An old stance from a new age sage
MATTERS OF PERSPECTIVE
Inquiry Over Conviction
"Somebody once said 20th-century man is one who runs down the street shouting I've got the answers. What are the questions?" — Marshall McLuhan
In late January, Andrew McLuhan unearthed a box of intellectual gems. A third-generation teacher and director of The McLuhan Institute, Andrew published original 70s recordings of Marshall McLuhan's Monday Night Seminars for a new generation.
Most know of McLuhan through the widely used, misunderstood aphorism, "the medium is the message." Forty-two years after his death, McLuhan’s following is growing again. He reveals eerily predictive, wide-ranging perspectives. It's been said that we "read the 21st-century media through his eyes."
Looking at the impact of this out-of-body experience is time well-spent. Estimates say we spend 13 hours a day in digital media. 30 percent of Americans now live constantly online. To equate for multi-tasking, the idea of time changes; media consultants now measure use in 32 versus 24-hour days.
The seminars anticipate the effects on us. Available here, sessions premier 49 years to the day of the event. This timing has meaning. McLuhan advised we look 50 years into the past to understand the present.
Consider the plight of the answer-spewing "20th-century man," a comment made in the first recording. It's an aphorism for an unnecessarily convicted, impulsive society today. The urge to "prescribe" before "diagnose" drives declining confidence in public officials and each other. Trust and division with COVID guidance show what hangs in the balance.
McLuhan is an exemplar of perspective-building to learn from. By design, he didn't pass judgment of a situation; he probed possibility. A flip on the "tell-alls," he encouraged "perception-expansion" as a basis of thought.
Here's an example, a timely provocation he wrote in the 70s.
Suppose we viewed ignorance as an asset for problem-solving? He pressed on:
(What if instead of answers) we put questions to the masses concerning the problems of our time?
Suppose top researchers in various fields, in biology and chemistry and physics and town planning and so on, ask these questions.
Suppose they were to go to the broadcasting studios and present not their knowledge but their hang-ups.
Suppose they were to tell the mass, in the most succinct, atavistic, and structured form, where the difficulties are.
Then another flip:
How do we tap that resource?
I suggest you will find historically that the greatest inventions were made anonymously by nobodies for whom there was no problem; they simply used commonsense.
I suggest that one possibility would be to take these highly specialist problems to this mass of untutored, non-specialist people. There is always one man in a million for whom any problem is not a problem at all.
McLuhan's probes are a way to think, not to present answers. In this case, a new perspective presents alternatives. It also alters the scope and scale of a solution.
Leadership gurus now evangelize this way of thinking. Research from the MIT Sloan School found the world's most innovative leaders exhibited questioning instinct as their defining characteristic of success—so much they spend 30 percent of their time solving new problems.
To gauge essential leadership characteristics for CEOs in 2025, The Korn Ferry Institute found curiosity, agility, and an insatiable appetite for learning like no generation before them as top findings.
Jim Collins, arguably the most influential leadership consultant today, studies intangible characteristics closely. Time after time, his research said humility is the singular, illustrative predictor of leadership greatness.
Curiosity comes with emotional costs. Collins notes good decisions rest on the ability to confront data, much of it new material or contradictory to experience. It's stuff that defies proven strategies or ways of thinking when facing dislocating change.
Mindful, intellectual confrontation with your ways of thinking is a healthy habit to build. It doesn't matter if you're the CEO of a global company or the head of your household.
Without knowing, the most curious, the ones with the greatest potential, unknowingly use McLuhan's gift of probing "what could be" into view.
They live in the world of possibility versus validation.
QUESTIONS AND THE NEWS
This week's catalytic news list spans digital war, vibes, mortgages, political migration— and talking dogs.
Is TikTok now the battleground for war propaganda and diversion?
A TikTok+Russia+Ukraine search query paints a picture of future conflict — altering the theater of war and strategic communication. As of Sunday, my top results featured a YouTube star, NBC, Tik Tok, Axios, Al Jazeera, and the Washington Post. With TikTok taking center stage, each presented a different, conflicting view into the first social media war. In parallel with news use, the public has turned to open-sourced intelligence to gauge what’s happening. It changes who the world — and the media — choose to follow. (sources: TikTok, The Economist, Google)
Is culture stuck in neutral…if not where will it go?
