McLuhan & Toronto



Jesse Hirsch & the McLuhan 100 Monday Night Seminar

WED JUL 20, 2011

Five things we learned at McLuhan 100

The McLuhan 100 symposium is a series of events marking the centenary of media guru Marshall McLuhan’s birth. At Monday night’s opening seminar, we heard competing theories about McLuhan’s influence on our city and vice versa.
As part of an ongoing celebration of the centenary of Marshall McLuhan’s birth, the McLuhan 100 symposium hosted one of its first seminars Monday night in the Toronto Reference Library’s Appel salon.

CBC technology writer Jesse Hirsh hosted “The City as Classroom” and turned the floor entirely over to the audience to discuss what role Toronto played in Marshall McLuhan’s understanding of media and how we were affected in return. His aim? “To not only celebrate Toronto, but recognize that there’s something to the secret sauce of this city.”

The evening was full of anecdotes about Toronto—well, 1960s Toronto, at least. And mostly about Rochdale and Yorkville. To steal a McLuhanism: “Faced with information overload, we have no alternative but pattern recognition.” Based on the discussion, here are the patterns I noticed in the discussions.

Theory #1: McLuhan put Toronto on the map

Veteran radio broadcaster David Marsden—who, in the 1960s, first gained local renown as a CKEY DJ named Dave Mickie—was profiled in “The Spoken Word: Flowers of Evil?” chapter in McLuhan’s 1964 book Understanding Media. Marsden told us a story about the time he met with the producer of WABC in New York City in the mid-’60s; the producer freaked out, upon realizing that Marsden was a feature subject in a book that Madison Avenue couldn’t stop talking about. As Marsden pointed out, “[McLuhan’s] legacy is so big that one of the greatest cities in the world, New York City, suddenly realized that Toronto existed. Not just Mr. McLuhan existed, but Toronto existed.”

Theory #2: Toronto needed McLuhan…

In the 1960s, “Orange Toronto” was uptight: you couldn’t shop on Sundays and, if you wanted to drink in a bar, you always had to order food with your beverage. It was described the city as “post-colonial and repressed.” One audience member explained: “Why Toronto? Perhaps Toronto was ready. Perhaps Toronto was so stuck in its ways, so backwater in comparison to Montreal, and so much in need of someone like Marshall McLuhan to come along and jog it out of its antiquity.”

Theory #3: …Except that Toronto was pretty swinging by the 1960s, andMcLuhan worked out of a city that was heating up intellectually and artistically

Seminar references to Joni Mitchell: one. Seminar references to dropping acid in Rochdale: countless. Audience member Molly, who immigrated to Toronto from New York in 1968, described teach-ins in Toronto that weren’t allowed to happen in the United States. “They talked about freedom of speech in the States and yet people could talk in Toronto about what that weren’t allowed to talk there,” she said. Others made reference to the Toronto School of communication theory, as McLuhan was in the company of other University of Toronto greats like Harold Innis.

Theory #4: McLuhan lived in a unique, media-forward city

One of the speakers, who grew up in the city and worked in advertising, described Toronto, then and now, as “one of the most complicated media markets in the world. Think back to Toronto in the 1960s. You have every television station from Buffalo pouring over the water as well as Toronto stations, as well as French stations from Quebec, as well as an Italian station. We had three newspapers then, we have three newspapers now. Toronto was a very media-forward community in terms of the outlets we had access to.”

Theory #5: In any case, McLuhan was devoted to the city

Bob Logan, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Toronto and chief scientist at Strategic Innovation Lab at OCAD, worked with McLuhan in the 1970s. “He had offers from all over the world, but he stuck with Toronto. He could have been at Harvard, Oxford; he could have gone back to Cambridge. That says a lot about our city.” Logan also spoke of marching against the proposed Spadina Expressway with McLuhan. “He was a great defender of the city.”

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