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This is your mind on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Hot, Cold Media and MobiTV

Television on mobile phones is just starting to happen. It begs the question, what would Macluhan have thought? In Understanding Media he discusses cool and hot media. But in McLuhan’s world of 1964, media were tied to machines. How then could a cell phone (the cool medium of the telephone) that runs TV (a hot medium) be described? My answer: it can’t. The dawn of electric media actually points to the death of the machine in its literal form. What Marshall McLuhan was describing when he he first talked about hot and cool media was the amount of participation of the mind involved. Some media (i.e. telephony) require the person observing (listening) to “fill in the blanks”. Hot media are high definition—the blanks are mostly filled in. In his own words:

Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience. Naturally, therefore, a hot medium like radio has very different effects on the user from a cool medium like the telephone.

I personally, would replace the word “participation” with “cognition”.1 One of McLuhans’ other points was that media are often contained within media. Speech is a medium that is contained in print. Speech is also extended by the telephone. But he says that whereas typographic print is a hot medium, the telephone is not. So what does that entail for video on the mobile phone? Is a cell phone a hot or cool medium? The answer is, it isn’t

Just as McLuhan was trying to get world to recogize that the effects of media were not within its “content”, McLuhan missed a critical factor in media as well. Even though he often posited that media were extensions of man’s senses he still framed his discussion of media around the machines that made them. But the reason I bring up the mobile phone is to show just that — the machines don’t matter any more, the media has escaped them. The cell phone is a cool medium when used as a phone, and hot medium when used as a TV. The computer is similar, as is the video game console. They are multimedia machines and the last of their kind.

As I have argued before:

For example, audio-video is an extension of your vision and hearing. Audio is merely an extension of your hearing. The television, quicktime, windows media players, iPods and computer monitors are all mechanisms for the delivery and manipulation of media. This is why I think that referring to the internet or the computer as a medium is a [mistaken categorization]. The truth is, you can’t sense anything about the Internet. It’s really just a delivery mechanism for information that becomes media once it is formatted in a way in which you can perceive it. The web is a medium and in fact can be referred to as multimedia because of it use of various media such as text, video, and sound.

Discussing media without discussing the restrictive nature of the machines that create them illuminates two intereting points. One is that McLuhan was more right than he knew. The medium is the message, but the medium is not the machine. The media are freeing themselves from a physical construct and we will soon see a day when media are ubiquitous and the machine is nowhere to be found.


  1. We’ve already seen where being cognizant of a cool medium, makes you worse at doing other stuff

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