“The electric light is pure information.” –Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

Philip Morais[1]– Windsor Law J.D. Candidate 2021

On October 25, 2019, Windsor Law LTEC Lab and the School of Creative Arts co-hosted Media & Space: The Regulation of Digital Platforms, New Media & Technologies Symposium. It was an interdisciplinary event launched in the multimedia studio of the Alan Wildeman Centre for Creative Arts, whose high ceilings spanned from a control booth in the back to a front wall projection screen, holding speakers and attendees from Canada predominantly, with representation from America and Europe. The conference gathered fourteen speakers to discuss how spatial aspects of media, which Marshall McLuhan thought through,[2] might be a point of departure and/or a point of arrival for informing regulatory structures in the realm of digital platforms, borders and borderless states, as well as what role can Canada play in the “global village”[3] of today. What dialogue, simply put, do legal systems and media ecosystems need to be in to balance each other out in this flux of the digital sublime?

Who was Marshall McLuhan? The quintessential question would be instead, why is this someone who matters to an interdisciplinary investigation of technological regulation? McLuhan was a Canadian professor of English who spent most of his career at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. His contribution to intellectual history in the mid-twentieth century was not as a communication theorist[4] but as a metaphysician[5] and critic-as-artist[6] whose translation of techniques of literary criticism to techno-cultural subject matter was revolutionary, crystallized in “the medium is the message”[7] aphorism. That phrase became a part of popular culture in the 1960s, a decade he was associated with and defined as a figure often on television.[8] Notwithstanding, his private life was shaped in the 1930s when he left Cambridge University to be an academic, Catholic, and husband to Corrine Keller Lewis whom he had six children with and remained married to until he died on December 31, 1980. Some in academia subsequently reasoned he was one of the many scholars of the “Toronto School of Communication”[9] at that time. His distinguishing insights and anticipations[10] went from opaque to obvious in the 1990s, however, when an advent of the World Wide Web retrieved interest in him.

The first panel, “McLuhan in Space, Local and Global,” consisting of three keynote speakers, lent historical weight to the conference. “Marshall McLuhan is an organizing principle more than anything else because, after all, he is one of the pioneers of this thing we now call media study,” grandson Andrew McLuhan offered, Director of The McLuhan Institute, adding immediately in his address, which made an argument by analogy to the past precedent of regulation of the natural environment and pharmaceutical industry in the United States, “There is no difference between environmental science and media study …. Why do we thoroughly study and regulate drugs for safety and efficacy but not technologies?”[11] Dr. Michael Darroch, Associate Professor of Media Arts and Culture in the School of Creative Arts quoted James Dean playing Jim Stark in the film Rebel Without A Cause to tease out user experience on social media: “We’re all involved!” His presentation contextualized time Marshall McLuhan had spent on the Windsor-Detroit border as a professor of English at Assumption College from 1944 through to 1946 as a “transformative moment”. As McLuhan himself suggests in “Canada: A Borderline Case” a “border is not a connection but an interval of resonance”,[12] a dialogue, a dynamic of figure and ground shifting constantly nationally. Digital platforms do likewise to the body of the user by being an environment bordered by software executing calculations, an extension of the nervous system according to McLuhan who classified all electricity-based technology to be performing such functions;[13] atmospheric dimensions of their online access further suggests an extension of the respiratory system by the same logic, breathing in and out information, off and on. Dr. Elaine Kahn returned to this “resonance” theme by way of the body politic of the more recent past. The author of Been Hoping We Might Meet Again elaborated upon correspondence between Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and McLuhan from 1968 to 1980. In reply to the question of whether or not the latter is the inspiration for including “other media of communication” among enumerated fundamental freedoms in s 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Kahn opined: “Well, I can’t imagine how he could’ve been.”[14]

Continue reading a description of the second, third and fourth panels, the last of which was about media ecology, as well as the complete endnotes and references, go to this link: https://tinyurl.com/umbhs3v


[1] Co-Organizer of the Symposium with Dr. Pascale Chapdelaine, Dr. Michael Darroch, and Dr. Vincent Manzerolle It was an honour to represent Windsor Law by chairing one of the many excellent panels, as well as to work with and learn from my fellow conference organizers, to whom I wish to express gratitude. All errors are mine in the interpretation of the Symposium. The conference sprung from initial communications I had with Andrew McLuhan, which began on August 8, 2018. Thank you, Andrew, for everything your yes made possible!

[2] Edmund Carpenter & Marshall McLuhan, “Acoustic Space” in Edmund Carpenter & Marshall McLuhan, ed, Explorations in Communication: An Anthology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960) at 67: “Auditory space a sphere without fixed boundaries, space made by the thing itself, not space containing the thing. It is not pictorial space, boxed in, but dynamic, always in flux, creating its own dimensions moment by moment.” (Dr. Michael Darroch and Dr. Janine Marchessault, in conjunction with students and researchers at U. of Windsor and York U., annotated an anniversary new edition of the eight co-edited editions of Explorations collected in this book that is available at: https://wipfandstock.com/explorations-1-8.html); see generally Richard Cavell, McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002).

