The Social Explorer


A quick note about this section

Marshall McLuhan’s prescience endures in the information age.

Written by
Paddy Harrington

Alden Whitman’s obituary for Marshall McLuhan from the New York Times on January 1, 1981, summarizes the life of the Canadian media theorist. Whitman, a Canadian by birth, was a pioneer in his own right. He effectively invented the concept of personalized obituaries.

But his obituary of McLuhan is of particular interest because of one quote.

In describing the nature of McLuhan’s imprint on culture, Whitman describes how: “His monologues and lectures tend-ed to be an amalgam of abstractions, flash-ing insights, and abstruse assertions.” He then goes on to quote McLuhan from one of his lectures: “The criminal, like the artist, is a social explorer.”

This confounding and provocative assertion is classic McLuhan. And for us, it prompted a search for its origins in his work. Surely it would be grounded in his writing and found in one of his books with further context to support it. But it isn’t. It appears only once more, in another New York Times article by Richard Kostelanetz, “Understanding McLuhan (In Part),” from 1967. In fact, it appears that Whitman used Kostelanetz’s article as the source for his obituary.

Since there is no definitive meaning associated with the quote, we are left to wonder. And that may be the enduring value of McLuhan.

We live in an age of icebergs; an attention economy whose currency is made of sensational stories and enticing headlines. Fast Company magazine precedes its blog posts with a tag that lets the reader know about how long it will take to read. We’re rarely encouraged to go deep. We make an informational transaction, are given the take-away, and we move on. So we live among the tips of icebergs without ever going deep to what lies below the surface.

Distant Early Warning decks of cards, designed by Marshall McLuhan in 1969. Five years before their release, McLuhan explained the idea in his book Understanding Media: “I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.”

Kostelanetz’s article describes the perceptions of McLuhan in his own time. At its most harsh, the criticism describes his work as “impure nonsense, nonsense adulterated by sense.” For his own part, McLuhan suggests that clarity may not be the ultimate objective, saying “clear prose indicates the absence of thought.”

So it’s about the messy explorative struggle rather than a finite rational explanation.

Our prefrontal cortex, the centre of our rational capacity, is fundamentally limited. According to Princeton psychologist George Miller in a study conducted 10 years before Kostelanetz’s article, our rational brain can hold only seven to nine discrete bits of information at any given time. We’re not good at handling lots of data; it’s a source of stress. When our rational cognitive load is overtaxed, we make bad decisions.

The criminal, like the artist, is a social explorer.

In a 2007 study by British psychologist Richard Wiseman, two groups of students were given a set of numbers. Students from each group had to walk from the room where they got the numbers to another room where they had to recite them. One group was given a seven-digit number, while the other was given a two-digit number. What the students didn’t know was that on the way to the other room, they were interrupted by another researcher who offered them either a piece of cake or fruit to eat. The students given the seven-digit numbers were twice as likely to choose the cake.

We make bad choices when we’re overwhelmed with information, and we live in the most information-saturated era in human history. That makes it even harder to find depth. It takes a lot of effort to break the surface, and the path is never straight.

This issue is dedicated to that meandering path. We’re not here to stress you out. We’re trying to do the opposite. We’re looking at the subject from every possible angle and with the sense that stress may be a matter of perspective.

Yes, life can be overwhelming at times. But the criminal, like the artist, is a social explorer. And this provocation, one that has no easy explanation, and others like it, short-circuit our relentless need for clarity and understanding. It creates a moment of confusion that leads to a state of curiosity as we attempt to make sense of it. And it’s in those moments of uncertainty, mystery, and discovery that we may find the most profound relief.

Paddy Harrington

Paddy Harrington is the founder of Frontier. He has degrees in architecture and literature and is an award winning writer and film maker.

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