Neglected Books: Take Today: The Executive as Dropout, by Marshall McLuhan & Barrington Nevitt

01Jul11

June 30th, 2011

By the time he wrote Take Today: The Executive as Dropout with the help of Barrington Nevitt, an engineer and consultant, Marshall McLuhan had learned that an effective way to keep his name in the media was to give his books provocative titles, such as The Medium is the Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village. Aside from the–at the time–”with-it-ness” of its title, however, Take Today: The Executive as Dropout probably attracted more readers–not that there appear to have been all that many–more with McLuhan’s name than anything else.

One might think that McLuhan was trying to follow in the footsteps of Robert Townsend’s 1970 best-seller, Up the Organization, which took a counter-culture look at big, bureaucratic organizations–without questioning their basic purpose or the value of the life and goals of the typical businessman. But McLuhan, it turns out, didn’t think much of Townsend’s book: Townsend manifests the [Harold] Geneen pattern of hotted-up ‘camp.’ If there us ibe thing that is perfectly obvious about Geneen U., it is that it is a ‘replay’ of some very worn-out organization ploys and patterns.” Anyone who knows a bit about McLuhan’s ideas will recognize that “hotted-up” is not a complimentary term.

And it’s unlikely that the average Wall Street Journal reader of the early 1970s would have found much in the book that could be put to any use on the job or in getting up the career ladder. It’s true that one can find occasional statements in Take Today that seem to leap off the page in their prescience:

It is in this new dimension of “software” design that the difference between the old mechanical industry and the new electric circuitry becomes manifest. It is a difference not only of speed and diversity but also of knowledge and of the programming for special, personal needs.

Written at a time when programming inevitably involved lugging around long, rectangular boxes full of hundreds of punch cards (all of which had to be in exactly the right order), the idea of doing it for special, personal needs was more than a bit ahead of its time.

But for every glint of genius, there are a dozen examples of the sort of writing that may one day earn McLuhan the reputation of a 20th century Nostradamus–meaning, the sort of writing that just about anyone can interpret to mean just about anything he wants it to. Which is also, of course, the sort of writing one’s not sure really had any meaning in the first place. Take this example:

As concertmaster, satellite man would have to audition such selections as the Manhattan Project with exquisite prescience of “audience” effects. The “audience” of satellite man includes the “actors” and is not merely human but consists of all the resonances awakened everywhere.

Both sentences are grammatically correct–but meaningful? They’re like a conversation or radio broadcast you’re not quite close enough to hear fully: you hear the fragments, you understand what each fragment means by itself, but you can’t quite piece together what’s going on.

And then you get the beauts:

What the “practical man” doesn’t know is that facts are something made, as the word tells us (facto). Moreover, a fact cannot be connected without “seizing up.” The interval or gap is necessary to any practical action. The gap is where the action is. “Ask the man who owns one.” The artist and engineer exist to create the right gaps and to avoid unfunny connections.

It’s writing like this that reminds me that, at about the same time that McLuhan was working on this book, gurus like Maharaj Ji were managing to get people to offer up their life savings and clean toilets with similar gobbledygook–albeit spiritual rather than intellectual.

I spent an entertaining and amusing hour thumbing through Take Today. McLuhan was never anything if not an eclectic reader, and like his other books, this one is full of striking quotes from sources ranging from James Joyce and T. S. Eliot to Peter Drucker to an IEEE Transactions article to an obscure work on the structure and function of the Chinese civil service during the Ming dynasty. And he had a knack of coming up with headline statements that owe more than a little to Wyndham Lewis’ blasts:

TORTURES, LIKE GAMES, ARE THE ART FORMS OF WORK IN ANY CULTURE

LIKE THE FUTURE, THE PAST IS NO LONGER WHAT IT USED TO BE

They Had the Looks When Cooking the Books

CARS ARE NOT MADE TO LAST BUT TO TURNOVER

Loved Labels Lost


Take Today: The Executive as Dropout, by Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.

PROFILE: Henry James Barrington Nevitt

Throughout his life and career, as a professional engineer, international consultant, theorist, and linguist, Nevitt was associated with the phenomenon of modern communications. His interest in the theoretical aspects of mass media and communications resulted in a professional association and personal friendship with Professor Marshall McLuhan of the Centre for Culture and Technology, University of Toronto. In addition to being a prolific writer, who even experimented with science fiction, Nevitt was an international lecturer.
Nevitt was born in 1908 in St. Catharines, Ontario and spent his early years abroad, returning to Toronto from England in 1917. From 1920 to 1930, Nevitt was involved in the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of radio equipment. Nevitt was employed as a radio operator for the Canadian Marconi Company on coast and ship stations between 1927 and 1928. For a year, he served as a bush pilot in training with the Ontario Provincial Air Service. In 1932 Nevitt went to Leningrad to work as a research and development engineer at Zavod Elecktropibor where he assisted in the development of VHF measurement techniques. In 1933, Nevitt returned to Canada and worked with the Northern Electric Company in Montreal as a manufacturing engineer of telecommunication equipment, remaining with the company until 1939. During WWII, Nevitt worked on various sensitive projects at Canadian Pacific and Defence Communications Ltd, and as an engineer developing radio teletype systems at RCA. He remained with RCA as an executive engineer until 1947.
Nevitt received his Bachelor of Applied Science, Electrical Engineering, from the University of Toronto in 1941 and his Master of Engineering in Telecommunications degree from McGill University in 1945. From 1947 to 1960 Nevitt worked for the Swedish international public utilities firm L.M. Ericsson of Stockholm as a telecommunications troubleshooter in various locales including Caracas, Venezuela, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In the early 1960’s, Nevitt served as a consultant to the Royal Commission for Government Organization, and returned to work for the Northern Electric Company and for other private and governmental bodies. In 1963, he joined the Ontario Development Corporation as a manager in research and consultative services, rising to become the corporation’s Director of Innovations.
Nevitt’s association with Marshall McLuhan began while he was a graduate student. From 1965 until McLuhan’s death in 1980, they wrote various articles and papers together. In 1968, McLuhan invited Nevitt to collaborate on the book later published under the title Take Today; the Executive as Drop Out. For more than a decade, Nevitt assisted McLuhan in the conducting of weekly seminars at the Centre for Culture and Technology.
Nevitt published several works throughout the later portion of his career including: ABC of Prophecy, (1982), The Communication Ecology (1982), Keeping Ahead of Economic Panic (1985), Who Was Marshall McLuhan ? (co-written with Maurice McLuhan 1993), and the self published science fiction work Captain Gulliver’s Interplanetary Travels. http://tinyurl.com/3e2az4u

 

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