[3] Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962) at 31: “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.”; see especially Eric McLuhan, “The Source of the Term ‘Global Village’ ” (9 July 1998) in Francesco Guardiani & Eric McLuhan, ed, McLuhan Studies 1:2, online: McLuhan Studies <http://projects.chass.utoronto.ca/mcluhan-studies/v1_iss2/1_2art2.htm&gt; [perma.cc/6HBF-ACTC]; but see Andrew Chrystall, “After the Global Village” (2011) 9:1 Canadian Journal of Media Studies, online (pdf): <https://cjms.fims.uwo.ca/issues/09-01/Chrystall.pdf&gt; [perma.cc/Q48A-58JA].

[4] Eric McLuhan, “Marshall McLuhan’s Theory of Communication: The Yegg” (2008) 1:1 Global Media Journal at 25: “As he often said, Marshall McLuhan did not have A Theory of Communication …. he didn’t use theories in his work.”; contra Michael Darroch, “The Toronto School: Cross-Border Encounters, Intellectual Entanglements” in Peter Simonson and David Park, eds, The International History of Communication Studies (London: Routledge, 2016) at 278: “The political economist Harold Innis and English scholar Marshall McLuhan are best known for advancing theories about the specificity of media and the function of communications technologies in effecting social change, an approach often criticized as overly deterministic.” (whether or not theory was engaged and whether or not contribution was made as a theorist are separate but related issues, which must be engaged simultaneously for context).

[5] Letter from Marshall McLuhan to Joe Keogh (6 July 1970), Ottawa, National Archives of Canada (H.2065/1434–5): “I am not a “culture critic” because I am not in any way interested in classifying cultural forms. I am a metaphysician, interested in the life of the forms and their surprising modalities.”

[6] See Donald F. Theall, “McLuhan as Modern Satirist” in The Virtual McLuhan (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001) at 187-201.

[7] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York City: McGraw-Hill, 1964) at 7: “In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium -that is, of any extension of ourselves- result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.” [“Understanding Media”]; see Eric McLuhan, “The Fordham Experiment” (2000) Proceedings of the Media Ecology Association, Volume 1, 2000 23; see Herbert Krugman, “Brain Wave Measures of Media Involvement” (1971) 11:1 Journal of Advertising Research 3; see generally Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: Harper Collins, 2007); see generally Stanislas Dehaene, Reading in the Brain: the science and evolution of a human invention (New York: Viking, 2009).

[8] Our World was an initial live international satellite television production broadcast on 25 June 1967. Nineteen nations were represented in separate segments featuring their respective countries. An estimated 400 to 700 million people watched. The Beatles performed “All You Need Is Love” at 8:54 G.M.T. on behalf of the United Kingdom. Marshall McLuhan preceded them at 7:17 G.M.T. on behalf of Canada from CBC studios in Toronto.

[9] See e.g. Derrick de Kerckhove, “McLuhan and the “Toronto School of Communication”” (1989) 14:4 Canadian Journal of Communication 73.

[10] Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “Communication via the Internet” (8 May 1966) at 00h:00m:00s, online (video): Marshall McLuhan Speaks Special Collection <http://www.marshallmcluhanspeaks.com/prophecies/1966-communication-via-the-internet/index.html&gt; [perma.cc/DD5B-EAW8] (The Internet was initially run through telephone cables into homes when Jeff Bezos founded Amazon.com, Inc. on July 5, 1994). See especially Eric McLuhan, “On Formal Cause” (2005) 4:3/4 Explorations in Media Ecology 181.

[11] The government of China was first to formally classify Internet addiction as a clinical disorder in 2008; see William M. McDonald et al, “Electroconvulsive Therapy in China” (2012) 28:4 The Journal of ECT 206. In contradistinction, neither by the World Health Organization nor by the American Psychiatric Association has excessive Internet use been recognized as a disorder and Canada has followed suit; see World Health Organization, The World Health Report 2001, Mental Health: New Understanding, New Hope (France: World Health Organization, 2001); see American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (Washington: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2013); see The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, Out of the shadows at last: transforming mental health, mental illness and addiction services in Canada, (Ottawa: The Committee, 2 May 2006).

[12] Marshall McLuhan, “Canada: The Borderline Case” in David Staines, ed, The Canadian Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977) at 226.

[13] Understanding Mediasupra note 6 at 3: “Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.”

[14] See generally Elaine B. Kahn, Interface: The Correspondence of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and H. Marshall McLuhan (1968-1980) (PhD Dissertation, The State University of New Jersey, 2017) [unpublished] (this merits more than passing reference but is not tenable in the confines of the blog post).

University of Windsor School of Creative Arts