Metaphors Hot and Cool


I’m about 2/5 of the way into Create Your Own Economy, the new book by Tyler Cowen. It’s an odd book in many ways (it opens with a 40 page argument for why the autistic brain is poised to thrive in the new economy) so I’ll hold off on a proper review till I’m done. But I’m a huge fan of Cowen; I think he’s one of the best bloggers in world, and his early book In Praise of Commerical Culture was one of the bigger influences on RS.

Part of Cowen’s schtick (or is it his brand?) is that he is gives the impression of having read just about everything worth reading, and of understanding what the author is trying to do better than the author does. He’s what a friend of mine in medicine calls “unpimpable” — apparently “pimping” is a med school term for the practice of trying to stump residents with hard cases.

Anyway, all of which is a reason why I was a bit surprised by this passage in the book, from the opening to Chapter 4:

McLuhan and his followers were fond of pointing out that television was a “hot” medium because of its personality and immediacy, while print was a “cool” medium because of its objectivity and distance. What’s happened is that print — in the broad sense of the term — has become a hot medium too. Today… you can create more content and make your messages more personal, emotionly richer, and more evocative in subtle ways.

What’s wrong with this?

It’s exactly backwards. For McLuhan, print was hot, tv was cool. And the difference has nothing to do with the immediacy or objectivity of the medium, but with the density of information and quality of the signal. Print and radio were hot because they require little “completion” by the listener or reader, the signal is “all there”. TV was cool because the poor visual quality and signal required much more active completion of the message by the viewer.

And so what has happened, I would say, is the precise opposite of what Cowen is arguing. Print, at least in the context that Cowen is discussing it — i.e. IM and text messaging — has become a much cooler medium, far more participatory. A txting conversation requires a lot more “completion” of the signal by each participant. In contrast, the emergence of flatscreen and HD televsion means the signal is a lot richer and more dense; the formerly cool medium of televsion has become hot.

There’s actually nothing wrong with Cowen’s argument — the stuff he says about the role of these new forms of communication is very interesting, especially his point that the existence of txtng and email makes a phone call a far more fraught experience. But nothing is added by the invocation of McLuhan’s distinction between hot and cool media, a distinction that, in my experience, has never served as a useful addition to any media critic’s toolbox.

Filed under:

Metaphors Hot and Cool

  1. Create Your Own Economy.
    Andrew, you must be thinking of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books.

    • Duh – thanks. Blogging before coffee.

  2. Theres a good book by David Staines which attempts to pull apart Mcluhans evolution as a public intellectual and media commentator. Without the aide of analysis, I usually cannot decipher what Mcluhan is trying to communicate. He invented his own terminology in each of his major essays and books, making his works very inaccessible to anyone wanting to just pick them up and read them.

    The result is a tremendous amount of confusion about what exactly Mcluhan was ever saying. I would even go so far to suggest that his books are like that of Stephen Hawking, everyone likes to have them on their bookshelf, but few have actually ever read them cover to cover.

    • I agree. Apart from "the medium is the message" and a few other pithy lines, I have a hard time getting anything useful out of McLuhan. In particular, I think the Hot/Cool medium distinction has sown a lot of confusion while adding nothing helpful to our understanding of what distinguishes one medium from another.

      • He occupied the awkward space of straddling the life of a university professor and a public commentator. His students/collegues would presumably be accustomed to his ever changing lexicon, while the rest of the population was left privately confused as to what the hell he was ever talking about.

        • Did you see Lapham's essay/introduction to a version of UM that came out in the mid-90s? I recall it being pretty useful at the time… though it's been a while, and my own opinion of Lapham has soured in the interim.

  3. "Create your own Economy." Is that anything like William K. Black's "The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One?"

    If not, it should be.

  4. I could be wrong about this, but I have heard that McLuhan himself was known to confuse what he had said about Hot/Cool Mediums. I have taken courses devoted to McLuhan where the instructor's have messed it up.

    I tend to agree that references to cool mediums vs hot tend to create more confusion and it's probably just best to avoid the terms.

    • Well, Mcluhan is pretty consistent in his claim that print is hot, television is cool, and that's what Tyler Cowen got wrong. There's another mistake in the same section in Cowen's book — he names Harold Innis as one of McLuhan's followers.

      It's not a huge deal, except that the invocation of McLuhan, Innis, and Hot/Cold media adds simply nothing to the argument.