Monday, February 5, 2018

Hot & Cold Media

from Teaching McLuhan: Understanding ‘Understanding Media’
by David Bobbitt, Wesleyan College

Probably no part of McLuhan’s theory is more confusing and confounding to his critics than his discussion of hot versus cool media in chapter 2 of Understanding Media.

But, we can understand this part of McLuhan’s theory if we impose some linear order on it. I teach this by providing the students my own binary chart that lays out the characteristics of each this way, with McLuhan defining “high definition” as the state of being well filled with data:

Hot Medium
extends single sense in high definition
low in audience participation
engenders specialization/fragmentation
uniform, mechanical
extends space
horizontally repetitive

Cool Medium
low definition (less data)
high in audience participation
engenders holistic patterns
collapses space
creates vertical associations

McLuhan provides examples of hot versus cool media as follows:

Hot Medium
phonetic alphabet

Cool Medium
ideographic/pictographic writing
speech (orality)
seminar, discussion

However, we misunderstand these concepts if we try to impose too much linear order and structure on McLuhan’s definitions and examples. We have to see hot and cool media not in terms of static definitions but as dynamic concepts that are designed to get at the experience and effects of how we use media. As Paul Grosswiler points out, McLuhan’s method was dialectical, process-oriented, and open-ended, not mechanistic. Keeping that in mind, I argue there are three ideas that are essential to understanding McLuhan’s concept of hot versus cool media.

First, McLuhan was not concerned with providing consistent, linear meanings of the terms “hot” versus “cool” media. For him, it was the effect the medium had that he was trying to get at. McLuhan indicates this in chapter 2 of Understanding Media where he writes:

The new electric structuring and configuring of life more and more encounters the old lineal and fragmentary procedures and tools of analysis from the mechanical age. More and more we turn from the content of messages to study total effect. . . . Concern with effect rather than meaning is a basic change of our electric time, for effect involves the total situation, and not a singe level of information movement. (26) [all emphases in original]

Thus, McLuhan saw his ideas as intuitive probes designed to get at the experience or effect of using a particular medium, or media in general, rather than as attempts to provide scholarly definitions or understandings of media. Later in Understanding Media he makes a similar point when he writes:

Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior, especially in collective matters of media and technology, where the individual is almost inevitably unaware of their effects upon him. (318)

So we misconstrue McLuhan’s “hot” versus “cool” distinction when we try to force these terms into static definitions. Rather we should understand them as terms for getting at effects of media.

Second, since hot versus cool media are not definitions, but attempts to capture the experience or effect of a medium, whether a medium is hot or cool can depend on the society into which it is introduced and the stage of technological or social development of that society. For example, McLuhan writes:

Nevertheless, it makes all the difference whether a hot medium is used in a hot or cool culture. The hot radio medium used in cool or nonliterate cultures has a violent effect, quite unlike its effect, say in England or America, where radio is felt as entertainment. A cool or low literacy culture cannot accept hot media like movies or radio as entertainment. (30-31)

Elsewhere in the chapter on hot and cold media, McLuhan again provides a warning not to take the meanings of the terms “hot” and “cool” media too literally, but to consider the context and situation. He argues that the less developed countries of the world may be in a better position than the industrialized West to cope with the arrival of electric technology:

However, backward countries that have experienced little permeation with our own mechanical and specialist culture are much better able to confront and to understand electric technology. Not only have backward and nonindustrial cultures no specialist habits to overcome in their encounter with electromagnetism, but they have still much of their traditional oral culture that has the total, unified “field” character of our new electromagnetism. (26-27)

Therefore, a medium’s “hotness” or “coolness” is not just a function of the nature of the medium itself but also the nature of the society into which the medium is introduced.

Third, whether a medium is hot or cool can also depend on how it is used in a particular society, and that can change over time. Media interact with one another, so the introduction of a new medium can change the way older media are used. As McLuhan points out, “no medium has its meaning or existence alone, but only in constant interplay with other media” (26); and “media as extensions of our senses institute new ratios, not only among our private senses, but among themselves, when they interact among themselves. Radio changed the form of the news story as much as it altered the film image. . .” (53). In addition, television changed the way we use radio, which McLuhan notes when he writes: “One of the many effects of television on radio has been to shift radio from an entertainment medium into a kind of nervous information system” (298). So a medium’s impact on a society is not linear and static, but multi-dimensional and dynamic as that medium interacts with other media and as the society changes how it uses the medium.

Furthermore, McLuhan argues that media can “heat up” over time (which I will discuss in more detail in the next section), but, for now, consider television. Writing in the 1960s McLuhan described television as a cool medium, but one could argue that television has “heated up” since then as it has become more high definition and more ubiquitous. We do not use television today in the same way we used it in the 1950s and 1960s, when families frequently sat around the television watching one show at a time. Now we have multiple televisions and other types of screens (such as personal computers, laptops, cell phones, tablet computers) of multiple sizes in multiple locations (including on our person) that are available continuously to provide a stream of images, text, and other information that we often attend to in a fragmentary and desultory manner. Therefore the experience and effect of using electronic screen technology has heated up over time.

Thus we can see that for McLuhan the hot versus cool media distinction describes effects, not definitions. In addition, those effects can vary depending on the society’s stage of technological development, and those effects can change over time as that society changes and as that society changes how it uses that medium.

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