Thursday, July 21, 2011

McLuhan Centenary

Due to the centenary of media theorist Marshal McLuhan, there has been a flurry of recent coverage and events on his work and life.

As a fellow Torontonian, media junkie, and as a student at the faculty now housing his program (University of Toronto's Faculty of Information) I feel connected to his work. I therefore attended three events this week hosted by the McLuhan Legacy Network and the McLuhan 100 that helped me decipher McLuhan and consider his ongoing relevance to understanding media and to my studies in particular. 

I thought of writing a long post to summarize my take-aways from these events and how McLuhan work sheds lights on current digital tech and trends. But other sources (including my post excepting Bob Logan's insightful article on McLuhan) have already done this effectively.

In the spirit of Marshall McLuhan, I'll share one-liners or aphorisms from these events. McLuhan was famous for these, such as "the medium is the message" and "if it works, it's obsolete".  As the sessions were panel discussions and invited audience participation capturing the speaker's name proved difficult - so my apologies for not attributing sources. All were quotations or rephrasings of McLuhan or commentary inspired by McLuhan.
  • Art is an early warning system. Artists are antennae of a race and prepare us for the coming onslaught.
  • With pervasive media are we amoebas pulled and stimulated by environment but ultimately torn asunder by it?
  • McLuhan is the patron saint of art schools for championing lateral thinking. 
  • If it ain't broke; break it!
  • Northrop Frye on said he avoided McLuhan as 90% of what McLuhan says is original and I'm not used to it!
  • An obsolete medium becomes art.
  • Media provides both a service and disservice. (So mobiles can help us stay in touch with elderly relatives but can be used as reason to avoid meeting them in person.)
  • McLuhan liked to use paradoxes to provoke discussion, but these vex and confuse people.
  • The next killer app is user experience.
  • Is the iPad a medium? It's amorphous. At one moment it can be an reader like a book or a keyboard like a piano. Is it a medium of its own or a mimic?
  • I don't do theories, but rather break molds.
  • Page turning on tablets is bad user experience. It's a transitory technique from an old medium that limits the new medium.
  • I don't necessarily agree with everything I say.
  • We now have a distributed medium with the Internet now we need distributed participation.
  • McLuhan conspired for his centenary be hottest day in Canada's history! Is this a sign of new hot medium coming?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Marshall McLuhan - Digital Visionary

Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan's birthday. To commemorate this milestone and recognize McLuhan's ongoing relevance to communication and media theory, various organizations and people have been holding events or writing about McLuhan. Although McLuhan is generally regarded as Canada's preeminent communication scholar and is still well known for his theories and concepts such "The medium is the message" and the "global village", his role as predictor and shaper of digital technology is less well known.

At a McLuhan event last evening a colleague and friend of McLuhan's, Prof. Bob Logan, related McLuhan's visions of future technology that has been realized. Logan's paper, McLuhan Misunderstood: Setting the Record Straight, addresses this topic and clarifyies other issues about McLuhan. The work is publised in full on the website McLuhan Galaxy, but Prof. Logan has allowed me to excerpt the passages regarding McLuhan's contributions and predictions to our digital culture.


So many of McLuhan’s pronouncements about the effects of electric media are prophetic because it seems as though he was aware of the coming of the Net, the Web and other digital media. A simple example of his prescience is that he, in fact, through his writing foreshadowed the Internet. William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer, certainly deserves credit for coining the term cyberspace but long before Neuromancer was written or even conceived of, McLuhan (1967, p. 67) described the Internet in the following passage in response to being asked "How is the computer affecting education" McLuhan’s response was an almost exact description of the Internet:

The computer in education is in a very tentative state but it does represent basically speeded up access to information and when it is applied to the telephone and to Xerox it permits access to the libraries of the world, almost immediately, without delay. And so the immediate effect of the computer is to pull up the walls of the subjects and divisions of knowledge in favor of over-all field, total awareness – Gestalt.
McLuhan description of the Internet was complete with the exception of packet switching if you allow Xeroxing to represent the reproduction of a hard copy by a printer. And he opined this description two full years before the development of ARPANET in 1969, the forerunner of the Internet.

