Marshall McLuhan: With It, Then and Now

Half a century has passed since the publication of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. It’s a difficult, important book — important yet difficult. Sample chapter titles include: “The Written Word: An Eye for an Ear,” “Ads: Keeping Upset With the Joneses,” “Radio: The Tribal Drum,” “Money: The Poor Man’s Credit Card,” and “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis.”

Much has changed since the 1960s, McLuhan’s decade of popularity: Two members of the Beatles are dead, the Cold War is over, and television — one of McLuhan’s favorite sparring partners — is no longer the principle medium through which our society sends and receives information. Today, we’re online. We work on the internet, play on the internet, shop on the internet, date on the internet. We are the clickers, swipers, and likers. As Douglas Haddow put it in a recent essay on Adbusters, the world now belongs to the engineers of Silicon Valley — the rest of us are “just supplying the data for it.” Everything is, and always has been, experienced IRL.

And yet McLuhan’s ideas remain as vital as ever, if not more.

While Understanding Media is sometimes hard to understand, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (published 1967) is pretty accessible. According to the McLuhan Estate, the book was supposed to be titled after McLuhan’s most famous aphorism, the medium is the message, but the typesetter made a mistake. McLuhan didn’t mind, though. He said, “Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!” Now, apparently, the title can be interpreted in four (or more!) different ways: The Medium Is the Message, Mess Age, Massage, or Mass Age. Continue Reading →

Comments { 0 }

In Defence of Haters

Fifty years ago, Bob Dylan told the older generation of the time, “don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” Today, it seems, we are being told not to criticize anything at all.

Taylor Swift’s latest pop anthem, “Shake it Off,” for example, comes prepackaged with the ultimate lyrical shield against the very criticism she knew the song would face. Both its poor quality and the fact it’s a marked departure from the twang that made her famous meant she’d get some flack. Still, it’s a bit of marketing genius, really, to churn out some shitty music but fend off the inevitable and warranted reproach by repeating the line “haters gonna hate.” It was a preemptive strike against all them mean nasty folks who just can’t appreciate a twerkin’ good pop tune when they hear it. To be branded a “hater,” it seems, has become the harshest slight one can bestow in this age of Internet Correctness.

I mean, sure, there are assholes out there and a lot of them live in cyberspace. I certainly wouldn’t condone people, you know, saying mean things about Taylor in the comments below her YouTube videos. Those people are trolls and bullies and superfluous to society.

However, in an effort to rid the world of this sort of scum, we’ve overused the term “hater,” applying it to any and all people who don’t share our particular slant on the world. Taylor Swift is not unique in this. It appears that many people in our culture have become so hypersensitive that critics are universally regarded as “haters.” I would argue that some criticism is warranted; I’d even say it’s essential. Certain songs and movies just plain suck, and if we can’t say that anymore without being branded “haters” then I fear for the future of critical discourse. What will old men talk about in pubs? Continue Reading →

Comments { 0 }

High School Student Suspended for Selling Pepsi

No, it’s not a Coke-only institution of learning. It’s diet-only. That’s right — only diet colas are allowed on the premises of Winston Churchill High School in Lethbridge. Because children these days need better health.

That’s where Keenan Shaw (Gr. 12) comes in. He was caught selling Pepsi to fellow students, buddies, and pals. He stored the contraband in his locker. Now school authorities have suspended him for two days. Shaw was also told he was operating a business without a licence, and that he shouldn’t do that.

Comments { 0 }

Are We Atom, or Are We Data?

“…Like everybody else, I was lured into this radical new condition with the feel-good promises of connection, friendship, and self-expression,” writes sometimes Ballast Contributor Douglas Haddow.

What is this so-called radical new condition? It is Life 2.0. It is engagement and shareability and digital identity-creating. It is a “nerd paradise where the only problems that exist are the ones that you’re inspired to solve.” And it is a life that belongs to them — “we’re just supplying the data for it.”

Comments { 0 }

CRTC Considers Pick-and-Pay Cable TV

From the CBC:

What the CRTC is now suggesting is that consumers pay for the distribution of television, the pipes that bring it to your home, and a few local channels, many of which don’t get fees from subscribers. Everything else would be optional. You would pick and pay for the channels you want.

The question, though, is if all this is coming too late. People are not watching television like they used to. Times are changing. Smartphones, tablets, Netflix, YouTube, etc. The CRTC knows this.

Comments { 0 }

Stephen Harper Vs. Sociology

According to our Prime Minister, there are good times and bad times to commit sociology. Bad times include April 2013, when authorities accused two men of planning a terrorist attack against a Via Rail passenger train. Another occurred after the Boston Marathon Bombings, when Harper took issue with the idea of investigating the root causes behind the event. Now, while speaking to a crowd at Yukon College in Whitehorse, he said we should not view the many cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women as a “sociological phenomenon.”

In Stephen Harper’s mind, presumably, acts of violence are crimes, and crimes exist outside the realm of spreadsheets and data and general trends that themselves are the result of several knowable factors. Only individuals divorced from all reality but their own commit crimes, and laws are what fix that — not a bunch of sociologists in the library.

On the recent homicide of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, whose lifeless body was found in Winnipeg’s Red River, Harper said, “Obviously in the particular case … we want to extend all our sympathies to the families and friends. This is a terrible crime, clearly a crime. But first and foremost it is a crime, and the most important thing is to make sure we have a thorough police investigation.”

