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math is difficult, especially subtraction

DonLawyermeeting 001Jim Prentice famously told Rachel Notley that “math is difficult.”  He provided this observation before this evening’s Alberta election results.  The provincial Conservative party just lost power to Rachel Notley’s provincial New Democratic Party, which is now the governing party with an incredible number of seats.  Former Premier Prentice’s provincial Conservative party just lost an incredible number of seats.  So yes, Mr. Prentice really does understand how difficult math is, especially subtraction.

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Tax Free Savings Accounts Revisited

Outside the Box, she thinksThe day after I posted a few skeptical thoughts about the new $10,000 TFSA limits in Canada, a Financial Post writer made the argument that TFSAs could “help a middle-class couple save $1.1 million”.  That’s a lot of dough.  To get to it Ted Rechtshaffen imagined two 40-year-olds each earning $80,000 a year.  They have two kids and a $750,000 house with a $300,000 mortgage.  They spend $100,000 each year, after tax.  They already have $150,000 each in RRSPs.  They already have $43,000 each in their TFSAs.  And they already have $25,000 total in regular savings accounts.

First of all, if that’s you, congratulations!  Seriously, at the youthful age of 40 years-old, you and your better half are living in an expensive home and together you enjoy spending $100,000 every year, after taxes.  And you already have tens of thousands in RRSPS, TFSAs and regular savings.  And you have no debt!  Holy Murphy!  I didn’t even mention yet that you and your better half plan on retiring at 58, according to Rechtshaffen’s hypothetical.  I did not know that the “middle-class” tended to retire before  60, but now I do.  I definitely should have spent less money on beer when I was in school.

In any case Rechtshaffen gets to the good part — the “$1.1 million in savings” part — by contrasting an RRSP route with the new $10,000 TFSA route.  Here Rechshaffen tucks in the assumption of a “6 per cent annual growth rate on investments”.   This is precisely the assumption that deserves scrutiny because a 6 per cent annual rate on an “investment” carries genuine risk.  Depending upon how the economy unfolds, a 6 per cent “investment”  might well result in a loss.  If it does, then it will quickly become apparent that the TFSA was a “Savings Account” only in name.  And the loss might not only be in interest, but in the principal as well.  The point in my previous blog was simply that TFSAs are only beneficial to risk-taking account holders (“investors”), not risk-averse savers, assuming the economy does not tank unexpectedly.  Rechshaffen’s piece is consistent with this view.  Rechtshaffen rosily imagines young “middle class” small-c capitalists investing their way into early retirement without any kind of 2008 Great Recession diverting their course.  (Jamie Sturgeon recently quoted BMO chief economist Doug Porter as noting, “High income earners” in Canada “would be holding the lion’s share” of an increase in assets held by Canadians nationally.   Sturgeon added, however, that “at least 12 percent of Canadian households…are extremely indebted, another record high,” or so Bank of Canada numbers would suggest).

Ultimately Rechtshaffen finds the $1.1 million savings largely in the fact that a 79-year-old widow will not get saddled with taxes from her recently deceased husband’s Registered Retirement Income Fund (RRIF) if the couple had chosen the TSFA route over the RRSP route when they were 40-years-old.   Over the next ten years of her life the widow will also avoid other taxes that RRSPs would produce.  In her coffin at 89 years of age she finally leaves her quietly-excited kids with a lot of dough: a $4 million dollar house and a TFSA worth over $1.1 million “that has no tax issues.”  Yowza!  That’s the “middle” class for you.  And you thought it needed to be saved?

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Are Canadians being encouraged to save or to spend?

StimulusPackage 001 (2)Yet again the spring delivery of the federal budget has proven to be a terribly exciting moment for Canadians.  Granted, it cannot distract from the nightly widescreen on-ice flourishes of the Habs, the Sens, the Jets, the Flames and the Cannots (no, not the Leafs — the other blue team, near all the saltwater), but it tries.  The media bees have swarmed around Joe Oliver’s throwaway comment about future budgetary problems being left to the Prime Minister’s granddaughter to solve.  But this little twister does bring us to the modest query of this post. Canadians now get to put $10,000 into tax free savings accounts (TFSAs) every year, $4,500 more than past annual entitlements.  What a terribly generous development, or is it?  The hope is that Canadians will be encouraged by the tax-free status of these accounts to put money into savings accounts rather than to spend money irresponsibly on $4.00 lattes or $2.00 Timmies, Cannots seasons tickets, and other such non-durables.  However, anyone who has walked into a bank or credit union lately has probably noticed that the average interest rate they will get for a $5,000 or $10,000 deposit is about 1%.  Some banks actually call their 1% offering a “high interest” rate.   Like gymnasts, words can be so flexible.  A rudimentary calculation suggests that, at the amazing high rate of 1% interest, a $10,000 TFSA will produce $100 annually.  This is about $8.33 per month, probably as much as some customers’ monthly banking administration fees, but let’s not get sidetracked.   The bank customer who gave the bank $10,000 now gets the great pleasure of not having to pay tax on a mere $100 annually.  In real terms, this benefit to the customer is virtually nil.   However, the benefit to the bank is huge because it acquired a lot more money to invest than it would have obtained otherwise, and at only a tiny cost to itself (1%). So, the wily Canadian thinks, I’m gonna beat this system:  I’m gonna put my $5,000 or $10,000 into a higher risk TFSA.  That way, if the stock-market does not throw any major curve balls in the next few years, I’ll reap greater investment rewards, all tax free!  Or better yet, because the lending rate is also below 1%, the wily Canadian thinks just like the wily American did in the early 2000s: now is the perfect time to buy a house, preferably one of those modest $1 million specials in Vancouver.  After all, the market is going crazy there.   One’s equity will double in no time flat. (Or, as it did in America in 2008, it might nosedive). Now the question returns.  Are Canadians being encouraged to save or to spend?  Persistently low lending rates and savings account interest rates strongly suggest that the federal government is encouraging Canadians to spend, and not even carefully so.   (See Jamie Sturgeon’s observation from March 18, 2015, that “[m]any Canadians have taken advantage of the unprecedented window of low-interest debt over the past decade, tilting the oft-cited debt-to-income ratio…to 163 per cent, a record high.”)  This tacit reality is premised on a long-standing economic belief that a fragile economy desperately needs investment from everyone, capitalists and average consumers alike.  The wisdom of this belief can be tested later, but for now the Canadian with very little savings to put in a bank account, whether it be a TFSA or a regular account, obtains virtually no financial benefit by doing so.  His or her bedroom mattress may be just as safe and ultimately less costly.

