McLuhan 100: Our City as Classroom — ‘Annie Hall’ to City Hall


 Jesse Hirsch

Submitted by Metaviews on Tue, 08/16/2011

“You know nothing of my work,” Marshall McLuhan‘s second-most-legendary quote, was invoked on Monday night by a participant at the second of three Monday Night Seminars, hosted by Jesse Hirsh, at the Toronto Reference Library.

And it wasn’t a reference to Annie Hall as much as a commentary on the tone of the event itself.

The event theme, Our City as Classroom, became especially pertinent in the past few weeks. Public libraries became the most prominent subject of debate as Toronto City Hall is on the verge of being run over by Mayor Rob Ford’s elusive gravy train.

Naturally, the role of the newest forms of electronic media in municipal protest was worth highlighting. But did that really correlate with the theories developed by McLuhan?

Well, the idea that local government could provide a steady stream of ludicrous entertainment has been realized through social media. Yet those acerbic observations provide a gateway for highlighting issues that genuinely impact everyday life.

The most intriguing counterculture event in Toronto this summer was the 22-hour marathon series of deputations regarding the role of government in providing services to the city. Participation in such an event — the stuff of bland bureaucracy in a past administration — was electrified through digital devices.

McLuhan had this kind of thing in mind, even if he was more likely to align himself with the tax-fighting types, based on how he wasn’t too fond of protesters at the University of Toronto of the 1960s

[Editorial comment: The above statement is absolutely not true; McLuhan was onside with the protesters when it came to ecological activism and protests against city planners aiming to drive the Spadina Expressway through some of the neighborhoods of Toronto. McLuhan was opposed to the expressway and said: “Toronto will commit suicide if it plunges the Spadina Expressway into its heart… our planners are 19th century men with a naive faith in an obsolete technology. In an age of software Metro planners treat people like hardware — they haven’t the faintest interest in the values of neighborhoods or community. Their failure to learn from the mistakes of American cities will be ours too.” See .]

With the nostalgic overload of McLuhan’s 100th birthday behind us, it was arguably more important to consider his laws of media in motion rather than the ever-distant past, even if a few seminar attendees urged for a more direct correlation.

Circumstances surrounding protesters and bystanders at the G20 Summit — where formal news reports were initially blind to the story that bubbled up through social media — are far from being resolved.

This week, Toronto Life magazine has become the topic of infuriation for a trolling cover story about locals ditching Jane Jacobs-inspired urban idealism for “suburbs” that are just micro-versions of same.

What makes this hyper-sprawl possible, of course, is the reality that we no longer have to be out of touch wherever we go. Pursuit of sanctuaries where we can switch it off from time to time will also increase.

As long as we’re in the city where Marshall McLuhan thrived, though, we might as well make the most of the machinery that can give absolutely everyone an electronic voice.

Being heard remains an entirely different matter.

The Spadina Expressway (the proposed route of which was stopped by protesters like Marshall McLuhan and Jane Jacobs)

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