Take Today: The Executive as Dropout, by Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt

June 30th, 2011

By the time he wrote Take Today: The Executive as Dropout with the help of Barrington Nevitt, an engineer and consultant, Marshall McLuhan had learned that an effective way to keep his name in the media was to give his books provocative titles, such as The Medium is the Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village. Aside from the–at the time–“with-it-ness” of its title, however, Take Today: The Executive as Dropout probably attracted more readers–not that there appear to have been all that many–more with McLuhan’s name than anything else.

One might think that McLuhan was trying to follow in the footsteps of Robert Townsend’s 1970 best-seller, Up the Organization, which took a counter-culture look at big, bureaucratic organizations–without questioning their basic purpose or the value of the life and goals of the typical businessman. But McLuhan, it turns out, didn’t think much of Townsend’s book: Townsend manifests the [Harold] Geneen pattern of hotted-up ‘camp.’ If there is one thing that is perfectly obvious about Geneen U., it is that it is a ‘replay’ of some very worn-out organization ploys and patterns.” Anyone who knows a bit about McLuhan’s ideas will recognize that “hotted-up” is not a complimentary term.

And it’s unlikely that the average Wall Street Journal reader of the early 1970s would have found much in the book that could be put to any use on the job or in getting up the career ladder. It’s true that one can find occasional statements in Take Today that seem to leap off the page in their prescience:

It is in this new dimension of “software” design that the difference between the old mechanical industry and the new electric circuitry becomes manifest. It is a difference not only of speed and diversity but also of knowledge and of the programming for special, personal needs.

Written at a time when programming inevitably involved lugging around long, rectangular boxes full of hundreds of punch cards (all of which had to be in exactly the right order), the idea of doing it for special, personal needs was more than a bit ahead of its time.

But for every glint of genius, there are a dozen examples of the sort of writing that may one day earn McLuhan the reputation of a 20th century Nostradamus–meaning, the sort of writing that just about anyone can interpret to mean just about anything he wants it to. Which is also, of course, the sort of writing one’s not sure really had any meaning in the first place. Take this example:

As concertmaster, satellite man would have to audition such selections as the Manhattan Project with exquisite prescience of “audience” effects. The “audience” of satellite man includes the “actors” and is not merely human but consists of all the resonances awakened everywhere.

Both sentences are grammatically correct–but meaningful? They’re like a conversation or radio broadcast you’re not quite close enough to hear fully: you hear the fragments, you understand what each fragment means by itself, but you can’t quite piece together what’s going on.

And then you get the beauts:

What the “practical man” doesn’t know is that facts are something made, as the word tells us (facto). Moreover, a fact cannot be connected without “seizing up.” The interval or gap is necessary to any practical action. The gap is where the action is. “Ask the man who owns one.” The artist and engineer exist to create the right gaps and to avoid unfunny connections.

It’s writing like this that reminds me that, at about the same time that McLuhan was working on this book, gurus like Maharaj Ji were managing to get people to offer up their life savings and clean toilets with similar gobbledygook–albeit spiritual rather than intellectual.

I spent an entertaining and amusing hour thumbing through Take Today. McLuhan was never anything if not an eclectic reader, and like his other books, this one is full of striking quotes from sources ranging from James Joyce and T. S. Eliot to Peter Drucker to an IEEE Transactions article to an obscure work on the structure and function of the Chinese civil service during the Ming dynasty. And he had a knack of coming up with headline statements that owe more than a little to Wyndham Lewis’ blasts:

TORTURES, LIKE GAMES, ARE THE ART FORMS OF WORK IN ANY CULTURE

LIKE THE FUTURE, THE PAST IS NO LONGER WHAT IT USED TO BE

They Had the Looks When Cooking the Books

CARS ARE NOT MADE TO LAST BUT TO TURNOVER

Loved Labels Lost

But I found much of what I read to be as windy as a winter in Chicago without being a fraction as invigorating. It’s hard to believe people wrecked their lives to follow a smiling 15-year-old Indian guru, and it’s hard to believe there was a time when a book like this was considered profound.


Take Today: The Executive as Dropout, by Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972

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