An anecdote of hot and cold

When I returned home after today’s TALL Tuesday session, I discovered that the laptop that I had packed into my overstuffed backpack was burning hot. I had forgotten to shut down, and the battery was about gone, and the machine was very hot to the touch. I actually was afraid for a moment that it had contracted the mechanical equivalent of a serious fever and would require “medical attention” from our Upper School computer “doctor,” Mr. Bekman. Meanwhile, my iPad was coolly unaffected.

So, in my typically impractical way, I began to think about Marshall McLuhan’s distinction between hot and cold media and whether, in some way, that distinction might be analogous to the difference I was beginning to experience between the world of the laptop and the world of the iPad. Wikipedia offers this convenient summary of McLuhan’s distinction:

Hot media usually, but not always, provide complete involvement without considerable stimulus. For example, print occupies visual space, uses visual senses, but can immerse its reader. Hot media favour analytical precision, quantitative analysis and sequential ordering, as they are usually sequential, linear and logical. They emphasize one sense (for example, of sight or sound) over the others. For this reason, hot media also include radio, as well as film, the lecture and photography.
Cool media, on the other hand, are usually, but not always, those that provide little involvement with substantial stimulus. They require more active participation on the part of the user, including the perception of abstract patterning and simultaneous comprehension of all parts. Therefore, according to McLuhan cool media include television, as well as the seminar and cartoons. McLuhan describes the term “cool media” as emerging from jazz and popular music and, in this context, is used to mean “detached.”

The laptop, at least as I and my students have been using it in our English classes, seems more allied with the world of “hot” media (given the ease with which it allows for the hierarchical organization of information) than the iPad, which seems more allied with the world of “cool” media. In particular, I thought of our exercise with the events of the year. The iPad seemed wonderfully adept at creating a highly pixilated, stimulating parade of events, and how easy it is to rearrange the march and create an entirely different parade even from the very same marching events. How different that it is from a print newspaper’s fixed account of the year. But, of course, a print newspaper’s visually fixed account–its rigid, editorially arranged layout–is visual code for the hierarchical significance of events. what the hot medium of a print newspaper offers is understanding; the cool medium of Internet collage offers is stimulating freedom–one participates in the creation of a parade of events. That may be a good thing in certain respects, but unless one knows a lot about the news, it may not lead to much understanding.

One ought to give a lot of thought to making such a cool device featuring all the virtues of cool media the center of a student’s educational world. Does stimulation always promote understanding, or are there trade-offs, and if so, at what points? All I can say is that as a newbie in this world of cool media, I lack understanding and fall back on words, and in this post, there are already far too many of them.

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