Understanding Marshall McLuhan

Like most founders of academic fields, Marshall McLuhan built dubious theories on top of incontestable foundational claims. He noticed that there are deep causal relationships between humans and technology, a startling number of which go unnoticed. It is therefore worthwhile, insofar as people want to understand their place in a new technological world, to excavate and examine the causal relationships. 

Surely McLuhan is right about that. Everyone has been thrust into a global experiment. Social media, smart phones, and search engines have profoundly restructured life. A moment of reflection reveals that no one grasps the full scope of the changes. The people dedicated to thinking about the changes are following in the tradition of McLuhan, whether they like it or not. 

I want to inspect the philosophical content of two of McLuhan’s better known claims. They are found in chapters one and two of his influential book, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man. First, he thinks “the medium is the message.” The assertion has become cliche, but few know what he really meant by it. Second, McLuhan draws a puzzling distinction between “hot” and “cold” media. It is the idea that prompted McLuhan’s cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Many scratch their heads at the hot/cold categorization but the terms are still used on occasion. 

McLuhan’s talent as a philosopher has been thoroughly questioned. But it repays to develop some philosophy around a charitable reading of his declarations. 

The Medium is the Message 

When McLuhan was asked about his “the medium is the message” phrase, he would say that it is not important what a person says on the phone; what is important is that they are using a phone. Today he might say the fact that I am on the internet is more important than the specific website I am visiting. What exactly I post on Facebook is less important than the fact that I’m on Facebook. Although McLuhan said this with self-assurance and confidence, how the examples illustrate and justify his slogan is not obvious. 

In Understanding Media the first mention of the phrase has a qualification: “In operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.” He is interested in the effects that come along with the use of media in the world. Each new technology changes the environment into something new. The changes, in his view, are the message of the technology itself, separate from its content. He says, “The message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” He wants to ensure that the content of the technologies does not distract from the tectonic shifts that the technologies bring about. 

At bottom, the phrase plays on the intuitive distinction between medium and message, platform and content. The mere use of a platform has effects, regardless of the content on the platform. Many tech companies, especially in the social media sphere, are invested in a sharp, morally and causally meaningful version of the distinction. There is still talk that Facebook, for example, is a neutral platform, no more than a tool, that can be used for good or bad. The choice is wholly on the user. McLuhan’s prescience is evident here: “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” 

It is more important than ever not to be a technological idiot. But what exactly is McLuhan claiming? Is he denying the distinction between platform and content? When he says “the medium is the message” does he mean “the medium = the message”? Are the two one and the same? 

Ultimately he is making a political claim. He says he is interested in “the psychic and social consequences” of media. A medium, regardless of its content, exerts power in the world. It becomes a force around which people move. It requires people to adapt themselves to it. It restructures communities. For McLuhan, these changes are other dimensions of the medium’s content. The ‘message’ in “the medium is the message” is the set of political facts.  

McLuhan is acknowledging the difference between medium and message. He does not collapse the distinction. The key idea is that with any medium there are two distinct messages. He is introducing a further distinction. 

First, there is the overt message. McLuhan will often use the word ‘content’ in this way. The overt message is what a person says on the phone, the particular website they visit on the internet, the hashtags they tweet. It is the opinion being expressed in the book, the story being depicted on the screen. It is the surface level interaction with a platform. 

Second, there is a covert message. McLuhan’s overarching concern is to alert us to the existence of this message. Embedded in how the medium contains the overt content is an array of social and political consequences. The technology shifts how people interact, learn, and view the world. 

For instance, social media restructures community. It is undeniable that Facebook, the corporation all about ‘community’, does not perfectly represent offline social life. It strips out some of the nuance but introduces new types of complexity. The corporation chooses which details of someone’s life get displayed. They construct their personas with dropdown menus, face content restrictions, and interact with unseen algorithms. Facebook chooses to arrange the data how it wants. New norms govern how people conduct their online social lives. 

McLuhan would think Facebook, and any other technology company, is making political judgments about what matters. It is broadcasting its values to the world and people are accepting them. But the overt content of the media distracts from the covert political acceptance. Communities have been restructured. 

The overt/covert distinction illuminates the “medium is the message” phrase. McLuhan means that a political message is always inherent in a medium. The overt content can be anything but the overarching political content will remain the same. In the chapter McLuhan provides the cryptic claim, “The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message.” He means that the light by itself has no overt message. All that remains is the impact of the electric light on the environment—how it is restructuring social and political life. Now there are nighttime baseball games. 