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Wow! The universe has no beginning and end! Alert the media!

I’ve been wishing I had a reason to write a new post for some time but nothing arose until this evening, when the following news item appeared on my news feed.  It even makes reference to Lethbridge, Alberta (L.A., Canada), of all places.

WakeUp3As Rob Waugh reported in his article, “The universe DIDN’T begin with a Big Bang, new theory suggests,” physicists from the University of Lethbridge and Benha University have concluded that the universe has existed forever and will not end.  Apparently this “theory” challenges Einstein’s suggestion that the universe exploded from an “infinitely dense point 13.8 billion years ago”, such is Waugh’s paraphrase.

I guess this is awesome news for scientists.  As someone without the slightest knowledge of physics or the solar system, however, it fails to excite.  The “Big Bang” theory has always struck me as scientific ballyhoo, if only on the basis of logic and language.

Try  to imagine the 13.8 billion year old “infinitely dense point” mentioned above.  Can you see it?  If you can, it probably has space around it, maybe dark grey or a blue kind of emptiness, but in any case I bet you see “space.”  You can safely consider that space to be part of a pre-existing “universe.”  So the dense point did not create the universe.  It already existed within it.

Scientists and religious people are really stuck on the idea that the universe was caused by something or that it had a beginning.  That is why Rob Waugh, who wrote the above-mentioned article, quickly noted that the new anti-Big Bang discovery does not mean that the universe was made by “some old guy on a cloud”.   There could still be a viable scientific explanation for it.  Religious people are sure they know how the universe began whereas scientists are still trying to figure it out, but both groups religiously believe that the universe was caused by someone or something.

David Hume would say that we get our notion of cause and effect from experience — from watching the movement of billiard balls over and over again.  Immanuel Kant would disagree and say that causation is a category of pure reason.  Friedrich Nietzsche would say that we get our notion of cause and effect — and hence a belief in God as the ultimate cause — from the structure of our language.   There is a subject, a verb, and an object.  The subject does something.  The action or effect, therefore, has a cause in the subject.  Although David Hume’s general skepticism is brilliant, as is Immanuel Kant’s transcendental subject, I prefer Nietzsche on this issue.

Ultimately, however, I have always rested my belief that the universe neither began nor will end in the ancient fascination for “infinity.”  Yes, it is a word, and therefore a human product, but it is rarely taken seriously for what it implies outside of the “human condition,” for lack of a better expression.  I simply take “infinity” to mean without beginning or end, but that very thought is awesome to me.  I have no difficulty with the proposition that the universe in which I find myself has existed and will continue to exist “forever,” another concept I cannot picture in my mind.  I have no problem with the idea that the universe never “started.”  The idea that it “started” is human nonsense.  Perhaps one day religious people and scientists will concede as much, but I won’t bet on it.


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50th Anniversary Review of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media

With the new year nearly upon us it is time to post my 50th anniversary review of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.  If I delay much longer it won’t be a golden anniversary.

50th Anniversary Book Review of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964)

by Christopher Nowlin



He is deceased, a fact that reassures me the man himself won’t appear in a movie line-up any time soon to tell me how little I IMG_1302 (2)understand of his writings. I will, however, tentatively venture a guess that he really would have enjoyed Her, Spike Jonze’s latest film about a professional letter-writer who becomes romantically attached to the dulcet female voice of his computer’s personalized operating system. After all, Herbert Marshall McLuhan understood well just how wedded to technology man could become. A full fifty years have passed since he wrote about the motorcar as “the mechanical bride” in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, but we are as bound to that spouse today as Theodore Twombly is to his digital girlfriend in Her.

It is fitting that the central character in the McLuhanesque Her is a writer-for-hire because McLuhan, perhaps more than any other intellectual in the 1960s, seriously imagined a future world that would not be as literate as his own. In a recent New York Times exchange with Dana Stevens, Rivka Galchen answered the question, “Has the Electronic Image Supplanted the Written Word?” with an unequivocal affirmation that the written word “is dying.”[1] Galchen is “pretty sad” about this state of affairs, but she seems pleased that a “late strange renaissance” of pictorial forms of communication and expression might well emerge from cursive’s ashes.

In terms of style and content, Understanding Media was a rebellious tour de force, a work of historical revisionism par excellence, and a first-rate genre-bender that surely rattled literary and academic orthodoxy. Chapters are typically addressed to particular types of technology or “mediums” such as “Clocks,” “The Photograph,” “Comics,” “The Telegraph,” and the “Motorcar.” All are connected by a freehand historical pastiche, by the predominant theme of the book – the medium is the message – and by temperature: are they “hot” or “cool” mediums?   One would be hard-pressed to find a book of its kind today, freely and wildly interrelating, as it did, the high of a Cambridge doctoral education and the low of MAD Magazine, ad copy, and prime-time TV.

