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.

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