17 August 2006

Yes, Virginia, Television is a Hot Medium

In this day and age, anyone who is still teaching that television is a cool medium should be beaten about the head and shoulders with a copy of Understanding Media. The meaning of the medium is the message is simple: look at the effects, or, to probe a cliché, "it is by my effects that ye shall know me(dia)."

Today, the Globe has published news of a scientific study that verifies the hot effects of today's TV:
While parents may find it a pain to have their children watching TV all the time, their kids are likely numb to it while parked in front of the tube. A University of Siena study published in the latest issue Archives of Disease in Childhood, suggests that watching TV is more effective in alleviating pain for children than a mother's attention.
Television as an anaesthetic, a characteristic effect of a hot medium. For reference, here's the comparison chart that I use when teaching media theory:
Hot MediumCool Medium
Extends a single sense in High Definition with lots of information.Engages multiple senses with Low Definition; less information for each.
Little completion or active participation to be done; less “filling in” to be done by the audience. Everything is explicit.High in participation and active completion; audience must “fill in the blanks,” especially applied to intellectual participation and engagement.
Tends to exclude by virtue of its isolating properties and sensory (leading to cognitive) imbalance.Tends to include.
Engenders specialisation and fragmentation.Engenders generalization and consolidation.
Normal reaction is to numb overall awareness to mitigate the Hot effects, inducing a state akin to hypnosis or trance — not asleep, but not aware, making one highly suggestible.Natural reaction is to engage awareness and heighten perception.
Often characterised by short, intense experiences. Motivational speakers rely on Hot Media effects.Often associated with longer term, sustained experiences.
Tends to capture or hijack attention.Tends to attract “actively aware” attention, freely given.
The point of making the distinction between hot and cool media is not to label or categorize, but to use the effects we notice as a key to identify the effects we do not notice, or actively ignore. And that, boys and girls, is McLuhan in a nutshell.
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tremolo said...

Thanks for showing how TV is Hot. I recall McLuhan thinking TV was Cool because we subliminally merge low-definition static frames into a smooth moving picture.

On the other hand isn't radio somewhat Cool in that while it does extend one sense - hearing - it also invites participation in creating imagined visuals? I think of my Dragnet youth and of listening to Prairie Home Companion.

Mark said...

Thanks for your comment, tremolo. When I was growing up (which was when McLuhan was doing his seminal work on media) television was cool. It brought people together, and its effect was that of an interactive medium - I can recall my grandmother arguing with Walter Cronkite.

The point is that television (then) is not television (now). Despite the fact that in both cases, sound and images are transmitted from somewhere to a screen in a box that is in my home, the two instances are very different media when considered from the ground of their effects.

This is a point of confusion for (especially younger) professors who are attempting to introduce McLuhan's work into a communications or media studies syllabus. McLuhan's work stands - in Understanding Media he speaks of television of his time which had cool effects. Obviously, he didn't know what television would become in our time. In particular, cool media have a tendency to heat up as we become acclimatized to them until they become so intense that they flip via reversal, obsolescing the older form.

As for radio, McLuhan's radio was a hot medium. I'm thinking that it is cooler now in many respects, but then again, radio isn't radio any more, is it? (Think: AM/FM vs. Internet radio, vs. Pandora vs. XM/Sirium vs. podcasts and so forth.)