Taking the Internet's Temperature

What Would Marshall McLuhan Have Said: Hot or Cold?

May 3, 1995

By Scott Rosenberg

"All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage."
-- Marshall McLuhan
In the age of talk radio and the Internet, a McLuhan revival was inevitable, and now it seems to be arriving. Some signs: The media philosopher's name appears as "Patron Saint" on Wired magazine's masthead, and an experimental theater piece titled "The Medium" is currently exploring his ideas at Theater Artaud.

As we navigate through the digital telecommunications revolution, we can use all the help we can get. Yet McLuhan is at once the most provocative and the most elusive of guides. No one has thought more widely and, in his best work, more deeply on the profound ways media "work us over." And no one's ideas are quite as slippery, as chameleonic and as self-contradictory -- a situation we can assume was both conscious and intentional on his part. He can be heard shrugging in "The Medium," "You don't like those ideas? I got others."

Consider McLuhan's famous yet widely misunderstood distinction between "hot media" and "cold media." Here is what he wrote in "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man" (1964):

"There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in "high definition.' High definition is the state of being well-filled with data. . . . Hot media are low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience. . . . The hot form excludes, and the cool one includes."

McLuhan associated "hot media" with specialized knowledge, industrial economies and individualistic societies, and "cool media" with oral traditions, agrarian cultures and tribal societies. Which is precisely how he arrived at the ironic idea that TV, though ostensibly an advanced technology, was also giving birth to a global village. He didn't mean that it was bringing us all closer together; he meant it was changing our urban, industrial Western society into a culture that reproduces the tribal characteristics of a village on a global scale.

Where would the Internet fall on McLuhan's temperature meter? It remains almost exclusively a medium that transmits and reproduces vast quantities of text at high speeds. McLuhan interpreted the evolution of writing from ideograms and stone tablets to alphabetic characters and print reproduction as a "hotting up" "to repeatable print intensity." By that standard, the Net is boiling.

On the other hand, its functional characteristics match those McLuhan identified as cool. There's no question that the Internet is among the most participatory media ever invented, like the cool telephone. And its cultural patterns -- with its oral-tradition-style transmission of myth and its collective anarchy -- match those of McLuhan's tribal global village.

Somehow the Net is both hot and cold at once. Maybe that's just a function of how broad and easily manipulated McLuhan's categories are. But maybe there's a valuable insight here into why it is that certain media -- like the Internet and talk radio -- have been able to vault to prominence so quickly and powerfully.

Talk radio shares the Internet's hot-and-coldness. McLuhan described radio as hot, since it focuses on the single sense of hearing and fills up that sensory channel. But talk radio adds the cool element of listener participation; it lets us feel the hot power of the medium's single-sense intensity and yet also partake of the casual, tribal inclusiveness of a cooler medium.

There's probably a bright commercial future for all media that similarly combine searingly "high-definition" sensory input with a nonchalantly participatory approach. People love them.

McLuhan said that all media are tranquilizers, but these hot-and-cold media have an especially potent numbing effect: They seduce us into lengthy engagement, offer us a feeling of empowerment and then glut our senses till we become indifferent.

When you mix water from the hot and cold faucets in your sink, your hands may first feel the extremes of the separate streams. After a while, though, all the water just feels lukewarm.

McLuhan would, I think, have found the Internet thoroughly fascinating but ultimately -- like any electronic medium -- too powerful, too addictive and too pervasive for comfort. He might have had to revise his spectrum a bit to accommodate it, too.

Hot media, cold media -- and now lukewarm media. First they fill up one of your senses to the brim; then they invite you to dive in. First they run hot and cold; then you don't feel them at all.

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