The Social Medium Is The Message…But What Is The Meaning?

McLuhan’s Tetrads

As most everyone knows, Marshall McLuhan focused a great deal of his time and energy on the examination of the effects on us of the changing and various media to which we expose ourselves.

As not everyone knows, he developed a system, “Tetrads”, whereby specific media could be analysed…here’s what it looks like:

The Tetrad asks us to consider four questions:

1. What does the technology enhance? What does it amplify or intensify?

2. What does the technology make obsolete? What does it replace or reduce?

3. What does the technology retrieve? What does it recover that was previously lost?

4. How does the technology reverse? How do these effects flip when the technology is pushed to its limits?

From:  Tetrads

Although a lot of work has been done using the Tetrad “tool” in assessing the effects of various media…example: Tetrad-ing the Smartwatch …

recently Eric McLuhan has published a new book :


The Lost Tetrads of Marshall Mcluhan

which seems very intriguing to me (I have ordered it but it has not yet arrived)

In one of my early posts I made mention of a phrase I heard many years ago…that human beings don’t know what’s happening to them until it’s too late. I believe McLuhan understood this, and he tried, no, fought, to inform and even warn our human perceptions about the pitfalls inherent the experience of our media filled environment.



History 3

The third of  my father’s stories of serving in World War II in the RCAF (please see History 1 and 2, below), that remains uppermost in my mind, is this one:

When his squadron was in Belgium, my father and his fellow servicemen were some of the first allied soldiers to liberate one of the concentration camps that had been part of the Nazi campaign to exterminate the Jewish people, Bergen-Belsen. He told me a story about Allied soldiers unlocking the gates to the camp (which had been abandoned by its guards but left locked), and witnessing the almost starved to death people come out, fall on the ground and begin eating grass. The soldiers gave them food they had…chocolate, biscuits, etc. but they were soon stopped, as these foods were having a terrible effect.The inmates actually had to be restrained in the camp until proper food and medicine could be distributed.

The situation that my father described to me as a small boy was very accurately portrayed a few years ago in the HBO television series ‘Band of Brothers’. The shock and disbelief of the American soldiers as they enter the camp and see the survivors mirrors my Father’s even to this day palpable shock, as he thinks back on the place he witnessed over 70 years ago.

Band of Brothers Clip

My father has kept four photographs depicting scenes in Bergen-Belsen which are very similar to those depicted in the TV series. I looked at these photos many times growing up; when I was a boy I didn’t know what to make of them, but my father explained them one day. I have the photos now. I decided that because of their value as a surviving part of the Holocaust record, I need to keep them from being lost or discarded. I haven’t decided if I will post any of the photos here; perhaps I should, but they are quite brutal.

The previous two stories (History 1 and 2) have depended upon my imagination and memory  for their continued existence, but the permanence of these photos has reinforced the effect of my father’s experience in Belgium. In fact, this story has had and continues to have the most pressing effect on me. I have thought about it; here is a portion of one of the photos:


From WIRED magazine:

“McLuhan’s most powerful contributions were of this sort: “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” Our futures are always experienced and frequently determined by a past that few of us fully acknowledge or understand — including quite possibly McLuhan himself.”

Looking Through The Rear-view

I think my father’s stories have acted as some of the best education I have been fortunate enough to receive. Perhaps learning in this way is like looking backward, but looking past the mirror only forward into the future would be a lost enterprise, an uninformed leap into the unknown. It occurs to me that the best qualities of communication, including social media, can inform this forward-gaze, providing a method to turn and face the future, in between looks into the rear-view.













History 2

The second of  my father’s stories of serving in World War II in the RCAF (please see History 1, below), that remains uppermost in my mind, is this one:

My father and the fellow who was his best friend in the Royal Canadian Air Force squadron in which they served (both as ground crew in a Spitfire squadron), were working together at some task, unloading a truck which was parked on a roadway between two lines of sandbags. An enemy fighter came in to bomb the airfield and as they jumped to find cover, my father leaped to one side of the truck, and his friend to the other. This friend, a man from Edmonton, was killed.

IMG_0291 (5)

John Richardson (on right) and Friend (before D-Day)

My father always emphasized that the fighter came in every day at the same time, that it was one of the German jet fighters that had been developed as the war came to an end. It dropped a single bomb on the airfield each day, and flew away.


