A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

Hot or Cool?

Marshall McLuhan (May 1960, age 49).  Perhaps I should have stuck with High Definition or Low Definition

TV like the telephone is low definition and therefore a cool medium.  Very different from press, movie and radio, which are hot, high definition media providing a great deal of information.  Most people don’t get this.  They think TV is visual.  It’s not, Radio is visual.  TV’s acoustic, tactile and very involving because your senses must work hard to make sense of the meager data at hand.  TV doesn’t work the same way as visual media.  It’s an inward-looking medium.   When you watch it you are driven inward because you are the screen.

Me (January 2010, age 57). Perhaps

It is remarkable how confusing most people find McLuhan’s idea that TV is cool.  A director of programming for a TV network, whose major at university was communications, once said to me in conversation, “Are you sure McLuhan said TV is a cool medium?”  And when I assured her he said it was, remained doubtful.  It’s not surprising.  Cool today means “interesting” hot means “sexy.”  As in “she’s hot.”  You’re going snowboarding? “Cool.”  McLuhan took “hot and cool” from the world of jazz, where ”hot” jazz is a big rich sound with a lot of brass, and “cool” jazz is a smaller, ivory-tapping, more impromptu sound.  Most people don’t associate hot and cool with the jazz world of the 1940s and 1950s.  They use them the way California Valley-girls do.  And so if you turn to a recent book on McLuhan co-authored by Terrence Gordon, Everyman’s McLuhan, you will find a list of hot and cool media, in which TV is listed as a hot medium and the movie as cool.  This Gordon assures me is an error of the printer.  He does not believe TV is a hot medium nor does he think that it has changed from cool to hot over time as TV technology has changed from the wood cabinet rabbit-eared box of the 1950s to the HD digital flat-screen of today.  What is interesting about this error is that it is an error that is easily made.  The terms hot and cool confused McLuhan’s readers in the 1960s.  And they continue to confuse readers, and printers, today. (More on hot and cool tomorrow.)

What about other media?  Is PowerPoint hot or cool? Is Facebook hot or cool? What about LinkedIn?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

W. Terrence Gordon, Eri Hamaji & Jacob Albert, Everyman’s McLuhan, New York: Mark Batty, 2007

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 270.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, January 9th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Technology, Vol. 1 No Comments

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