To get a taste of how wonderfully and provocatively McLuhan worked his brush, the following excerpt from “The Telegraph” should suffice:

“In the same year, 1844…that men were playing chess and lotteries on the first American telegraph, Soren Kierkegaard published The Concept of Dread. The Age of Anxiety had begun…. …Whenever any new medium or extension occurs, it creates a new myth for itself, usually associated with a major figure: Aretino, the Scourge of Princes and the Puppet of Printing; Napoleon and the trauma of industrial change; Chaplin, the public conscience of the movie; Hitler, the tribal totem of radio; and Florence Nightingale, the first singer of human woe by telegraph wire.”

With such loping etiologies as these, Understanding Media was not always cited by those writers with an interest in broader questions around technology. Notable Canadian peers do not appear to pay the book much mind. In Technology and Justice, a 1986 collection of George Grant’s essays, Grant considered the impact of the automobile on social organization in a distinctly McLuhanesque vein, but without any reference to the man himself.[2] In 1989 Ursula Franklin, an eminent scientist, gave a number of lectures entitled The Real World of Technology. She mentioned a popular collection of technological forecasts published as The World in 1984[3] but she made no reference to Understanding Media, which was published the same year as Nigel Calder’s collection. Franklin did consider what McLuhan wrote in The Mechanical Bride about the motorcar, and effectively conveyed the “message” of the mass-produced automobile as McLuhan perceived it in Understanding Media, but she made no reference to the later and more formidable work.


The Message of a Provocateur

The tag line for Peter Bradshaw’s review of Her in The Guardian reads: In Spike Jonze’s postmodern pastoral about a man who dates his operating system, digital affairs are as sensual – and heartbreaking – as the real thing.[4] For McLuhan, of course, man’s various relationships to technology are not analogous to real relationships. They are not metaphors.   They are ‘the real thing.’ A broken technological relationship can realistically be more debilitating to some than a broken heart might be to another.   Internet providers profusely apologize when they accidently cut off service to their customers for only an hour or two. They know how maddening, painful or costly their breakdown can be. Such is the important “message” of technology, as McLuhan saw it in terms of “operational and practical fact,” namely “the change of scale or pace or pattern that [technology] introduces into human affairs.”

In Understanding Media McLuhan was interested to show how different technologies or mediums empowered man while simultaneously confining him to different ‘operating systems’ writ large, physically and socially. He wrote, “Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology.”[5]   On the subject or “medium” of Money, McLuhan made an intriguing reference to Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, which was published in 1872. A reading of Butler’s fantastic book might give some readers a fair impression that Understanding Media was far more influenced by Erewhon than would appear from McLuhan’s fleeting reference to it in his chapter on “Money.” Butler wrote fictionally of “The Book of the Machines” that “Its author said that machines were to be regarded as a part of man’s own physical nature, being really nothing but extra-corporeal limbs….Observe a man digging with a spade; his right fore-arm has become artificially lengthened, and his hand has become a joint. The handle of the spade is like the knob at the end of the humerus…” et cetera. Compare this imagery from 1872, for example, with McLuhan’s discussion “of the case of the wheel as an extension of the foot” in his chapter on “The Gadget Lover.” McLuhan takes the notion of an “extension of man” further than Butler did – from “machine” to “message” – but one cannot help but conclude that McLuhan was deeply inspired by Butler’s way of thinking.


Literacy and Education

Understanding Media established McLuhan as a maverick among the intelligentsia at large, like Ludwig Wittgenstein (who skewered the pretenses of philosophers’ ‘language games’) and Jacques Derrida (who ‘deconstructed’ them). The latter, who was McLuhan’s contemporary, eventually voiced disagreement with the Canadian on the matter of literacy, broadly construed. Derrida disagreed with McLuhan that the written word was on its way out – that the electronic age was heralding a return to “tribal” forms of communication. In 1982 Paul Brennan interviewed Derrida and said to the celebrity philosopher,

You’ve suggested we should stop thinking about various media – speech and writin[g] – that we should stop thinking about them ethically and that the two media of language are beyond good and evil. This obviously puts you at variation with someone like Marshall McLuhan who talks about the medium in very ethical terms – “the microphone created Hitler” and so on.

Derrida replied:

…. I think that there is an ideology in McLuhan’s discourse that I don’t agree with, because he’s an optimist as to the possibility of restoring an oral community which would get rid of the writing machines and so on. I think that’s a very traditional myth which goes back to… let’s say Plato, Rousseau… And instead of thinking that we are living at the end of writing, I think that in another sense we are living in the extension – the overwhelming extension – of writing…[6]

McLuhan was indeed a clear advocate of an adventurous education of the kind Jean Jacques Rousseau wished for Emile, but Derrida was skeptical about the social benefits of writing’s demise.

Perhaps in the land of belles lettres there was and is nothing to worry about, in terms of the long-term health of the written word, but McLuhan might have been prescient about North America. Here the situation is not so rosy. In his 1965 Introduction to Understanding Media McLuhan addressed the subject of education, a topic he had addressed earlier in The Mechanical Bride. In 1965 McLuhan noted an emerging drop-out problem in the public school system and what today might be called a ‘disconnect’ between the way a young person normally acquires experience and learning in the world – “mythically and in depth” – and the way that student acquires knowledge in the classroom – by means of classification and “blueprint.” McLuhan suggested that the student could not find “involvement for himself” and could not discover” how book information relates to lived experience.[7] He surmised that TV was part of the problem as it had become a normal source of home entertainment and news. McLuhan correctly observed that the standard TV image does not require its viewer to concentrate on particular objects, or to focus his or her attention on discreet objects.[8] Movement on TV programs can be fluid, the pace can be quick, but traditional classroom education is mechanical, fragmented, and slow. He noted that attention paid to the lecturer and the chalk board is more akin to that given to the stage performer and the set, of which all the pieces are observed. Even words spoken by theatre actors are enunciated and projected like those of a teacher, unlike those on TV.

