Media Hot & Cold Revisited

Frozen Television

The following is my reaction to Eduardo Navas’ excellent article posted on Remix Theory, about how McLuhan’s ideas about “Hot & Cold” media apply to a contemporary media landscape that is vastly different from the milieux in which McLuhan was writing in the 60’s.     I originally posted this on the Social Media Mashup blog.

After Media (Hot & Cold) begins with Navas’ discussion of Marshal McLuhan’s 1964 theory of “Hot and Cold” media, published in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.  McLuhan defines “hot”  media as those which are  loaded with information and streams one-way towards a passive receiver.  Cold media is “dumber” and requires more participation on the part of the user.  The first sentence I have scribbled in the margins of my printout of Navas’ post is:  “Hot/Cold are irrelevant.  Why are we even still talking about this?  We need a new metaphor, new philosophers.”    I wrote this because it seemed like media was a lot simpler when McLuhan was writing, and could be boiled down to an understandable dichotomy, whereas today media has gotten far too complex for binaries.    As it turns out, I scribbled a bit too soo, as this is partly what Navas’ essay turned out to be about.

One of Navas’ main theses in this article is that media is being “cooled” by the devices on which they are delivered, but makes the point (often) that this is not just driven by technology, but he implies that corporate greed is also at work, in that “the cooling of hot and cold media is used to push people to consume increasingly.”  Later in the article, he says [the cooling has] “taken place out of economic interests from media developers who need to find ways to stay productive.”  I won’t say there isn’t some truth to what he’s saying, after all profit is in fact the raison d’etre of pretty much all corporations. However, having worked in digital media for television for the past 12 years, I can say with some confidence that it’s less about some corporate conspiracy to “drive for profits” but largely that media is just following technology.  And why shouldn’t it?  What’s wrong with staying productive?  This is what businesses need to do to survive.   Also, with this cooling of media, users expect to have more control over the media they consume, and it’s imperative that content creators are able to live up to that expectation and deliver a positive experience in that regard, which means making the content available on as many platforms as possible and as often as possible.  It only makes good business sense to do so.

Another of Navas’ arguments is that all media is cooled by the kinds of devices they are now delivered on – i.e. iPhones, DVRs, etc. He says, in a nutshell, that film and TV are now treated exactly the same, as they can both be consumed on the same device.  However, he says that this doesn’t make the experience for the user (watching a film, say) much different for the viewer, only that the method of delivery has “cooled” by making it more distant from the original way it was consumed.  To me, this begs a question that I think is VERY relevant today, and that is: How do we define media in 2009?  Do we define it as content or delivery? Because it seems like the two are getting further and further apart.   In the 60’s, when McLuhan first penned his hot/cold theory, content and delivery were all part of the same experience.  TV shows and the TV itself were both considered parts of the experience of “Television,” Films were shown in cinemas, and it was impossible to consider the content out-of-context.  Today, content and distribution are two completely different things, and increases our distance from the original theory (does this make the theory ‘cooler’?).  I think we have to define it as both, and this makes hot/cold theory infinitely more complex.

About midway through the article, Navas says “The telephone, which McLuhan defined as cold media, is becoming a bit hotter.“   He gives examples of Skype, and the cell phone packed with different kinds of media.  I would argue however, that this is an issue of nomenclature.  Neither Skype nor the iPhone are “the telephone,” they are communication and media devices – it just so happens that they evolved from the telephone and kept it’s name, but there is very little resemblance between these new technologies and the “telephone” that McLuhan was writing about.   A few paragraphs later, it almost seems like Navas suddenly realized this when he said “What is puzzling about this development is why call any machine a specific name if it is designed to do more than one thing?“  Exactly.

Discussing the heating of the contemporary media landscape (as opposed to the cooling of the actual media via their delivery networks)  Navas states, correctly I think, that people increasingly “rely on mechanical mediation to cope with the changes of the world.”  However, I think he veers into the hyperbolic when he says things like “people are relying less on their physical relation to their surroundings” because of things like GPS.  I would argue that these types of devices are actually enhancing our relationship to our surroundings, making it easier to explore territory we might not have explored a decade ago.  Take, for example, the Yelp application for the iPhone – a GPS-based tool that can be used to find restaruants and services in your area, and give you real user reviews on all of them.  I have used this app numerous times, and it has guided me to places and experiences that I probably wouldn’t have known about otherwise.  He also sites iTunes as the “best example of convergence,” (although I would take issue with this as well – Amazon and are, I would argue, two better examples of convergent technology that make the process of discovery easier for the user – I find iTunes UI unweildy) and states that “it has been cooled, both out of necessity for people to deal with the content it delivers, as well as the sake of making a profit.”  Again with the profit.  Surely that’s a motive, but I would argue that the desire is to make a profit by delivering the best possible experience for the user.

Finally, in his conclusion, Navas seems a bit critical of convergent media in that “the media does not [sic] encourage consumers to think critically about issues, but simply to express what they think.”  First, is it media’s job to encourage people to think critically, or is that the function of education?  And b) when has media ever done this?  Was Television encouraging critical thought in McLuhan’s day?  Navas writes as though we’ve lost something that I don’t think we ever had to begin with.  Interesting that he is critical of blogs in that they only encourage people to express opinions and “simply reinforce what they believe.” And he says this in….. a blog post.  I would argue that the fact that this, my (super long) blog post reacting to his (even longer) blog post is a refutation of that statement as an absolute.

Returning to my first point about hot/cold being irrelevant today, Navas makes the important poing that “McLuhan’s theory of hot and cold might become a historical reference much like the typewriters are historical predecessors to the computer.  How people think of media will no longer depend on binaries, but rather on nuances according to the accessability and desires for entertainment and necessity to stay informed.”   This is exactly what I scribbled at the beginning, but to it I will add (or reiterate rather) my point that we need new metaphors and new philosophers to create those metaphors.  The problem is that technology is racing ahead so quickly, that as soon as a theory is put forward, it is made obsolete or irrelevant quickly.  It’s a futile chase, kind of like the Achilles/tortoise paradox.  Navas acknowleges this at the very end of the article when he says “The reason why it is so difficult to evaluate changes critically is because culture and media constantly shift at an ever-increasing rate“.  In the meantime, I guess we’ll have to try and make the best of McLuhan.

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