First German Jet Fighter

He sometimes spoke of Spitfires already airborne and circling, waiting for this fighter, and the jet being so fast it was there and gone before they could react. They were never able to do it any damage. My father said he caught only one glimpse of it, on one occasion; looking up once, he saw it streaking up into the sky, disappearing in a couple of seconds.

Each time I have heard this story (my father is now 97) I have been aware of his re-experience of this loss. He was only 24 at the time, roughly the age of many of the students with whom I interact every day.

“War and Peace in the Global Village” (McLuhan and Fiore) is an odd book, full of images, quotes and asides. On page 98, there is  comment above a photo of a wounded soldier: “Every new technology necessitates a new war”, and I have mostly understood this as actual war. This may be true, but perhaps McLuhan also intended it to imply personal battle. The jet fighter in  my father’s story was a piece of new technology that I believe through its effects created and planted a conflict within him. Perhaps the generation of men and women who experienced such loss were also carrying a kind of permanent personal siege as they returned. Indeed, WWI and WWII were often perceived as war between two opposing societal rationales, agrarian and technological. Technology has been the clear winner: since 1945, the number of people in Canada deriving their livings from agriculture has fallen from 45% to about 5%. This enormous shift has been made possible by, and at the same time has been dictated by, technology.


RCAF 403 Squadron  Ground Crew (1945)

(John Richardson, back row second from left)

History 1

I guess I have been thinking about some things all my life. One of these things (since I was a small boy) is the idealistic world I have constructed around the actual journey of my father serving in World War II, 1944/45, in England, France, Belgium and Holland. Over these many years he has spoken of only a few incidents, but these he has repeated now and then. I experienced these several stories as I was growing up and also as an adult (each time it seems, slightly differently).

Three of these stories have dominated my imagination, and continue to educate me and relate to my own experiences. Here is the first:

My father was in Europe for about 2 years, arriving as part of the build-up of troops and equipment that was intended to culminate in the D-Day invasion in June 1944. He trained in southern England as ground crew in a Spitfire squadron for the Royal Canadian Air Force. When the invasion came, this squadron was the first on the continent, landing on Juno beach the day after D-Day.

Much of my father’s training was in equipment support, and his job on the day of the crossing of the English Channel was to drive a heavy Bedford truck (very similar to the image below) from the landing craft to the beach.


Bedford Army Truck 1944

Since this was day two of the invasion, they were not under fire as they landed, but my father always joked that as he drove the Bedford down the ramp into the water, and as it kept going deeper and deeper, and as the water began to rush into the cab, he was thinking that he would be entirely submerged before the truck’s tires reached bottom. They did, however, gain traction, and the Bedford made its lumbering gear-grinding way up onto the beach and then further inland. By end of the day the RCAF airfield was established enough so that the Spitfires were flying and supporting the Allied troops. They were the first Spitfire squadron on the continent, and they moved with the invasion and flew from airfields close to the front lines throughout the war.


Spitfires on D-Day

I have always felt my father’s sense of danger, risk, purpose, and adventure as he related this story. He had not progressed past Grade 9 due to responsibilities at home (his family had immigrated from England in 1929 to a farm near Hamilton), but I believe his part in this enormous undertaking acted as his formal education.

















We Become

The famous quote “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us”, commonly attributed to Marshall McLuhan, was actually written by a professor-colleague of McLuhan’s at Fordham University, Father John Culkin (Our Tools Shape Us)

Human beings are built to perceive; we have a variety of senses and capacities that, frankly, make life worth living. I posted a comment on a discussion site last week concerning Ray Kurzweil’s “Singularity” premise, which refers to the point at which computer power and speed will have reached a level of artificial intelligence (AI) surpassing the capacity of humans. In fact, he sees in our not too distant future a hybridizing of humans and computers which will bring about the end of disease and even the end of death. We may (according to Kurzweil) exist one day as renewable bio-machines…Kurzweil Predictions

Futurists have always been with us, and the future certainly arrives to prove them right or wrong, eventually. Technology is endlessly fascinating, compelling, useful, interesting, and relentlessly world-changing. My fear is that technology  is also relentless in the way in which it narrows our range of perception, bit by bit. It seems we have no choice but to adopt technology, and then become dependent upon it. As Prof. Culkin said, we create it but then it changes us…the ‘Nth degree’ of this scenario would involve not just existing and interacting with technology, but actually existing, Kurzweil-wise, as technology.

