“Television: chewing gum for the eyes.” ~Frank Lloyd Wright

February 25th, 2008

A lot of people have already posted on McLuhan and television, so I’m not sure what else of substance I’ve got to add, but I did look him up on the internet and found this passage that I found particularly interesting:

In Understanding Media, McLuhan proposes a more controvesial frame for judging media: “hot” and “cool.” These categorizations are puzzling and contemporary technology renders them practically obsolete. In simplest terms, “hot” is exclusive and “cool” is inclusive. Hot media are highly defined; there is little information to be filled in by the user. Radio is a hot medium; it requires minimal participation. Cool media, by contrast, are low definition and thus highly participatory because the user must “fill in the blanks.” Television is the ultimate “cool” medium because it is highly participatory. This categorization is extremely problematic to those who consider television viewing a passive activity.

I think this is an interesting classification system, and I wonder if it’s really true. Is television more participatory than radio? I, of course, immediately want to say no, because so much of radio is (with the exception of satellite/XM stations, I guess) a very local media. Most stations only broadcast to a specific area, as well as holding trivia contests and other call-in features. Many stations play requests and even let people “design a playlist.” In this way, radio is either directly a participatory media or is pretending to be one, the way that Google and other giant websites pretend to be personal and friendly. (Is this why DJs have to use their “radio voices”–aka, talk like they’re constantly smiling?)

Other people have posted about television and its potential as a more harmful than helpful media. It could be more helpful, perhaps, if there were “quality control” that only let beneficial programming through, but how would one define “beneficial?” Would it help if television were more participatory? Would that increase television’s beneficialness? Stop taking away from human interaction? How much does television truly take away from our interaction with each other?


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