An even earlier remark by McLuhan (1962) in the Gutenberg Galaxy also foreshadows the Internet:

A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve individual encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.
One can also interpret without too much of a stretch the retrieval of "individual encyclopedic function" in the above quote as a foreshadowing of Wikipedia as Derrick de Kerckhove once did (

McLuhan not only foreshadowed the Internet and Wikipedia, but he also foreshadowed, a Web site that connects companies that have a problem to solve with experts that Innocentive has aggregated. They call the process "Open Innovation," which they describe as follows:

Open Innovation allows many people from different disciplines to tackle the same problem simultaneously and not sequentially. Anyone can participate with collaborative technology and Open Innovation training. When many minds are working on the same problem, it will take less time to solve it.
McLuhan (1971 – with my emphasis) in a convocation address at the University of Alberta said:
The university and school of the future must be a means of total community participation, not in the consumption of available knowledge, but in the creation of completely unavailable insights. The overwhelming obstacle to such community participation in problem solving and research at the top levels, is the reluctance to admit, and to describe, in detail their difficulties and their ignorance. There is no kind of problem that baffles one or a dozen experts that cannot be solved at once by a million minds that are given a chance simultaneously to tackle a problem. The satisfaction of individual prestige, which we formerly derived from the possession of expertise, must now yield to the much greater satisfactions of dialogue and group discovery. The task yields to the task force.
McLuhan not only foreshadowed the development of the Internet and crowd sourcing he with his co-author George B. Leonard in an article in the popular magazine Look also explained why the digital media would be so compelling to young people and to a certain degree their elders. They suggested that the age of print and the fragmentation that it encouraged was over (McLuhan and Leonard, 1967).

More swiftly than we can realize, we are moving into an era dazzlingly different. Fragmentation, specialization and sameness will be replaced by wholeness, diversity and, above all, a deep involvement... To be involved means to be drawn in, to interact. To go on interacting, the student must get some-where. In other words, the student and the learning environment (a person, a group of people, a book, a programmed course, an electronic learning console or whatever) must respond to each other in a pleasing and purposeful interplay. When a situation of involvement is set up, the student finds it hard to drag himself away.
He and Leonard (ibid.) also predicted that the relationship to humankind’s knowledge would change with electrically configured information as we are beginning to see in this the Internet Age.

When computers are properly used, in fact, they are almost certain to increase individual diversity. A worldwide network of computers will make all of mankind’s factual knowledge available to students everywhere in a matter of minutes or seconds. Then, the human brain will not have to serve as a repository of specific facts, and the uses of memory will shift in the new education, breaking the timeworn, rigid chains of memory may have greater priority than forging new links. New materials may be learned just as were the great myths of [p. 25] past cultures-as fully integrated systems that resonate on several levels and share the qualities of poetry and song.
Still another foreshadowing of McLuhan was that of the smart phone as described by his biographer Phillip Marchand (1989, p. 170).

He told an audience in New York City shortly after the publication of Understanding Media that there might come a day when we would all have portable computers, about the size of a hearing aid, to help mesh our personal experiences with the experience of the great wired brain of the outer world.

What makes this prediction even more amazing is that there were no personal computers at the time, no cell phones and no Internet (i.e. "the great wired brain of the outer world").
The notion of the need for keeping messages short and hence the power of the one-liner foreshadows in our digital era texting, instant messaging and Twitter.


I believe that I have only scratched the surface in explaining the ideas of this great thinker. No article can do justice to the ideas that Marshall McLuhan engendered. I hope that my essay helps the reader in their approach to McLuhan. However, the only way to understand McLuhan is to read him directly and figure out what he means for you for as he said “the user is the content.”


Marchand, Philip. 1989. Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. Toronto: Random House.

McLuhan, Marshall. 1967. “The New Education.” The Basilian Teacher, Vol. 11 (2), pp. 66-73.


Thanks to Bob Logan for permission to use this.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Cool Off at Toronto's Harbourfront

It's too hot here in Toronto (41 degrees Celsius factoring in the humidity) to spend much time in front of a heat-producing computer, so I'm recycling an article I wrote awhile ago on a walking tour of Toronto's harbourfront that promises to offer scenic and historic sites by the cooling Lake Ontario...

To leash the dog days of summer, take a walk along Toronto’s waterfront.  It was Toronto’s harbour that convinced John Graves Simcoe to choose this location as the provincial capital in 1793, because the natural cove was ideal to defend the city from quarrelsome Americans. The lake has been integral to the development of Toronto.  It’s also where Toronto gets its drinking water.  Lake water is also used to provide environmentally-friendly cooling for Financial District offices

Toronto’s shoreline has changed dramatically over the years.  After the last ice age, everything south of Davenport Road was under the waters of giant Lake Iroquois. The waters gradually receded and the shore in Simcoe’s day was at Front Street. A storm in 1858 washed out the eastern edge of the harbour helping sever Toronto Island from the mainland. More recent landfill projects have extended the shoreline to its present location.