Allison P. Davis wrote this excellent, buzzy brief on post-pandemic culture -- a“vibe shift” is coming. Davis says: “It was reassuring to think the pandemic had hit PAUSE on life, or at least put things into slo-mo. Turns out, two years might have swooshed into a black hole, but I was cocky to think something wouldn’t fill the void.” So what is cool post-COVID? People want things to be personal again. People will splinter in different directions without a coherent vision for music or fashion. And expect irony, lots of it. (source: New York Magazine).
Will political migrations drive major metropolitan divisions in America?
In 2005, Harvard Professor Juan Eriquez asked a question few had considered. Will America move from a United to an Untied republic? It wasn’t just a subtle play on words for a book investigating the question. Others predicted a radical shift coming, a geographic form of polarization. Now it’s happening. Growing evidence shows Americans fleeing to places where political lifestyles and legal beliefs match their own. See Conservatives Moving to Texas for context. (sources: NPR, Redfin, Facebook, Penn State).
Money in Transition
Why might climate change spell an end to 30-year mortgages?
Research shows that storm surges are making traditional home loans less popular in the U.S. Research released this month found that the share of homes with fixed-rate, 30-year mortgages has declined sharply — to less than 80 percent — in areas most exposed to storm surges. Jesse Keenan, an associate professor at Tulane University, says “Conventional mortgages have survived many financial crises, but they may not survive the climate crisis,” Worries on effects of climate change are starting to ripple through the housing market. The question isn’t how long it will take, but rather what the effects and how quickly they will happen. (sources: The New York Times, Time, U.S Commodity Futures Trading Association).
Did “digital traces” out QAnon’s originators—what does that mean for online anonymity?
Using machine learning, separate teams of computer scientists identified the same two men as instigators behind QAnon. Instead of relying on expert opinion, the computer scientists used a mathematical approach known as stylometry. Sophisticated software broke down the Q texts into patterns of three-character sequences and tracked the recurrence of each possible combination. The forensic analysis proves with a high degree of probability that the first to call attention to him/them, played the lead role behind the creation. Polls show millions remain believers, providing a powerful base for Q-inspired candidates in the ‘22 elections. It (source: The New York Times, Insider, BBC, GNET)
Can data science create talking dogs?
Services like Google Translate are great tools to grease cross-language interactions. Can they do the same for non-humans? Check this out from the American Kennell Club: “Have you ever wished you could teach your dog to talk? We know our dogs understand a tremendous amount of language, but what if they could speak directly to us? Can you teach your dog to talk? In short, the answer is yes.” A speech-language pathologist discovered a way to train her dog to speak to her using adaptive speech technologies — speech buttons pre-programmed with words that her dog can use to communicate wants, needs, and thoughts. (source: Recommendo, American Kennel Club, Hungerforwords)
MORE SIGNALS OF DISRUPTION
The electric vehicle market is expected to double in the next two years. Top-performing VC firm bets big on cryptocurrencies. JPMorgan Chase set up shop in a metaverse mall. Eric Schmidt donates $125 million to solve the hard
existentialproblems of AI. Belgium approves a four-day workweek.
A growing movement is afoot to develop bioengineered breast milk. New AIs may create the energy-saving future of AI. Peloton rides are video games now. These eye drops might replace your reading glasses. Are meditation apps effective?
Translations of Power
SHOULD YOU WANT TO GO DEEPER…
Some of the best McLuhan quotables are posted to The McLuhan Institute on Twitter. This Activate Consulting report goes deep into the depth of digital media use. For a lifetime study of leadership, bookmark Jim Collins’ reading list. Renee DiResta published this incisive, early warning essay on digital wars back in 2018 (a must-read if you care about new power.) Kevin Kelly, called by some “the most interesting man in the world,” has a great ‘recommendations’ newsletter (tip for dog talk). HBO’s Qanon: Into the Storm goes deep what’s behind it. Christina Hunger shows how she talks to dogs on Instagram.
A FINAL NOTE
A recurring theme of McLuhan's work is thinking of “artists as the antenna of the human race.” In Understanding Media, McLuhan said that the power of the arts to anticipate future social and technological developments —by a generation and more— has long been recognized. In that regard, art acts as “an early alarm system.”
Maybe we should look at more art from the past to see where we’re going.
This is Jamiroquai in 1997. The message, and his incredulity here, fits the bill.
Take great care, I'll see you next week.