I'm in an overseas phone seance at the Drake Hotel called McLuhan And The Future Of ESP, part of the McLuhan International Festival Of The Future. There've been films, art installations, tech businesses schmoozing for venture capital, and now someone's on the blower from England who speaks to the dead.
The medium, Glow, relates the doings of three ghosts, James (Joyce?), Frank (Zappa?) and Mac (McLuhan?), who communicate through sketch comedy. Apparently, they're on unicycles and have heads that pop open like beer steins.
On the Toronto end with a microphone is Bob Dobbs, former student and archivist of Marshall McLuhan. He can quote passages verbatim from the master's quixotic media theories like a carnival barker.
"The lids are on their heads?" asks Dobbs, seeking clarification from Glow. "And one of them is on the bike? Is it moving?"
"Yeah. The wheel is an ear; it's like a giant ear."
"A giant ear? Ho! That's tremendous."
This goes on past midnight.
OK, so Dobbs is not afraid of a little P.T. Barnum, but this is only one extreme at a conference that has herded cultural thinkers, installation artists and businesspeople into rooms around the city. The festival is on its maiden voyage, still putting out feelers (or "probes," to use a McLuhanism) about what it wants to be.
Is all of this meant seriously or not? McLuhan's own statements in his printed works, or whatever media would have him, were riddled with jazzy slogans, puns and provocative teasers like, "In years to come, when the child will be paid to learn...."
His thesis was clearly revolutionary - that each medium has a larger effect than its mere content, overloading, compensating and extending our physical senses, forcing individual minds and whole societies to adapt.
However, he was also a bit of a joker, and his more paradoxical statements often seem like strategic put-ons. McLuhan rather accurately described what sounds like the Internet in the 60s, and forecast that it would lead not only to the oft-cited "global village," but to worldwide ESP.
On the other hand, he said he was just checking stuff out and was entirely prepared to abandon each one of his theories.
At another session, I meet Thom Sokoloski, selected as creative director of the McLuhan Festival by its founder, Bill Marshall (also originator of the Toronto International Film Festival). Sokoloski is busy moving chairs around to let more people into the roughly elliptical ring of folks in the upstairs lounge, where beer is the medium for what are appropriately called The Drake Sessions.
A tall, genial man starts talking to us about mystery novels, 19th-century magazines, Egyptian hieroglyphics as animated cartoons and why we are in the most impressive renaissance of all. He turns out to be Marshall McLuhan's son Eric, himself a published scholar.
Talk turns to the U.S. election and how the candidates play in the media. The junior McLuhan wants to repeat an experiment done during the groundbreaking Nixon-Kennedy debate in which students were divided into those who watched the debate on TV and those who listened on radio. Affable, telegenic Kennedy carried the day in the new medium, while old-school Nixon sounded more coherent on radio.
"The TV networks' computers, by projecting a victor in a presidential race while the polls are still open, have already rendered the traditional electoral process obsolescent," said Marshall McLuhan in his famous 1969 Playboy interview.
I find Bob Dobbs again the next day, this time holding forth at Extreme McLuhan, offered at the McLuhan Coach House on Queen's Park Crescent, where McLuhan held his famed weekly happenings. At this session, billed as "not for the faint of heart," the training wheels come off and the "McLuhanatics," as some call them, come out.
Dobbs is talking full-speed as if he'd never stopped since the night before about the web of living metaphors that make up the 9/11 tragedy. The terrorists " knew the Kabbalists would go nuts with the symbolism," he says.
The high-intensity midrash continues. Somehow Frank Zappa and 2001: A Space Odyssey tie into it. "We're communicating through our media more than we realize. All the language, all the newspapers, movies, they're all talking to each other as forms in reality. Remember, McLuhan said that the chief characteristic of modern media is that they're living organisms. That means they can communicate."
So what does a newspaper communicate to you? What's it doing to your senses right now? The newspaper is a hot medium; the information coming at you is high-intensity, attacking your visual sense, a mosaic of subjects like a three-ring circus. The newspaper is public and gossipy - unlike books, which are personal and private - which is why a news story like this one is usually pessimistic and catty.
At the final Extreme session, a woman speaks up in a quiet but insistent voice. "I don't understand. I'm missing something here. I see uses of media (at this festival) that to me don't seem very politically astute or politically grounded, and not even politically aware."
Mark Federman, head of McLuhan management studies for U of T's McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology tries to explain.
"I want to understand what your politics are," the woman finally says.
Federman tells of a recent consulting job for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, which is trying to decide whether to conduct immigrant hearings by video conference. "When I heard about that, I said, 'This is evil - with a capital E,'" he says. He made the case to the government that the practice would be unfair and, from a communications point of view, an ineffective means of determining the truth.
"I tend to be called an optimist," says Federman. "I've had enough experience to know that people are making the right choices when presented with all the alternatives."
McLuhan said, "I'm neither pessimistic or optimistic, I'm apocalyptic." Other times he reportedly said, "We're doomed."