Thus McLuhan surmised that, if the TV could be used in the classroom to present the curricula as it had typically been taught, the two worlds of the student might be more effectively wed or bridged.[9] PowerPoint and its more versatile successors might be this antidote, on-line education might be another,[10] but McLuhan suggested that more would be necessary. He wrote, “We would be foolish not to ease our transition from the fragmented visual world of the existing educational establishment by every possible means.”[11] Here McLuhan advocated a move away from a classification or categorization system of learning – in broad strokes, a text-book or “bookish” style of education – toward a more practical or experiential style of learning. Field trips come to mind, as should Rousseau’s Emile.

Little could McLuhan have known that the cognitive condition he linked to TV viewing and school attrition in the early 60s would acquire a quasi-medical status decades later, namely “attention deficit disorder” (ADD) or “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” (ADHD).   No college teacher in North America today who has reliable powers of perspicacity would deny that “attention span” in the classroom has become a serious, even systemic problem.  Of course, this problem might only be perceived as a “problem” for the reason McLuhan noted in 1964 – that traditional modes of teaching, rooted as they are in the mechanical age, have not kept pace with the ever-increasing impact or influence of electric and digital media on the lives of young students. Here teachers are a drag on progress, so they attend instructional media skills workshops and update their IT skills. They are trying to make the blueprints of yesterday amenable to the messages of today – those created by commonplace texting, digital game playing, Tweeting, social networking, YouTube watching, et cetera.   In doing so they are contributing to a growing problem of illiteracy.   The illiteracy problem in the United States is exacerbated, of course, by the fact that certain states have ended standardized writing assessments. Illinois cut these assessments for elementary and middle school students in 2010, and for high school students in 2011.

McLuhan obtained his PhD in literature from Cambridge University.   However many comic books he read beforehand, Understanding Media demonstrates his ready familiarity with an array of great works of literature and philosophy.   The average college and university student today is reluctant to read an essay that has any of the intellectual complication or rigor of the books McLuhan routinely read (when he wasn’t enjoying pop culture).   Teachers know this and complain about it to one another behind closed-door staff meetings or they pontificate out loud at conferences. Those instructors who go against the tide or grain, those who are ‘principled,’ those who insist upon being old-fashioned by imposing ‘onerous’ reading requirements on their students, and by giving grades commensurate with evidence that the materials have been read and considered, they soon receive formal disapproval, first from their students, then from their administrative superiors.

Thus, an unnerving question in educational policy today is, Is resistance futile? Perhaps traditionalists are simply impeding a “renaissance” of pictorial communication of the kind that excites Galchen in her New York Times discussion of Japanese wood prints.[12] As many people in society, young and elderly alike, become more impatient, more distracted, and more accustomed to expedited and iconic communication, one may fairly ask, what broad “good” is served by forcing the long form – the complete sentence, the formal paragraph, the essay, the novel – on pupils of today? In what ways would society be “better off,” for lack of a better expression, by a return to a situation in which communication is predominantly hieroglyphic, pictorial, cryptic, iconic, truncated, abbreviated, auditory or “tribal”?

As a matter of fact the written word is far from dead, but its condition might well be terminal, a possibility that is hardly a cause for celebration, even if it means that pictures and the spoken word will once again come to play a greater role in everyday communication. Before one gets too excited about the obsolescence of the complete written sentence one should note that McLuhan believed in 1951 that education was “by far the best means of improving one’s social status” and “earning power”.[13] The economist Thomas Piketty would appear to agree.[14] McLuhan also believed that the education system in 1951 tended to produce individuals who collectively served corporate or bureaucratic interests, or at least this was the case for those pupils who approached their schooling precisely as means or ticket to success in the private or public sector.[15] In an image befitting the 1982 animated film, Pink Floyd The Wall, McLuhan was concerned that the education system simply prepared its students for “the technological meat grinder” of the business and political world. He seemed sure that the overarching purpose of education and advertising was conformity of thought and an absence of what today would be called “critical thinking.” For him, society had been living in a collective “nightmare” for which “consciousness [would] come as a relief”, but thankfully there were “actually emerging a large number of independent critical minds” at the time.[16] Today, of course, corporate involvement in North American higher education is unabashed.

It is worth contrasting the optimism McLuhan expressed in 1951 about “independent critical minds” with his observation of increasing educational truancy in 1965. Most schools today tout “critical thinking” as an important educational objective or outcome, but many teachers know that this aspiration is becoming more pious with each passing year. Literacy, certainly of the level achieved by McLuhan, is not acquired simply by exposure to words, PowerPoint presentations, or books. Literacy is an ability to comprehend the interplay of constituent parts of a language, and each part must first be understood to some degree in order for the effect to be recognized. The tools for achieving literacy are typically established in elementary or grade school. Learning an alphabet is usually the starting place. Learning to spell words follows. Learning the constituent components of a sentence – subject, verb, object – is a further skill. Punctuation is also important. All such skills prepare students for the capacity to write a comprehensible thought.   Eventually students are taught to combine sentences into paragraphs, and to organize paragraphs into essays.

