We seemed to first learn about this framework for understanding media when talking about the Kennedy/Nixon debates of 1960. It was said that Nixon won the debate on the radio, and that Kennedy won on television. Television, it was said, was a “cool medium,” while radio was a “hot medium.” Nixon was called ‘too hot’ for the cool medium of television. The words “hot” and “cool” were, and are, overdetermined. It’s very difficult to keep them focused to look through the lens that McLuhan provided.
Because television was (is) so new and we were struggling to comprehend its impacts on society, the idea of a cool medium stuck to television. However, all media have temperature characteristics, and as we look at text, hypertext, document-based web pages, and the real time web of FriendFeed, FaceBook, Microsoft Mesh and Google Wave — we might keep a thermometer handy. In order to better understand what McLuhan was getting at, let’s look at some fragments from his book, published in 1964, Understanding Media:
A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in ‘high definition.’ High definition is the state of being well-filled with data.
The telephone is a cool medium, or one of low definition, because the ear is given a meager amount of information. And speech is a cool medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has to be filled in or completed by the listener.
On the other hand, hot media, are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience.
The hotting up of the medium of writing to repeatable print intensity led to nationalism and the religious wars of the sixteenth century.
The waltz was a hot, fast mechanical dance suited to the industrial time in its moods of pomp and circumstance. In contrast, the Twist is a cool, involved and chatty form of improvised gesture.
Newspapers have employed the medium of typography, ink and paper to translate and relay stories back to the culture. The hot textual medium of the newspaper is dumbfounded by the cool medium of hypertext on the Web. The typical complaints are trotted out, this cool new medium doesn’t have the high definition professionalism/specialization of the incumbent hot medium. Attempts are made to colonize it by heating it up and filtering out the high-definition bits. But the reverse is happening, the cool medium is engulfing the hot medium.
Public relations has traditionally been a hot medium deploying high definition communications to influence the direction of public opinion. As social networks have emerged as the most visible sites for the citation of public opinion, the corporate communications industry has been serving up recipes for the best method of heating up ‘communities.’ We might ask, once a community has been fully cooked, will it have any flavor left?
The economics of high and low definition media are very different. When the anchors on CNN read tweets on air for an hour, their advertisers are being cheated. They’re paying for high-definition hot media, and they’re getting a relayed and filtered low-definition signal instead.
The blending of Hot and Cool media is a new media type. The result shouldn’t be luke warm– the hot needs to stay hot; and the cool must stay cool. As McLuhan reminds us, the content of the new media is the old media. Our fingers are twitching nervously over the remote control as we endlessly change the channel searching for the new container…