Earlier this year, a report compiled by the RCMP and Statistics Canada revealed that while aboriginal women account for just 4.3% of Canada’s female population, they compose 16% of the country’s female homicides and 11.3% of the cases for missing women. Other figures from Statistics Canada suggest that aboriginal women are victims of violence at a rate of three and half times more than non-aboriginal women. They’re also seven times more likely to be murdered. But that’s just what the numbers say. Why they’re like that, no one knows. Continue Reading →

Comments { 1 }

The Day’s Big News

Comments { 0 }

A List of IPAs Other Than Alexander Keith’s

When Alexander Keith’s concocted the slogan, “Those who like it, like it a lot,” the brewer was implying a couple of things. First, that there was something different about its beer. Second, that only a sophisticated few could appreciate its wondrous bounty.

It’s brilliant marketing, perhaps, but not entirely accurate. Anyone who’s tried Alexander Keith’s signature IPA knows that it’s not nearly as unique as the slogan suggests. And despite pressure from an online petition to change its “India Pale Ale” (IPA) description, the Halifax-based brewer has insisted on retaining the label even though its beer does not meet industry standards for the IPA style. Alexander Keith’s IPA is, by all appearances, a standard blonde ale.

For many, this might not be a big deal — until you try an actual IPA and discover that Alexander Keith’s version has more in common with Molson Canadian and Labatt Blue than it does with a Flying Monkeys Smashbomb Atomic IPA. In simple terms, a real IPA is all about the hops. The style originated when English brewers dramatically increased the amount of hops in their pale ales to survive the long voyage to India. The result was a beer with an amber body and, most importantly, distinct bitterness. The hops also impart flavours and aromas of pine and citrus.

The IPA style has since become one of the most common among craft brewers in North America, and as consumers become more familiar with it, Alexander Keith’s stubbornness to change how it identifies its beer grows more and more absurd. Continue Reading →

Comments { 28 }

Is Knowing Your Neighbour Necessary?

Last week, Maclean’s posted an article about modern life and living titled “The End of Neighbours.” Subtitle: “How our increasingly closed-off lives are poisoning our politics and endangering our health.” The big numbers that appear in the opening paragraph are as follows:

  • Over 30% of Canadians report feeling disconnected from their neighbours.
  • Around 50% of Americans report that they don’t know the names of their neighbours.
  • About 33% of Britons report that they couldn’t identify their neighbours in a police lineup.

Pretty brutal. But that’s not to condemn those involved in the aforementioned studies. This problem be systemic. Friends move. Technology alters how we interact. Fashion changes how we perceive. Advertising influences. Scientific discoveries occur. Other people are often annoying and just talk about themselves, anyway. They’re disappointed rather easily, too.

A central argument throughout the Maclean’s article is that it’s healthy for us as a society to mix. It’s important for a dentist to interact with her carpenter neighbour and a Liberal to wait at the same bus stop as a Conservative. Two nearby families that may not like each other should learn to solve their differences, or at least compromise. It’s good to face the Other.

Here’s a quote from the piece: “The evolving modern definition of a good neighbour is no longer someone who is part of your life, someone you chat with over the fence, a reliable shoulder in good times and bad, but someone who doesn’t bother you, either in your enjoyment of your home or by threatening its property value.” Rings true.

Comments { 0 }

Canadians Using Less and Less and Less Cash

We’ve said it before, so let’s say it again: Canada is on its way to becoming a cashless society. Canadian Business reports that “non-cash instruments” now “account for 90% of payments in this country.” That means Canada is one of the world leaders when it comes to purchasing goods and services with plastic.

That said, cash still comprises over 40% of all transactions. But that’s mostly for the small stuff. Think Snickers bars and hair gel. Today, more and more items that cost an amount of money you’d hope would give customers pause are being exchanged for no physical money at all.

Comments { 0 }

Some Questions About Outfitting Police Officers With Body Cameras

From the Toronto Star:

How much will it cost to store a massive library of audio-visual recordings? If audio-visual equipment is only to be activated in situations in which footage might be needed for court evidence later on, who makes that decision? Who decides what footage should be kept and what can be thrown away? Who pays for the extra time it will take officers to go over the audio-video evidence so nothing is left out of their notes?

The implied question that looms above all else: Who’s going to pay for all this?

Meanwhile, in America.

Comments { 0 }

Mystery and Romance Still Exist

Music blogs have been talking about a man named Lewis. He is a Mystery, a Romantic. His songs are slow-tempo and synth-soaked. His singing voice is full of distressed feeling and non-naive hope.

What is known about the pseudonymous Lewis is not much. Some evidence suggests he’s from Canada, but that’s far from proven. Apparently, in 1983 a man who “stayed in the Beverley Hills Hotel, drove a white convertible Mercedes, and dated a girl who looked like a model” recorded an album titled L’Amour. He then disappeared. About 30 years later, a copy of L’Amour popped up in an Edmonton flea market. Lewis was reborn.

Earlier this month, someone found a second Lewis LP titled Romantic Times. On the cover, a man in a suit with cigar in hand stands before a private jet. An engineer credited for working on the 1985 album said that while he remembers little about the session, he does recall Lewis appearing to be “under the influence.” The one known copy of Romantic Times recently sold on eBay for $1,825.00.

Comments { 0 }

Can Hitchbot the Hitchhiking Robot Make It Across Canada?

This is an experiment to see not if humans can trust robots, but if robots can trust humans, says Hitchbot’s co-creator Frauke Zeller, an assistant professor at Ryerson University.

Hitchbot’s mission: to hitchhike from Halifax to Victoria, presumably while making new friends and having plenty of adventures along the way.

Hitchbot is programmed to converse about many things, but let’s hope for the mission’s sake Hitchbot steers clear of prodding discussions on politics and religion. Let’s also hope Hitchbot is programmed to be quiet when the occasion calls for silence. No one likes a needy passenger.

Judging by Hitchbot’s Twitter account, the little guy has already been promised a ride into Quebec, despite starting the journey just yesterday. Then again, homeless drifters of the human variety rarely get this level of positive press coverage.

Comments { 0 }