However mechanical and fragmentary the above process is, it is essential for “critical thinking” about visual-friendly PowerPoint presentations.   It is also essential for understanding what McLuhan and others had to say about advertising and market research, for those students interested only in visual communications and media literacy. Some might consider it far-fetched to propose, as McLuhan did, that the emergence of a man like Hitler somehow depended on the “message” of radio.[17] Without doubt, however, McLuhan could not have offered his readers this very thought without the prevailing “messages” of the written word and book during his time. In short, today’s pedagogical tendency away from long-form literacy might be at cross-purposes with the institutional desire for critical thinkers. Of course, bearing McLuhan’s general 1951 observations in mind, the latter desire might be more putative than genuine.


Spidermen, Superman and Linus van Pelt

In 1964 McLuhan saw himself as writing in the electric age, one that had moved beyond the machine age. It was also “the Age of Anxiety,” not simply because of Kierkegaard, but because the great reach of electrical forms of communication made for few hiding places. McLuhan thus wrote famously, “As electronically contracted, the globe is no more than a village.”[18] In more poetic terms he remarked, “In the electric age we wear all mankind as our skin.”[19] For better or worse regional problems and perspectives had become parts of a whole.   Today Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks and Edward Snowdon’s National Security Agency revelations remind everyone how dangerously inclusive the global web can be, and that digital webs are sometimes spun by spidermen with dubious motives. Whatever one’s moral view of Assange or Snowdon might be, there can be no doubt that these two men “wear” much of “mankind as [their] skin.”

McLuhan believed that technological advance and mankind’s untiring drive toward ever-increasing power and speed was part of a human (or at least male) wish to be superhuman.   For McLuhan, this was the primary message of the automobile, that “more than any horse, it is an extension of man that turns the rider into a superman.”[20] McLuhan was as interested in what motivated man to achieve ever-greater super powers as he was in the powers themselves. Thus, for McLuhan in 1951, the average, sober man understood himself as Clark Kent, ”a nobody” – “[a] third-rate reporter whose incompetence wins him the pity and contempt of the virile Lois Lane, his hidden superself is an adolescent dream of imaginary triumphs.”[21]   This depiction might readily bring to mind Cervantes’ Don Quixotes or Dostoyesky’s Underground Man. In each case the insecure protagonist, the perpetual romantic, is male. Travis Bickle, the modern taxi driver of Martin Scorsese’s eponymous film, would also fit the bill, as McLuhan was concerned that Superman, the comic book hero, appealed to “a restless eagerness to embrace violent solutions.”[22] In Understanding Media McLuhan wrote that “War and the fear of war have always been considered the main incentives to the technological extension of our bodies.” This is an overgeneralization, but even so McLuhan did not mention that the Superman comic strip was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938, both late teenagers, on the eve of World War II, and that in the earliest days of that war Superman battled Hitler and Germans.23]

McLuhan did not directly address the fact that the superhuman powers men aspire to achieve through technology tend to be the physical capabilities of animals: the sustained flight of birds, the underwater mobility of fish, the strength of ants, the ground speed of cheetahs, the invisibility of chameleons, or the height of giraffes.   He incidentally likened the automobile body to the protective shell of “shiny-backed insects” and observed that the car had become “the protective and aggressive shell, of urban and suburban man.”   The car ‘bugged’ the pedestrian, he quipped.[24] But more seriously, man’s technological extensions continue to decimate the animal world, a world of which man is so deeply envious.

One of the most obvious technological extensions of man today is the smartphone or messaging device. One only need board a bus or subway car, stand on a street corner, cross the street, or dine with friends, to be in the company of Linus van Pelt. Superman remains a fantasy, but Linus is real, and he has made it very difficult for Clark Kent to find a phone booth. Linus van Pelt is everywhere today, gripping his security blanket, taking photos with it, sending or scrolling for updates: he’ll be a bit late; he’s only a minute away; where R U? he texts his friend. He doesn’t want to suck his thumb in public, so he puts it in his pockets for few minutes, but he cannot help himself so he pulls it out again. There must be an update already, but there isn’t one so he sends another message that will hopefully get a quick reply.   More exclamation marks are perhaps needed. This is the McLuhanesque “message” of the smartphone. It has restored to many adults and adolescents the security blanket that their parents weaned them from, but today their plastic-molded ‘blanky’ is not so soothing. It has a hard, moulded edge. It simultaneously soothes and unnerves. It keeps one always checking.


Consumerism and the Resurrection of the Door-to-Door Salesman

McLuhan was very interested in the ways that advertising influenced consumer behavior in manners that served corporate self-interest. He was as concerned about the capacity of corporations to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes as he was about the tendency of public education to produce intellectual conformity. As he saw it, the advertisement was a particularly powerful weapon in the corporate arsenal. In 1964 he proclaimed that the door-to-door salesman had suffered his last doorway rejection because “the simple faith of the salesman in the irresistibility of his line (both talk and goods)” so poignantly portrayed by Arthur Miller had been supplanted by TV ads. Now, he noted,

[advertisements] are deserting the individual consumer-product in favor of the all-inclusive and never-ending process that is the Image of any great corporate enterprise. The Container Corporation of America does not feature paper bags and paper cups in its ads, but the container function, by means of great art.[25]

Jean Baudrillard wrote similarly in 1988, “The truth about consumption is that it is a function of production and not a function of pleasure, and therefore, like material production, is not an individual function but one that is directly and totally collective.”[26] Indeed, consistent with his belief that life in the electric age was one of anxiety, McLuhan shared with Baudrillard the belief that individuals cannot recognize or identify themselves except through the loaded cultural associations of their material worlds. Insofar as technological extensions are continually shifting and the cultural connotations of material goods are always changing (advertising plays a limited role in this), unmediated “self” identity is necessarily illusive. This universal predicament, for McLuhan, explained the Narcissus myth. [27] For Baudrillard, it explains why a modern consumer does not shop for pleasure, but rather to fulfil a longing that comes naturally in a world where identity is effectively manufactured.[28]

