Open Letter of Concern about McLuhan studies

Readers of the Internet,

Look at a satellite view of the globe. The movement of clouds over North America reflect a residue of air patterns moving from the US to Canada and from Canada to the US. I think upon the weather of this particular day. What is the point of view? It is upon people under the clouds interacting through a vast range of technology their presence floating through networks.

Under the clouds one of these days, I was researching "Multimedia Demystified" (Apple Computers). I was struck by the key keen insights of artists, technologists in their digital media studios that I was interviewing. Above the clouds was an immensely similar set of observations. I picked up and decided to teach  "Understanding Media" as a body of digital media principles. The point is to have an  instruction manual for future programmers who are conceiving the global robot or as more socially acceptable friend. It is for the artists and engineers serving the robot's world.

One of my probes via Internet led to reaching the McLuhan Center in Toronto. And that thrilling moment when you are about to read their material. That moment when you are projecting your hopes of what they will say. Certainly this is where the true professors of McLuhan must live. Then the virtual became real as I hit the ground, a fallen traveler.

Subject: McLuhan Centre: War Ship or Worship ? - Canada, Catholicism, and Computers
Date: April 18, 1995, (ed rev 7/24/04)

Re: (now at

I switched over to the just received Internet link of the McLuhan Centre. It is under a Canadian cloud of confusion. First excited at the prospect, I now consider this the Centre For Misunderstanding McLuhan. Like most modern institutional education - it is de-education. In other words - what could we do to make sure you would not be educated. The booming static of McLuhan times makes any listener who remembers his message want to switch. 

The Centre was chronicled by a Canadian broadcast a few weeks ago. In their visit to the McLuhan Centre we see what looks like the outrigging of a warship - piles of computers and heaps of television gear. The caption overprints... "The centre is controversial doing things that McLuhan would not approve of." Their Internet page gives proof. Their mission statement reads like some manifest of a technology warship bill of lading.Oh my sad brothers.

Let us switch from the warship to worship world literary culture? That is McLuhan's main sail. Should not a McLuhan Center of Study be the super-extension of his estimated living being? The McLuhan in the clouds, in space above? Consider IBM or the Catholic church as institutions. Such entities are larger than their founders, whose purpose is to live on from one generation to the next. These require well-thought out charters to induce the generational effect. But if the generational effect has nothing to do with the origin, the flinted sparks at the beginning of their creation then all we have is a perpetuated shell. The Centre for extension of Marshall Mcluhan is lost, uncentered, and badly in need of a switching.

Let me say what a McLuhan Center should accomplish:

The purpose and the effect of a McLuhan center is simple - To generate in a learning mind the stuff that made a McLuhan. Think of a place where, if Marshall were 20 years old, he would clearly be drawn to. A McLuhan magnet. Imagine that when he left such a place he would be charged to become himself faster and fuller. This is the essence of the McLuhan Center mission.  I think that if today, Marshall were to walk in to the Toronto Centre, his sense of becoming voided would cause him to run and cross the border once again to the country where he found what he loved.

We must excavate more completely what he really did and said and find the path which made it so. Up front, individuals can learn from Marshall's intellectual charter, the character of his acting and speaking skill, and the method of his analysis. He and the new university should inculcate a resevoir of literary knowledge, a fully intellectually aware sensation, sense of humor, hit and run probes and explanation of history through tetrad dialectics.

But then any true McLuhan study would have a branch that would deconstruct his voyage, to go back and reperceive, reexplore, reassess, and reconstruct more fully the origin and extent of the world's media and its effects. This is a journey in time, in history, in culture. The content of the curriculum should not rest with a shopping cart full of hardware from the computer stores. The course should be a challenging travel that covers all media at all times in all cultures. As much as you can do in your time as a student with the able direction of teachers whose talent has always been that magic of slowing thought and action down or speeding it up. To range over the global village is to visit the hamlets at all times of their being. Each on an interpretation and understanding of the media arts, the social dynamics of these villages. Certainly the laws of media are a subject. And any student should diseert on the McLuhan gambit (the contents Understanding Media: )

Spoken Word
Written Word

Printed Word
Wheel, Bicycle, and Airplane



The children of our time seek a media center to question and characterize medium especialy for those who are about to invent the new ones. Not only invent media but the attendant infrastructures. The combustion engine as well as the parking lot changed society forever. Citizens graple to understand media, as it is part of their work and web life. Take the emerging forms of communicating digital interactive media - the creative press speculates what Marshall would have said. It is tempting to update McLuhan. Teachers challenge identity. It is best to invent yourself.

The Toronto Centre spends time evaluating teleconferencing, interactive media, digital cash, web phones, personal digital assistants,etc. Fair enough - these media have not been "read" by media observers very well. But the literacy is just as important.

Teaching literary technique is probably the beginning of any "true" McLuhan endeavor. Literature was his soul - get with the program. As a tracking device the Oxford English Dictionary shows us that massage is the first variant of message. Marshall sheared the generations ago meaning. This was one of his secret magical incantations. The study of language is the root of McLuhan inquiry. It's art is the source of conveyance.

When I think of Marshall trying to understand media, I don't think of him watching TV, sweeping radio dials, sitting attentively in movie theaters, or leaning into a computer screen clicking on Web pages. Yet this is what you see in the Toronto Centre. The man was far too cool for this. I am certain that to understand new media, you would find a young Marshall instead learning about some recently unearthed archaelogical find, researching forgotten methods of warfare, or studying about African gestural or American Indian sign languages. Unlocking the media of ancient and foreign civlizations causes us to realize how strange our sensibilities are - a great secret to understanding our world of media and through the medium, the word itself. For this reason, history, literature, and artist's studios are the core talents to develop at such an institution.

McLuhan understood the character and intent of a medium in both a social and a personal way. What is invisible to everyone is the time he took to uncover other culture's characteristic rites and artifacts. Cultural exploration is a necessary agenda of any McLuhan study. The continued look at modern advertising is a great excercize as having students write up what they see (some essays are in The Mechanical Bride). Staying in touch with artists and their sensibilities is another source.

In Silicon Valley and in Telecom Valley we engineers all think we are engaged in inventing the future of our society. To probe the future, dig the past. As an expert McLuhan researcher Eric McLuhan told me, "Marshall would say the future is too easy; the present is the really tough challenge and it is artists who are engaged in writing a detailed history of the present. He wasn't 30 years ahead of his time; he was on time, and 30 years ahead of his contemporaries."

Any institution carrying on in McLuhan's name must first show students how to go about cultural deconstruction, archaeology, and become facile in  language and notation of the arts. Let us hope we can start such a program soon.

Let me at it!


Mark Beaulieu
Wireless Architect
Santa Cruz, California
Escondido California