I am writing this post on a fabulous and very useful piece of equipment that did not even exist thirty years ago, but over the past twenty years this and other devices with screens have demanded more and more of my attention. This leaves (and I have to admit I have chosen to spend) less time paying attention to the rest of the world. I am reminded of a song by Genesis, from their album Duke , called “Heathaze”, which seems very relevant:

…Now the light is fading fast,
Chances slip away, a time will come to pass
When there’ll be none,
Then addicted to a perfumed poison,
Betrayed by its aftertaste,
Oh we shall lose the wonder and find nothing in return.
Many are the substitutes but they’re powerless on their own…

Much technology is wonderful, and much is foolish and distracting. I believe much computer technology does act as a substitute for actual sensory experience. The current urgency for the development of virtual and augmented reality applications for a variety of tasks and situations speaks directly to this. McLuhan did say that his goal, in the midst of world-changing electronic technology (in the 60s…I wonder what he would think now?), was to understand what its effects would be:

“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior, especially in collective matters of media and technology, where the individual is almost inevitably unaware of their effects upon him.” 

Understanding Media

I believe we need to devote a bit less time to our interactions with technology, and more time developing an awareness and an understanding of just who (or what) we want to become.




To See What’s Coming

This week I was asked to speak with a group of Post Grad students. This is a class of students (BA already in hand) who have entered an intense three semester program (two semesters of study and one of internship) with the serious purpose to begin a career.

I have five one-year PG certificates in my cluster of programs, and all are very successful in preparing students for placement and employment. They are very attractive to applicants with an undergraduate degree that is valuable in terms of knowledge and perspective (History, Sociology, Psychology, etc.) but which may not lead directly to a job.

The students in these programs are usually committed, dedicated, and serious about the disciplines in which they are becoming expert. One section of students in one of the programs, though, is a bit different…and this is the class to whom I spoke. The Coordinator has been frustrated that they (and by this I mean some of the group…perhaps 1/4) are not as serious. Attendance, coursework and practice do not carry for them the importance that we have been used to seeing.

My goal was to address the problem in a sideways fashion (no one likes to be scolded or told what their faults are…perhaps  millennials least of all)  and give them some good  advice that they may  remember. So, I began with a comment that some professors forget in this situation: When you chastise a class for poor attendance, you need to remember that you are speaking to those present and not to those absent, so the speech is liable to become tragic early on. This got me a bit of a laugh, so I moved on to our hopes for them…complete the formal studies, have  a great experience in the internship, and move on to a good job and good income. Then I expressed our concern that not coming to class and submitting assignments will jeopardize the whole model.

The class had gone dead silent, so  I decided to tell a story: My  undergraduate degree is in Aboriginal studies, and many years ago I happened to get a chance to participate in a week-long cultural  workshop. It was challenging, interesting, and unusual (at the halfway point in the week, we were able to experience a sweat lodge), and I was also granted a short ‘one on one’ session with an Elder. He told me a story (which, honestly, I am still making sense of) and then made a comment almost in passing as our 30 minutes was drawing to a close: “Do you know what is the worst thing about human beings? They never know what’s happening to them until it’s too late.”

This truth has come back to me many times over the years, so although I had not planned to deliver this specific message, I passed it (with a brief set up) along to this class. I told them to do their best to see what’s coming…to make their own decisions before others decide for them.

Not much of a reaction. I asked the professor after the class was over (I spoke for 15 minutes at the start of class) if he had received any feedback; he said that some had mentioned that I had been perceived as a bit negative. Another truth came to me:”the medium is the message”. The atmosphere in a classroom where the Associate Dean is brought in to berate a group of students is not the most positive learning or remembering situation.