More than anyone, however, McLuhan should have guessed in Understanding Media that the door-knocking salesman would arise from the dead one day, in another extension, faster, and more penetrating than ever. He predicted that in a decade “the electronic successors to the car” would be “manifest” as the motor car’s story had “not much longer to run.”[29] For him, highways would become an antiquated form of social interconnection and commerce. His prediction might have been a little impatient but has been realized to a degree.   Industrial and consumer goods are still moved en masse by ground or air. Many products and services today, however, are bought and provided on-line.   Websites have replaced stock business cards and are much more informative than their wallet-size predecessors, and there are hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of them. Thus, the digital door-to-door salesman has arisen from the ashes well-polished and with vigor, pitching a great variety of good and services of his and her own creation. He or she is no longer necessarily a corporate puppet and in some cases can be a genuine competitor.



The general direction in which the processes McLuhan so remarkably and creatively brought to light in Understanding Media are headed is global impatience. The physical and mental indicia of this trend are obvious and ubiquitous, so more than ever state actors must keep cool heads.   Their early failures to constrain the “message” of the cell phone have contributed to a great many vehicular deaths.   Now they can’t wait to make the global village wireless so that geography imposes virtually no restrictions on commerce. With such a development no public place will provide refuge from the signals of private enterprise. Indeed, if the Canadian government has its way, one will find Internet traffic even in the country’s densely forested national parks.

In 1965 McLuhan noted that “any child” could make an inventory of a new medium, and he recommended as a matter of “media study” that teachers invite students to undertake this type of exercise.   The results would be highly worthwhile, he believed, for they would reveal “many unexpected avenues of awareness and investigation.”[30]   Only time will tell if the collective trend toward digital stenography (texting and Tweeting) and away from the long-hand of literacy will in any way improve life in the global village, but in the meantime, before the soft curves of cursive writing become obsolete, before a full sentence become incomprehensible, and before patience becomes a pious virtue, governments would do well to take a seat in McCluhan’s media study class and take as complete an inventory as possible of the technologies that so entice them.

[1]  Stevens, D. and Galchen, R.  “Has the Electronic Image Supplanted the Written Word?” (The New York Times Sunday Book Review, June 22, 2014)

[2] Grant, G. Technology & Justice (Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press Limited, 1986).

[3] Franklin, U.  The Real World of Technology (Concord, ON: House of Anansi Press, 1990).  The World in 1984, ed. Nigel Calder (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1964).


[5] McLuhan, M. Understanding Media: The Extensions or Man (NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company 1964; 1965 Paperback Edition), p.46.

[6] Jacques Derrida. “Excuse me, but I never said exactly so: Yet Another Derridean Interview” in: On The Beach. Autumn 1983. (English).

[7] Understanding Media, p.vii, p.ix.

[8] Understanding Media, p.ix, and p.317.

[9] Understanding Media, p.ix.

[10] The textbook equivalent to the on-line course was available as of 1951, when McLuhan published The Mechanical Bride.  At p.127 of The Mechanical Bride he displayed an advertisement for “High School Subjects Self-Taught.”

[11] Understanding Media, p.ix.

[12] Stevens, D. and Galchen, R.  “Has the Electronic Image Supplanted the Written Word?” (The New York Times Sunday Book Review, June 22, 2014)

[13] McLuhan, M. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (Berkeley, CA: Ginko Press, 2001; 50th Anniversary Reprint), p.126.

[14] Piketty, T. Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. A. Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), p.22.

[15] The Mechanical Bride, p.126.

[16] The Mechanical Bride, p.128.

[17] See Understanding Media, Chapter 30.

[18] Understanding Media, p.5.

[19] Understanding Media, p.47.

[20] Understanding Media, p.221.

[21] The Mechanical Bride, p.102.

[22] The Mechanical Bride, p.102.

[23] Foran, C.  Mordecai: The Life & Times (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), pp.43-44.

[24] Understanding Media, pp.224-225.

[25] Understanding Media, p.232.

[26] Baudrillard, J.  Selected Writings.  Ed. M. Poster (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), p.46.

[27] For McLuhan, in the Narcissus myth “the young man’s image is a self-amputation or extension introduced by irritating pressures.” Understanding Media, p.43.

[28] Baudrillard, J.  Selected Writings.  Ed. M. Poster (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), p.46. Baudrillard wrote, “Consumer behavior, which appears to be focused and directed at the object and at pleasure, in fact responds to quite different objectives: the metaphoric or displaced expression of desire, and the production of a code of social values through the use of differentiating signs.”

[29] Understanding Media, pp.224-225.

[30] Understanding Media, p.viii.


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Art Benefit for A Loving Spoonful


On December 14, from 4 – 7 pm, the Havana Art Gallery on Commercial Drive, in Vancouver, will have its IMG_1271 (2)opening for its annual end-of-the-year group exhibit.  At least half of the value of the paintings sold goes to A Loving Spoonful, a non-partisan organization in Vancouver that provides nutritious meals to persons with HIV/AIDS.   The event is open to the public so please take this post as your personal invitation.   If you cannot make it to the opening, the exhibit runs until January 6, so you have lots of time over the holidays to check out everyone’s paintings.  I don’t want to scare you away, but I’ll have one on display too — not the one in this post, “Determinism versus Free Wool.”  (But yes sir, yes sir, I’ll take three bags full).

