Reappraising Marshall McLuhan’s Distinction Between Hot & Cool Media by Corey Anton

Hot and Cool Media

Some Examples of Hot and Cool Media

This presentation by Dr. Corey Anton took place at the recent 16th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association (MEA), hosted by Metropolitan State University of Denver on Saturday, June 13, 2015. It is based on a paper accepted for publication in the forthcoming issue of Explorations in Media Ecology (EME), Vol 13,  Numbers 3-4, the journal of the MEA. See . Corey Anton takes issue with the critics of McLuhan who entirely dismiss Marshall McLuhan’s polarity of hot versus cool media. The first two paragraphs of Corey’s provide an introduction to his presentation below. I recommend this as one of the most cogent explanations of McLuhan’s hot/cool polarity that I have come across……..Alex

Corey Anton Dr. Corey Anton

Of all the distinctions that Marshall McLuhan advances, “hot and cool” is perhaps the most controversial, least coherent, and most confusing. Regarding this pair of terms, some scholars have suggested that McLuhan contradicts himself. Others have claimed that McLuhan rightfully abandoned them, while others still simply try to teach around or ignore that chapter of Understanding Media (2003). Many find the ideas not worth the effort. At a minimum, pretty much everyone agrees that the distinction, even if playful in some regards, remains problematic. Its ambiguity easily leads to confusion.

For my own part, I wish to defend the distinction and argue for the value of  the terms despite their convoluted, confusing, contestable and maybe even contradictory claims. I personally do not care if McLuhan abandoned them. If, in articulating what I take to be the general thrust of McLuhan’s argument, I stand accused of committing acts of hermeneutical violence, my only defense will come by way of demonstrating the  value of this reconsideration and re-appraisal.

Corey provided the following notes to accompany his presentation in a handout:

Key Point #1: McLuhan mostly employs the hot/cool distinction comparatively, for example, suggesting that radio is hotter than a telephone call, or that comics are cooler than photographs, or that alphabetic text is hotter than hieroglyphs. This means that the expressions “hotter than” or “cooler than” are much more in spirit with McLuhan’s distinction than a simple statement of “hot’ or “cool.” Furthermore, the expressions “heat up” and “cool down” are more useful and directive, as they stress how any environment or medium is experienced as “hot” or “cool” depending upon prior media exposure, and they also suggest how “temperature changes” occur.

Example #1: (Comparative Terms): Radio, McLuhan argues, does not affect literates as it does oral peoples because literate peoples have been exposed to even hotter media forms and can thus take radio as mere entertainment. But television, in contrast to the print word, weakens immunity to radio.  Hence, although McLuhan generally equates hot media with specialist, mechanical technologies that detribalize, he also claims that radio, which leads to a re-tribalizing frenzy, is a hot medium. Radio thus remains cooler than text: we cannot have live-time interruptions within a book. Radio also includes a wide range of sounds that cannot be placed meaningfully on the written page. Whereas radio re-tribalizes by creating a shared public echo chamber of cultural values and memories, the book individuates and relies upon a single person’s point of view.

Key Point #2: Any media form or environment can be heated up by: decreasing the number of senses involved, increasing the definition of its content, and completing its overall package for a single individual.  Inversely, any media form or environment can be cooled down by: increasing the number of senses, reducing the definition of its content and opening processes to increased, live-time multiple person participations.

Example #2: (Heating Up and Cooling Down, old media): Television, commonly cast as cool, can be made even cooler with the addition of a remote control, but we heat it up just a little as soon as we increase the definition or detach it from live-time information. We can heat it up even more by creating a home theatre, installing row seating, always dimming the lights, allowing no one to talk, accessing only movies, and playing the movie from beginning to end without break. Service providers such as Netflix or Hulu also heat up television shows in this regard. They discharge shows from their cultural rhythms and condense many (or all) episodes into an already completed package that can be watched, in entirety, in a determinable span.

Example #3: (Heating Up and Cooling Down, new media): The telephone is cooler than radio, just as skype, sometimes a multisensory group affair on both ends, is cooler than a private telephone call. Cell phones now accompany people anywhere they go, and because they allow for texting, web access, GPS, social networking applications, and countless other “smart apps,” including Skype or iChat, they have become quite a cool telephone indeed. This also implies that de-tethering a computer from its Internet access returns it to its hotter, earlier, more specialized stage. On the other hand, once Internet access is reestablished, the computer cools back down and becomes more versatile and open to live-time social participations. Still, many computer applications open to a single-sense, operate in high-definition, and are rather isolating and individuating, meaning, “fairly hot.”

About Dr. Corey Anton:

Finally, here is Marshall McLuhan explaining to an interviewer in 1965 what he means by hot versus cool as applied to media:


3 Responses to “Reappraising Marshall McLuhan’s Distinction Between Hot & Cool Media by Corey Anton”

  1. My canvasses are surrealist, and to call them theories is to miss my
    satirical intent altogether. (Marshall McLuhan to William Kuhns, 1971
    [Molinaro et al., 1987: 448])

    • Sure Michael, but as I wrote in an article about McLuhan’s writings about education:
      McLuhan certainly was an educationist, but he disavowed being called a theorist of any kind; Eric McLuhan writes that his father’s attitude regarding theory was that when you: “Begin with theory, you begin with the answer; begin with observation, you begin with questions” (McLuhan, E., 2008, p. 26). But although he didn’t start by looking at theories formulated by others in his probes, the published results of his own educational investigations can arguably be considered as theory, especially when he repeated recurrent themes learned from his probes over and over again. Griffin (2009) provides the following intentionally broad definition of communication theory: “… it is “an umbrella term for all careful, systematic, and self-conscious discussion and analysis of communication phenomena” (p. 2). Substitute the word “education” for “communication” and it seems clear that McLuhan was formulating educational theory consistent with this definition, although it is debatable how “systematic” his analyses were.

      • I was noting the interplay between theory and satire in McLuhan’s project.
        I think the hot/cool phase is particularly apt for that interplay. And also just a few months back I put up Nesselroth’s talk which used McLuhan’s hot cool.
        Cory isn’t the lone voice in recognizing the hot cool of McLuhan’s theory/satire.

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