So I have been turning this over in my mind all week, what I might have said, how I could have been more effective, etc., and then yesterday I was reading part of a McLuhan book “The City as Classroom” (from York U. Public Journals):


Daily McLuhan








McLuhan Centre

In it, McLuhan questions the validity and relevance of a model of teaching and learning that had been common up until the 70s, and still seems to be present in some ways in today’s classroom 40 years later: students sitting in lines of desks tends to define a classroom,and learning still passes largely from professor to student in a classroom environment. Education is changing though; much experiential learning has been added:  There  are many opportunities for real world problem-solving; we facilitate interactive sessions with industry experts; we include a variety of learning activities and assessments.

As I read on, McLuhan changes direction and begins a section called “Clocks”. The first line: “Suppose that, sometime between sundown and sunrise tomorrow morning, all clocks, watches, chronometers and mechanical timepieces of every sort disappeared completely and forever.” (see PDF, above). He asks a number of questions, such as: “What would happen to school routines? What would ‘on time’ mean to a student or to a class? Would your study habits be in any way affected?”, which in light of of the importance we place on college  schedules and attendance to them, are fair ones, and which compelled me to ask some of myself: Why are some of these students not attending? Why are they not submitting work on schedule? Why are they not listening to what we tell them, why do they not value more highly our advice, when we are only trying to look out for their best interests, prepare them for the wold of employment, and help them know how to be successful?

Of course these are not new questions, but in speaking to this group of students I have found the questions to be reframed. The Elder with whom I spoke years ago was not kidding me when he said we don’t see what’s coming at us until it’s too late, and my challenge as a human being and as an educator is to do my best to heed his warning and somehow look forward. We must find a way to communicate with those students who are not in class to listen.

More  on this: City as Classroom



Visionary is a term that I seem to hear fairly often. Recently I was reading the agenda for a symposium, and one of the keynote speakers described himself as a visionary, which seems a bit over the top, somehow. I believe the visionary-ness of what someone has said or has done must reside with the beholder of those words or events.

So…what does the vision contain that bestows upon the seer the term visionary? A very interesting Canadian author, professor, and cultural observer, B. W. Powe, wrote a book called The Solitary Outlaw, in which he describes the visionary aspects of five men: Pierre Trudeau, Wyndham Lewis, Glenn Gould, Elias Canetti, and Marshall McLuhan. I was a student of Powe’s at Humber a number of years ago, and he had been part of one of the last (if not the last) MA cohorts that McLuhan had mentored.

About McLuhan, Powe says “… he (McLuhan) anchored himself with a thoroughly traditional Catholic background and another side of him was visionary, was breakthrough thinker, was iconoclastic, was smashing things up, was trying to find ways to say things that no one had said before, was saying things that no one had said before.” ( See Higgins and Porter’s Powe Interview).

McLuhan himself was extremely fond of working ideas out while talking about them. In fact, he would often say something outlandish, and then immediately challenge his students: ““Are you going to let me get away with that?” McLuhan wanted to provoke his students or his audience to think threw things for themselves. Remember because McLuhan believed that every new medium numbed its users and made them unaware of its effects (my emphasis) he felt the need to exaggerate to make users aware of the effects of that new medium. He wrote in Understanding Media “I am in the position of Louis Pasteur telling doctors that their greatest enemy was quite invisible, and quite unrecognized by them”” (See Robert Logan’s McLuhan Misunderstood: Setting the Record Straight)

A lack of awareness of the effects of a new medium is something I believe I see every day, among college students. Actually, not just in students, but because students  are participating in an environment that is promising specific educational opportunities, these effects are especially important to them.

I believe these are a few causes of the effects of new and social media:

  1. Short bursts of information
  2. Image heavy, text light
  3. Requirements and requests for information immediacy
  4. Electronic identity

But (you can read this in the title of my blog) what exactly are the effects?

Well,  I believe that the web and its associated social media has changed me. My attention is less patient and more difficultly  focused, and I am less able to read for extended periods of time. I (and others I speak with) feel the ocean-like quantity  (and quality) of the information…I find myself wanting to move too quickly through it, just trying to get though more of it. It’s like visiting a library, but it’s one that looks like the warehouse at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie…endless and non-navigable.

Perhaps we (like McLuhan) need an emotional or spiritual anchor to be able to properly perceive the effects of our new media environment. Perhaps we, like his students, need to be provoked and challenged so we don’t find ourselves  too comfortable, drifting and searching on the surface of the information media ocean.