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Stupefied and Stumbling Around in the Spaghetti Western of Spain — Don’t accept drinks from strangers

Ana Mateescu, a brilliant Vancouver filmmaker, made a short video about a fateful trip to Spain I took years ago, when I was drugged, robbed and left for fertilizer in a farmer’s field — except that I woke up like the Man With No Name in the famous Sergio Leone trilogy, and wasn’t cool like Clint Eastwood.  Ana’s short film screened at the Broadway East Art Walk Film Festival, on October 11, at the Western Front.  I have posted it here for others to see.  To see more of Ana’s short films about life along Vancouver’s Main Street, visit her “Erin’s Neighbourhood” series on Facebook.

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IMG_1265 (2)On November 11, Remembrance Day and four days before Vancouver’s municipal election, at 7:00 pm, I will read a little from Tough Tiddlywinks and open the floor to discussion about Vancouver politics — all at the Book Warehouse,  4118 Main Street, just south of 25th Avenue.

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WORD Vancouver

adamevedrawing2 001WORD Vancouver begins tomorrow and runs through Sunday, September 28, the day of the main event at the downtown public library.  On that day (the 28th) I will be assisting at the Canadian Crime Writers table from 11:00 am until 12:45.   At 1:00 pm I will give a reading of my novel, Tough Tiddlywinks, at the CUPE 391 trailer on Homer Street.   Please come out for a free day of literary razzamatazz.   WORD UP!

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Review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Book Review of Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Belknap / Harvard University Press 2014)

by Christopher Nowlin    2014©Nowlin

IMG_1259 (2)Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (“Capital”) is the talk of the global town, certainly among economists and talk show hosts, but also among laypersons like myself who have a general interest in economics and who are plainly intrigued by the fact that a nearly 600-page book (before endnotes) on money could be so widely captivating.   Piketty insisted in his television interview with Charlie Rose that his cause célèbre of a tome is “readable,” which it is in the sense that a layperson can tend to follow it.  It avoids the jargon of economists and seems to take pains to welcome neophytes into its fold.   Piketty does not believe that matters of such importance as the very unequal distribution of wealth throughout the world should be restricted to a roundtable of financial specialists.

That said, Capital is unduly lengthy.   To use a sports analogy, it is akin to watching the open water marathon swim in the summer Olympics – one can have a couple of drinks during the race, then take a very long nap, wake up, and still have plenty of time for the remaining hour of the competition.   (When the reader is tiring by page 385, does she really need to know about “Mortality over the long run”?  By page 447, does she really need to know about “The Pure Return on University Endowments”?)   One could easily imagine the book having 100 pages edited from it.  The important points would remain, as would the supporting data.   Publishers are typically mindful of a book’s page length because paper and ink cost money, but as Piketty reveals, Harvard’s endowment is about $30 billion dollars.  One can safely assume that as far as Harvard University Press was concerned, therefore, the cost of printing the inordinate data in Piketty’ book was a trifle.

The promise of the book, to me, was established at the outset when Piketty delivered a left hook to his profession at large.  He chided the “discipline of economics” for its “childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with other social sciences.”   Coming from a trustworthy economist, this frank comment is courageous and welcome, and Piketty thankfully reiterates it in his Conclusion.    Late in his book Piketty also questions the objectivity of “some economists” who have “an unfortunate tendency to defend their private interest while implausibly claiming to champion the general interest.”

IMG_1252 (3)I am glad that Piketty wrote Capital because it is refreshing and important for an eminent economist – an insider – to take aim at the follies and dangers of a very influential profession.    Piketty’s intellectual sobriety as an economist will remind some or many of John Kenneth Galbraith.   Piketty’s Capital shows a genuine concern for the plight of the planet’s poor, and for the environment, as did some of Galbraith’s writings such as The Culture of Contentment.   One doesn’t typically find such humanity or long-term ecological concern from highly-paid economists.   Even so, while reading Capital I longed for the dark wit and incisiveness of Galbraith, and I wished that Piketty would have been less abstract  and general at times in his analyses.  Whereas Galbraith colourfully skewered America’s middle class in his 1958 runaway bestseller, The Affluent Society, Piketty’s attention to the “patrimonial” or propertied middle class is largely mathematical.

Piketty notes that in Europe this largely 20th century demographic managed to acquire a “few crumbs” of wealth from the richest citizens when the fortunes of the latter fell in the early 1900s.   Now Europe’s medium earners and owners have about one quarter to one third of national wealth in Europe.  When Piketty later explains that there is a limit to how much taxation is necessary or desirable for social services, he notes that “the citizens of wealthy countries…have a legitimate need for enough income to purchase all sorts of goods and services produced by the private sector” – including “the latest tablet”.   One could imagine Galbraith having fun with such an observation.

The most sobering revelation of Piketty’s graphs, by my estimation, is that real disparity or inequity of wealth is the historical norm for developed countries.    The global Occupy movement should take note.  If numbers don’t lie and Piketty has presented a generally accurate historical picture of the movement of capital within nations and between them since the 1800s, Piketty is hard pressed to explain why the situation should ever be much different well into the future.  He insists that the historical curves are not pre-ordained, that they are malleable, and that by and large they have been shaped by politics.   He goes a step further at one point – after briefly addressing the American response to the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait – to note simply that the “dynamics of the global distribution of capital are at once economic, political and military.”   Such a cryptic observation as this should suffice to deter those readers hoping to find tales of political-economic intrigue in Piketty’s book.   Indeed, Piketty takes it as an uninteresting matter of fact that colonial European powers in the late 19th century and early 20th century consciously acquired foreign assets in order to make other countries indebted to themselves over the long run.   He recognizes that this revelation “may seem shocking” to some, and in this one swoop he makes John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hitman seem remarkably innocent or naïve.