The waterfront was always a transportation hub - first ships, then trains, and then automotives with the 1966 opening of the Gardiner. (Toronto’s port, despite years of decline, is apparently increasing in use, due in part to high gasoline costs.)  Industry located in proximity to transportation, and as a result of both, the Lake was cut off from Torontonians first by peers then by railway tracks – more recently its highway and now walls of condominiums blocking the waterfront from most Torontonians.

Nonetheless, it is possible to walk along much of Toronto’s lakeshore to enjoy views of the lake and key historic sites.

Start your stroll at the foot of Yonge Street with the Redpath Sugar Refinery, still an operating factory and the biggest user of the port. Their sugar shed has a huge whale mural by artist Wyland and is one of his 100 “Whaling Walls.”  Redpath has a free, semi-sweet sugar museum.

Walking west you’ll pass the former Caption John’s seafood restaurant ship, docked there since 1975 (previously it was a Croatian ferry).

Further west there’s the ferry docks. Ferries have been running to the islands and other locales for decades. This is where to catch the ferry to Toronto Island. The trip affords great views of the city. Toronto Island (or more correctly islands) is probably Toronto’s best park - complete with gardens, beaches (including one for nudists), amusement park, farm, Toronto’s oldest structure the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse (reputed to be haunted by a former murdered keeper), restaurants, and it is the location of Babe Ruth’s first professional home run). The failed Toronto to Rochester, New York catamaran ferry also left near here but only lasted only a few months. Turns out Torontonians weren’t lining up to go to Rochester after all.

Continuing on, you’ll pass the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel. It is located on the site of Toronto’s worst disaster, the fire of the S.S. Noronic.  In the middle of the night on September 17, 1949, the cruise ship, docked overnight, burned before many passengers were even awakened.  Of the 695 on board approximately 118 died – all passengers. The cause was unknown, but a cowardly crew and inadequate safety measures were blamed.

Next, stop and grab an ice cap at Second Cup, housed in the original ferry terminal, Pier 6. Built in 1907, it is the oldest remaining waterfront building.

Next door is the Queen’s Quay Terminal, built in 1927, it was Canada’s first poured concrete building. Once one of the largest shipping warehouses, it was remodeled to house overpriced shops, restaurants and offices. The Terminal is part of Harbourfront Centre, Toronto’s preeminent cultural centre with (mostly free) festivals, concerts, art studios, galleries, and theatres. Harbourfront Centre was built largely by retrofitting heritage buildings including a power plant.

Conclude your walk with a rest on the beach of Toronto’s waterfront new park, “HTO,” complete with sand and sun umbrellas.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Good Things Grow in Ontario

In a act of self-promotion (or rather, for my daughter) I'm going to blog about a social media campaign and urge you to vote for my daughter. But it is a great campaign and rather novel for Ontario.

Recently at the Canada Day celebrations at Queen's Park, Toronto the Ontario government agency, Foodland Ontario, had a booth set up. We were drawn to them as they were offering free samples. It is a truism that free food will always draw a crowd. I'd previously encountered Foodland Ontario for their TV commercials and there useful awhile Twitter account (great recipes using local produce).

So once we had our cucumbers and dip, we noticed they had a video setup for a song contest. The contest is "Sing and Win". Contestants sing the Foodland jingle and compete in an online voting contest for the chance to win free groceries. They had a mini-studio set up with a video camera, lights, and audio mixer. Videos are them uploaded to Facebook (via YouTube) where people can vote daily for their favourite. As the recordings were done so professionally, the final videos are refreshingly good technical quality.

Considering my tone deafness, I didn't feel anyone deserved having to hear me caterwaul. But my young daughter jumped at the chance to perform (I think she's the reincarnation of Ethel Merman).  Participating in the contest was a lot of fun, as was watching other people sing. But any campaign that builds upon people's narcisstic joy at seeing and sharing stuff about themselves or their kids is guaranteed to succeed.
So within a couple days of the event the video was uploaded, we eagerly watched it and voted. This campaign has such incredible viral potential - of course, everyone would want to share their videos and get their friends to vote for them. But here's the problem - it is way too difficult to direct friends to a specific video for them to vote.

