The Distant Early Warning Line (DEW) Card Deck (1969)


The following item was published online on the late Liss Jeffrey’s McLuhan Global Research Network, which was located at . That site is no longer online, but I have been able to retrieve this essay using the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

By Alex Kuskis, PhD

A difficult to find item relating to McLuhan studies is the DEW line card deck, printed in 1969 as an adjunct to “The Marshall McLuhan DEW-Line Newsletter”, published from 1968 to 1970. The DEW Line was of course an integrated chain of some 63 radar and communication stations, stretching 3,000 miles across Arctic Canada at approximately the 69th parallel, from Alaska to the eastern shore of Baffin Island. Completed in 1957, a later extension connected eastern Canada to Greenland. Built at the height of the Cold War, with its threat of nuclear annihilation, the system was designed to provide advance warning of imminent air attack to Canada and the United States. The DEW Line became a perfect metaphor for McLuhan on the role of art and the artist at a time of rapid social and technological change and he repeated the idea frequently. For example, he wrote in Understanding Media (1964): “I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.”

Since the newsletter was the brain child of New York publishing entrepreneur Eugene Schwartz, the off-shoot card deck might have been as well. Aimed at decision-makers and influential people, the card deck was intended to stimulate problem-solving and thinking, in a manner that later came to be known as “thinking-outside-the-box”, and perhaps “lateral thinking”. The instructions direct the player to think of a personal or business problem, shuffle the card deck, select a card and then apply its message to the problem.

Some of the messages on the cards repeat well-known McLuhanisms, some are attributed quotations, some are funny, while others are sardonic. All are suggestive and revealing of their author. For example:

  • When all is said and done more will have been said than done (4 spades)
  • Should old Aquinas be forgot? (3 diamonds)
  • To the blind all things are sudden (Jack diamonds)
  • A man wrapped up in himself makes a small package (8 hearts)
  • The medium is the message (10 diamonds)
  • “Propaganda is any culture in action” (Jacques Ellul) (5 spades)
  • Thanks for the mammaries (7 diamonds)
  • “Silence is all the sounds of the environment at once” (Cage) (5 diamonds)
  • Hell hath no music like a woman playing second fiddle. (Queen clubs)
  • Is there a life before death? (5 hearts)

Although it is difficult to see what bearing some of the sayings might have on business problems (“Thanks for the mammaries?”), the card deck reveals McLuhan’s love of jokes, especially one-liners, puns, and pithy aphorisms. It illustrates as well his willingness to experiment with a variety of communication media, no matter how lowly or taken for granted.

That playing cards might have communication and information value beyond their mere play function has recently been illustrated by the U.S. military in Iraq issuing pictures of the 55 most wanted Saddam regime loyalists depicted on playing cards. With Saddam as the Ace of Spades, son Uday as the Ace of Hearts, the other son Qusay as Ace of Clubs, and so on, the hierarchy of the Baathist regime was suggested in a manner easy to understand by the lowliest soldier looking for them. The playing cards were far more effective than wanted posters, and have resulted in the apprehension of many of the individuals depicted. An accompanying, unintended subtext, is the idea of war as a game, which meshes for the Americans with the British nineteenth-century notion of “the Great Game”, the strategic rivalry that existed between Czarist Russia and the British Empire in Central Asia, throughout the nineteenth century. The Americans have embarked on their own Great Game, the outcome of which is far from certain. Sold over the Internet, the Saddam Card Deck is reported to have sold over a million copies as a novelty item. Once again, McLuhan seems to have been onto something.

Collectors seeking to purchase the DEW Line Card Deck will not find it easily. It occasionally appears in antiquarian bookseller listings on, at prices somewhere between $100 to $200 U.S. If you seek to purchase it, make sure the card deck is accompanied by the playing instructions. [Addendum, 2010: eBay sometimes offers these cards for sale at prices less than the above.]

You can view a complete set of DEW Line cards on Flickr:

2 Responses to “The Distant Early Warning Line (DEW) Card Deck (1969)”

  1. 1 The Complete Set Of Marshall McLuhan's Instant Early Warning Playing Cards (1969) - Flashbak
  2. 2 Mansaram and Marshall McLuhan: Collaboration in Collage Art - Imaginations

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