13 January 2006

Why Martin Can't Win (and What He Could Do About It)

I've been interviewed several times over the past week on the media effects of the current campaign, the parties' respective use (or lack thereof) of the Internet in general, and the blogosphere in particular. As well, I've been asked in a variety of ways how to understand the dynamics of the campaign, drawing from my "vocabulary" of McLuhan-as-analytical-method. I certainly didn't agree with the attempted analysis in the Star a couple of weeks back that (yet again) demonstrated that McLuhan's construct of media temperature remains the most elusive of his thinking tools - one that confused even McLuhan himself, according to his son, Eric.

But in the course of the interviews and several conversations, I've managed to work out what (I think, at least) is going on, derived from the concepts of hot and cool media, the nature of the respective campaigns, and the observation that TELEVISION TODAY IS NOT TELEVISION CIRCA 1964. (The caps are for all the media theory professors who blindly quote McLuhan without truly understanding the meaning of the medium is the message.)

You cannot "label" a medium as hot or cool by looking at the medium, but rather by observing its effects. A hot medium is one that is hypnotic, decreasing awareness by providing explicit, often simplistic, information. It is intense, and tends to separate and fragment. There is little active, cognitive participation because of the explicitness; rather we take it in and nod in agreement, eyes glazing over. If you find yourself mindlessly echoing tropes and memes without really thinking them through (to discover a hidden context, for instance) you have likely been exposed to a hot media environment.

Conversely, a cool medium engages active awareness and analysis, and therefore requires participation to figure it out - "filling in the blanks," as McLuhan folk often put it. Cool media often engender collaborations and are characterized by less intense (i.e., numbing) experiences. If we consider the phenomenon of the "couch potato," or people mindlessly repeating catch phrases from popular sit-coms, or the often admitted use of television as a narcotic or anaesthetic, it is clear that the nature and characteristic effects of television today is hot. This is neither surprising nor unexpected. What would be surprising is if television had not changed in 42 years.

In the last election, Stephen Harper lost because people "filled in the blanks" about what a Harper government might mean to our "Canadian values." In other words, the Liberal Party ran a cool campaign, betting on the ambiguity to save the day. Which it did. Sort of. In fact, for the last nearly forty years - ever since the master of political cool, Pierre Elliot Trudeau - the Liberal Party has run nothing but cool campaigns. That's all they know. Chr├ętien, a devoted student of PET, was as well a master of cool politics. Paul Martin, on the other hand is just not that cool a guy, but that doesn't really matter (contrary to what some folks might believe). The key point to remember is that in order to attract people to "fill in the blanks" and actively participate in creating your message (i.e. effects), there must be trust. People have to trust to become engaged and cognitively involved. This time around, there is no trust, which is the Liberals biggest problem.

The lack of trust issue, of course, applies irrespective of media theory. Regardless of the fact that what Martin has nominally done - called the Gomery inquiry, fired some of the perpetrators, referred the matter to the RCMP - should create trustworthiness, there hasn't been enough time to create trust. People are skeptical, and they are being told repeatedly to be skeptical by Canada's latest Svengali, Stephen Harper.

Harper creates a hot environment - fragmentation among constituencies, intense, simplistic, repeated tropes that induce hypnotic effects, an explicitness that precludes active awareness of contextual consequences. And he is very effectively using today's primary hot medium - television - to deliver a hot message, and Canadians cannot turn away. Paul Martin, quite literally, is cooked.

I've commented several times that none of the major political parties understands the first thing about the effects of Internet, or the reversals induced under UCaPP* conditions. For instance, today I was asked about podcasting - apparently the NDP (or is it the Conservatives?) have "podcasts" - which is to say, they are continuing to use the 'net as another broadcast medium, attempting to hold onto the artefacts of 20th-century-style broadcast politics as long as possible.

One of the effects of UCaPP is for "consumers to become producers." In the context of the current campaign, this might mean that ordinary people could be given a venue on the campaign sites to upload their own podcasts. Consider the Liberal Party dilemma of lack of trust. Now imagine if the archetypal "ordinary Canadian" was given an open and free opportunity to upload a "why I'm planning to vote Liberal" podcast directly to the Liberal party site. At the very least, all the ideas that the central campaign can't think of would immediately become available to them. What's more, (as we learned from the Howard Dean Experience) even anti-Liberal trolls (a troll, of course is relative to the venue; one person's troll is another person's freedom fighter, so to speak) would be contributing to the passion, fervor and motivation of the Liberal team and their supporters (Dean raised a huge amount of money through people pledging donations for every troll post to Deanspace). Most important, allowing such a forum for democratic participation and conversation is the move that would help to create the trust, openness and welcoming that a cool campaign requires.

Releasing control, and inviting open participation is one key to cool - especially when it comes to re-establishing trust, and will be the key to success for the first political party to figure it out. It's probably too late for Paul Martin. Any neo-Chr├ętienites (or neo-Trudeaunians) waiting in the wings?

*UCaPP = Ubiquitously Connected and Pervasively Proximate
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