The process is cumbersome and vague. I think using Facebook is great as really almost everyone who is online on Canada is on it. But to participate in this campaign one has to friend the Foodland Ontario Facebook page, then one has to select the venue (Queen's Park) then scroll through pages of videos to find the specific one. I would have liked to be able to send friends directly to the video to watch and vote.

One shouldn't have to friend a company to participate. I think if this restriction was gone it might be possible to pass on a link directly to the video and the participation levels would be much higher.  This is essential both from a contestant and company perspective. As a contestant, I want as many of my friends to vote as possible. From a marketing perspective, the more people that are aware of Foodland Ontario and engage with their brand the greater the campaign success.

To be fair, it seems like this problem is on Facebook's end, as I'm not sure one can interact with a company on Facebook unless one friends them. People may be reluctant to do this as not only is it another step (each obstacle thrown at people will entail a certain level of drop-out) but also people might be concerned that friending a company entails being spammed with their messages (as has happened to me).

Even if this barrier was removed, it would still not be possible to link directly to the video.  I'm not sure why this is the case as YouTube assigns each video a unique identifier. 

In the end though, Foodland Ontario's "Sing and Win" campaign makes excellent use of social media - but some technical obstacles really prevented it from being much more viral and effective than it could be.

Now here's my plug to vote for my daughter:

  1. Visit Foodland Ontario on Facebook and "Like" them
  2. Go to the "Sing and Win" contest page via the icon on the right
  3. Select the venue "Queen's Park Canada" on the right
  4. Go to page 6 of the videos (via the arrow on the right)
  5. Watch the "Nora F" video and click the vote button
  6. Visit every day to vote again
See what I mean?  Anyway, thanks for any votes!

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Job Posting Sites for Canadian Internet Professionals

I looked at this blog's stats recently and noticed my post on Canadian Job Posting Sites for Internet Professionals from 2008 is not only my top blog post of all time but continues to be popular every month.

I haven't been on the look-out for a job in ages, but I know some of the sources I previously listed are no longer relevant. So I have updated my list and included it below.

All sites all appear to free for job-seekers. Rates for employers to post jobs vary greatly, from free (Craigslist) to expensive (Workopolis, Monster).

The Big Ones
These sites have a large number of Canadian jobs overall, and Internet jobs in particular. One can post one's resume here and create alerts to have postings emailed to you regularly.
  1. Craigslist
  2. Job Bank - job listings by Service Canada
  3. JobShark
  4. Kijiji
  5. LinkedIn
  7. Workopolis
Internet and IT specific
  1. Sitepoint
  2. Backbone
  3. ProBlogger - jobs for bloggers
  4. Dice
Communications & Digital Media
  1. International Association of Business Communicators (IABC)
  2. - has Canadian and international listings
  3. JeffGaulin - journalism jobs
  4. Applied Arts design-oriented jobs
  1. Charity Village - usually has Internet and IT jobs posted
  2. Ontario Public Sector Careers
  3. Public Service Commission of Canada - jobs with the federal government
  1. - academic jobs
  2. Guru - for freelancers of various professions, including Internet)

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Who's Who in Canadian Digital Media & Technology

In honour of Canada's birthday, I'm updating my list of Canadian individuals and companies who contributed to digital culture or technology.

My goal is to document an aspect of Canadian history and culture that is overlooked. I'm fairly loose in my definition of Canadian. Some people or companies got their start in Canada, but were acquired or lured to the United States. Some innovations were done by Canadians while abroad. The point is not to debate citizenship, but rather to document innovations and their Canadian connections to demonstrate that Canada has made and continues to make a significant contribution to digital media and technology.

Update September 2011 - since writing this I've added over 30 more entries (and could add even more).


Companies or Projects

This list is not exhaustive - but it was exhausting to put together.

I know I missed entries. My inclusion criteria is completely subjective and I have an Internet bias, but every year this list grows so hopefully it'll become increasingly definitive and encompass more elements of the digital sphere.

I'm particularly keen on capturing individuals and companies with a historic or international influence. Please help me out by letting me know of any additions.

July 14, 2011 Update:  Thanks to the expertise of Sara Grimes, I was able to add a bunch of entries on Canadian gaming luminaries that was previously lacking.