Marshall McLuhan and the Suit I Wore to 30 Interviews

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Robert Delaney

I had always hoped that the first time my name appeared in a headline, the matter would be somewhat auspicious. … Something I would be happy to highlight on social media. Instead, it turned out to be this.

There are countless angles from which I could begin analyzing this turn of events. The steep drop in the value of objective, well-sourced and professionally edited news is a topic that won’t begin or end on my blog. But my termination from the Globe is still too recent for me to pick this apart dispassionately.

So instead, I want to write about art and fashion, partly as an antidote to all of the financial newswriting and editing I’ve done over the past 20 years.

Once the shock of my termination wore off, I started setting up interviews, so I needed proper threads. Most of my office attire dates back to sometime around Y2K, yet this didn’t turn out to be a problem.

Clothes that have been in our closets since the late-1990s still work if you want to put them on. Fashion isn’t the only lifestyle segment that’s been on hold in evolutionary terms. Music hasn’t changed much in the past 15 years. We’ve not seen any breakthrough art movements apart from Banksy. A restaurant called “Asian Fusion” just opened in downtown Toronto’s Queen West Village. Wow. Is it 1992 again?

Yes, I know. Quinoa is huge now. Mad Men-influenced thin ties and tightly tailored suits have been big for the past few years. Hipsters wear tight jeans and Rat Pack-inspired hats (because the irony of wearing similar outfits as a way of expressing individuality doesn’t become apparent until you’re out of your 20s). These are fads and echoes, not zeitgeist. The pair of Gap jeans or khakis and the Oxford shirt you had tailor-made in 1999 –– when you thought some sort of Y2K-related armegeddon might wipe out your credit card debt –– will always get you by in a pinch. In 1985, clothing bought 10 years earlier would only work for costume parties. Ditto for just about every 10-year increment throughout the 20th century.

Music? Consider what topped the charts in January of the following years:

  • 1985: “Like a Virgin” (Madonna)
  • 1975: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (Elton John)
  • 1965: “Come See About Me” (The Supremes)
  • 1955: “Mr. Sandman” (The Chordettes)

Hair? In the 70s you could just let it grow because you had to be a free spirit. In the 80s you’d need enough hair spray to look like the Queen of Sheba because wealth was all that mattered. Is there any hairstyle that defines anytime since 1998?

What to make of the fact that music, fashion and art, in general, hasn’t changed nearly as dramatically in the past 20 years as it had in the century that ended in the early 1990s?

This thought led me to that most irritating touchstone of cultural theorists and intellectuals. Marshall McLuhan and his most quoted assertion: “The medium is the message.”

The first time I heard it, as a communications student at Philadelphia’s Temple University sometime in the Paleolithic era, I thought: What the fuck does that mean? I heard it again in 1997 from my supervisor at Bridge News (a long-ago bankrupted financial news and data service that thought it could put Bloomberg out of business). At the time, Bridge News was working on the radical idea that it would package its news reports with hyperlinks, photos and – one day – video. As my boss explained what was coming down the tracks, he concluded with a comment meant to sum up the changes: “The medium is the message.”

And I wondered, again: what does that mean?

Fast forward to 2011, when I was doing my master’s degree in communications at Toronto’s Ryerson University. I realized that you can’t be a communications student in Canada without referencing McLuhan. So I thought, fuck it, I’m going to write an entire paper on how the Bloomberg terminal is the realization of the McLuhan universe. I didn’t really know what I was talking about, but I used the word “epistemology” a lot because academics love that word, and I got an A. (Not an A+.)

As I contemplated the suit and accessories I wore to more than 30 interviews, I finally understood more clearly what McLuhan was talking about.

The clothes we wear, the music we produce (and listen to), and art in general, represent the messages we send out, individually and as a society.

Somewhere starting in the late 90s, the message, as McLuhan predicted, became the medium. That is, the channels we chose to communicate became more important than what we were saying.

“Do you Yahoo?” I chose not to look at someone’s resume in 1998 because that question concluded the email he used to send me the document. That applicant is probably better off having never worked for me.

Are you sending a message via LinkedIn, a blog, Pinterest, email, Reddit, or the f-word standby whose name we dare not speak? The choice of the medium is more important than the message. Banksy’s art isn’t radical so much for his subjects as for the canvases he dares to grace or deface (depending on your point of view).

So as our lives have become embedded online, we don’t worry about the message we’re sending – which used to be conveyed in what we wore and played – as much as we worry about how we will send our message. Technological advances have absorbed our culture’s capacity for change.

The revolution that’s taking place online has obliterated our ability to craft a common message that defines our time.

No judgment here. The absence of a style that defines our newly online existence allowed me to sail through more than 30 interviews with one suit, paired with several different shirts and ties, all from the turn of the last century.

And I ended up with several offers.

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