae of the race”. Art as radar acts as “an early alarm system,” as it were, enabling us to discover social and psychic targets in lots of time to prepare to cope with them. This concept of the arts as prophetic, contrasts with the popular idea of them as mere self-expression. [..] Art as a radar environment takes on the function of indispensable perceptual training rather than the role of a privileged diet for the elite.

I was also delighted to read the following passage in the same introduction:

The machine turned Nature into an art form. For the first time men began to regard Nature as a source of aesthetic and spiritual values. They began to marvel that earlier ages had been so unaware of the world of Nature as Art.

For some reason I can only think of people marvelling at nature documentaries on their Hi-Def televisions.

#UMRG Links, Thoughts and Comments #1

Throughout the week I’ve curated some of the links and comments. Here goes:

Anne Pietsch mentioned a Guardian Podcast where Benjamin Walker explores the meaning of the slogan The Medium is the Message. Through that news article I discovered this McLuhan scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall:

Dennie Heye shared links to a CBC page on McLuhan titled Demystifying McLuhan and a Spark Podcast.

Glenn Cochrane has written a very insightful post where he discusses the concept of scale in the first chapter of Understanding Media. About this quote from McLuhan “In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one and other and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out Cornflakes or Cadillacs.” he writes:

I’ve often actually felt something wrong about the famous line The Medium the Message, and have preferred to think that the Medium has the potential to be the Message. But, here I began to see what he’s trying to say. Translating between scales uses one level’s medium as the destination level’s message. The individual wants breakfast cereal or a car; the society cares not which exact person buys what food or major appliance, but sees the production numbers that have been tallied up for decision making purposes.

If you want to follow everything Glenn writes about #umrg, then make sure you check out this tag on his blog. He would love comments from you.

JR Dingwall and Rhonda Jessen missed the kick-off session and decided they still would like to intodruce themselves. Check out their YouTube video:

In the introduction to the second edition McLuhan writes:

When data move instantly, classification is too fragmentary. In order to cope with data at electric speed in typical situations of “information overload,” men resort to the study of configurations, like the sailor in Edgar Allan Poe’s Maelstrom.

Edgar’s Allan Poe’s A Descent into the Maelström is available in full online and I enjoyed reading the short story.