IMG_1256 (2)However, because Piketty does not address with any great political-economic specificity or depth the “dynamics of the global distribution of capital”– except for explaining how a “concatenation of circumstances” beginning with World War I (“wartime destruction, progressive tax policies made possible by the shocks of 1914-1945, and exceptional growth” from the 1940s through the 1960s) dramatically redistributed global wealth temporarily – Piketty will leave some readers dissatisfied.   The nagging question he raises is this:  If the dominant historical trend across the globe has been real disparity of wealth, but politics, not some immutable law of commercial exchange is to blame, then why have politics historically tended to favor great disparities of wealth?  And, if domestic politics have tended to run in this non-egalitarian way for centuries, what does it matter whether one views the long-term tendency Piketty has observed as natural or political?   The difference between words seems to make no difference in reality.

Piketty writes a number of prescriptions for bridging the dangerous disparities in wealth nationally and globally, such as a progressive income tax, a global tax on capital, and even inflation (as a last resort).   The first-mentioned suggestion, of course, is not new.   Piketty surmises that a progressive income tax with bite could curb the nascent tendency of ’super managers’ to demand exorbitant salaries.   He is also clear that austerity is not the answer to Europe’s debt.  Indeed, government debt is not necessarily the problem.   As Piketty points out, “The nations of Europe have never been so rich.  What is true and shameful…is that this vast national wealth is very unequally distributed.  Private wealth rests on public poverty, and one particularly unfortunate consequence of this is that we currently spend far more in interest on the debt than we invest in higher education.”   Here Piketty shows that he is prepared to wag a finger at governments with troublesome priorities.  He seems discontent with how little public funding goes to education in developed countries, relative to other expenditures.

Piketty rejects the argument that a free market is self-correcting.   For him, education and technical know-how, not market mechanisms, enable wealth disparities to converge.     Even so, he is adamant that “the diffusion and sharing of knowledge” cannot in themselves serve to reduce the troublesome wealth disparities of today.   Fiscal reform and progressive income taxation are necessary.  He also calls for national and international transparency of banking information, so that governments and citizens can have informed discussions in the areas of fiscal policy and financial planning.

The prevalent thread of Piketty’s book is a moral dilemma Honoré de Balzac posed in Père Goriot: Should Eugène de Rastignac obtain prosperity by studying to become a lawyer or should he marry Mademoiselle Victorine, an unattractive young woman who holds out the potential for Rastignac to become very wealthy through inheritance?  For Piketty, this literary dilemma (“Vautrin’s Lesson”) reflected reality in 19th century France and England and has contemporary relevance.    Inheritance among the aristocracy and nobility in 19th century France and England recirculated riches.   Professional aptitude – in a word, merit – could only put one in the upper-middle class at best.   Piketty shows that this reality was reversed in the mid-20th century, but it has returned.  Doctors and lawyers and engineers today cannot hope to obtain the same level of wealth that children of the wealthiest ten percent of Europeans and Americans can obtain simply by birthright.  This is ultimately the great political-moral issue Piketty’s book addresses: how to bridge the growing divergence between the great wealth of the rarified financial elite of developed societies and the stagnant or relatively diminutive holdings of the middle- and lower-classes.   Piketty is portentous in this regard.   Whether he wishes to provoke or not he notes more than once that revolution and even war have done a violent job of redistributing wealth, but without an enduring effect.

francesmall 001 (2)The fact that Piketty draws heavily from Père Goriot is interesting.    In 1900 the American author Theodore Dreiser had his novel, Sister Carrie, published.  As Balzac’s Père Goriot did for early 19th century France, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie painted a colourful picture of socio-financial life in late 19th century America.   Dreiser’s novel depicts the allure of wealth across every social class in Chicago and New York – how everyone is drawn to money and status like moths to a flame – except for an outlier named Ames, a successful, unmarried engineer.   Carrie is attracted to Ames, who tells her to read Père Goriot and all of Balzac’s books.  Ames tells Carrie that these “will do you good,” but he is critical of Balzac for making too much of “love and fortune” and for believing that “happiness lies in wealth and position.”  Ames disagrees, preferring knowledge over vast wealth.   He might still represent a minority attitude to this day.  In any case Piketty correctly presumes that a great many people are interested in the distribution of wealth across their own societies and across the world in general.

In concluding I wish to say a word about Piketty’s penchant for the social sciences, given his real interest in literature and history.   (He considers history a social science.  I do not, but I do not want to quibble about words.)  My concern is that social science research techniques and conclusions tend to dominate policy-making, yet often the conclusions drawn are misleading for any number of reasons.   (Think of electoral polling, as a ready example).  In attempting to explain why astronomical salaries and bonuses for super-managers in America and Britain are a comparatively new phenomena, Piketty suggests that a dissuasive income tax in less recent years curbed the personal demand for bulging incomes.  This would appear to be the “best explanation of the observed facts,” he writes, even though he concedes it is likely that “social norms” regarding executive pay, not “tax rates,” directly determine levels of executive compensation.   For Piketty, such uncertainty reflects “the beauty of the social sciences.”  I’m not sure why.  I am inclined simply to find real uncertainty a matter of comparative ignorance, and would urge policy-makers to be very careful when faced with it.

In the past I have criticized social science methods and conclusions for failing to incorporate historical experience and the insights of great literature.  In Capital Piketty iterates this concern, yet his numerous graphs in Capital will impress influential readers far more than his knowledge of Balzac and Jane Austen novels will do.   The graphs might well be robust.  They might stand the test of time and of further research, yet Piketty is clear that further research will be helpful and enlightening.  By urging economists and policy-makers not to be narrow-minded about the movement of money across countries and populations, Piketty has made an important contribution to a pressing global problem.

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