McLuhan goes a step further. He thinks use of the phone is more important than what a person says on it. He is not only drawing the distinction between the overt and covert messages. He is making a claim about their relative importance. In his view, the covert political content has a larger effect on society. 

This is a distinct claim, and it is possible to grant the overt/covert distinction without granting the further claim about importance. Evaluating the latter claim would not be a straightforward task. Nevertheless, “the medium is the message” phrase involves an intriguing and fruitful conceptual distinction.  

Hot and Cold Media 

In chapter two McLuhan informs the reader that there is a distinction between hot and cold media. Hot media is high definition, filled with data and information. Cold media is low definition, lacking data and information. Because hot media is filled with data, it requires little participation from the consumer. More participation is required in cold media. W. Terrence Gordon gives a useful summary:

A high-definition medium gives a lot of information and gives the user little to do; a low-definition medium gives little information and makes the user work to fill in what is missing. This is the basis of the contrast between hot and cool media: high definition is hot; low definition is cool.

When McLuhan starts applying the abstract concepts to concrete examples, the distinction becomes less comprehensible, not more. He thinks movies are hot and TV is cold. He also thinks steel axes, open mesh stockings, and women in glasses are hot. While stone axes, nylon stockings, and women in sunglasses are cold. FDR was hot. Calvin Coolidge was cold. Cold war and cool jazz are cold. (Thank god too! It would be embarrassing for his theory if they weren’t.) 

There is a difference between the distinction itself and how McLuhan applies it. I think, along with many others, that attempting to understand the distinction by looking for a family resemblance among the specific cases is bound to be unsuccessful. Instead, unlike many others, I want to consider how McLuhan constructs the distinction in the first place. 

Hot and cold suggest a spectrum, but McLuhan doesn’t seem to talk that way. Surely there can be lukewarm media. Some hot media are hotter than other hot media. Nevertheless, the concept of gradation is critical to McLuhan’s idea, even if he treats the hot/cold distinction as binary. 

On my reading, the hot/cold distinction relies on two different distinctions. The first is internal to the media: high/low definition or amount of information. The second is external: the implied level of participation from the consumer of the media. On the one hand, there is the amount of detail in the media and, on the other, the amount of details the consumer contributes. 

For McLuhan, the distinctions stand in inverse correlation. Low definition requires high participation, and vice versa. It is this correlation that actually draws the hot/cold distinction. He is interested in the interaction between the media and the consumer. 

McLuhan does not spell any of this out. If he did, it may be easier to see how he deals with a glaring problem: the hot/cold distinction, so constructed, appears at odds with the “medium is the message” thesis

When McLuhan talks about hot and cold media, he ascribes the label to the media, not the content. But he seems to mean the character of the content, not the media itself. When he says the telephone is a cold medium, the idea is that the audio in a phone call is low definition (although he is not fully consistent here). Saying TV is a hot media means the moving images are high definition on the screen, thus leaving little for the viewer to contribute. 

However, it is important to remember that the medium itself has content. That was the point of chapter one. In the hot and cold chapter he appears to ignore the point and jump right to the consumer’s contributions. The content of a media might be low definition, but more content is transmitted through the medium itself. This is the covert political message inherent to the technology. 

There is no reason McLuhan cannot incorporate these points. He has two options. The first and less plausible reading is that the internal distinction between high and low definition would involve only the overt message. Since the covert message does not appear to lend itself to the spectrum of high and low definition, it would seemingly be external to the content. Somehow the external distinction would include both the amount of participation from the consumer and covert message. But that does not make much sense. There doesn’t seem to be a place in the hot/cold distinction for the covert message. 

Second, the internal distinction between high and low definition would involve both the overt and covert messages. They would, in a sense, be added together to yield the overall information contained in the use of a medium. When the internal definition is high, that is hot media and the consumer participates less. When the internal definition is low, that is cold media and the consumer participates more. On the surface, this makes more sense, but there are questions about how the covert message can be graded on a scale of high or low definition. 

It is possible that McLuhan simply set aside the insight behind “the medium is the message” when he sorted absolutely everything into his hot and cold categories. But that would be a shame, since ignoring the importance of the covert message is precisely the error he is warning against in chapter one. 

Conclusion 

The hot/cold distinction, despite floating around the edges of public discourse, tends not to be taken seriously as a piece of analysis. Whether the abandonment has been based on good reasons is a separate issue. If forced to save either the overt/covert message or the hot/cold media distinction, the choice should be easy. I hope to have shown that, by understanding how the ideas work in detail, we may be forced to make the choice.

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