"I have no idea what that means…" David Letterman- on any given night
I have started this column over a number of times and finally decided on the above quote, mostly because it is true, and partly because I don’t want Woody Allen or anyone else to drag the ghost of Marshall McLuhan out from behind some convenient head-high sandwich board to tell me I know nothing of his work. This all started a few days ago during the previous year when talk with a friend turned to media and messages. At that time, I realized that I did indeed know very little of McLuhan’s work and that perhaps I should check into it. What that resulted in was a number of passing headaches and my being perilously close to missing this deadline.
In this interim, I have been trying to grasp McLuhan’s meaning behind his now famous declaration that "the medium is the message". Part of my search has been spent slogging through his 1964 treatise that started all this- Understanding Media- the Extensions of Man. I dug around on my shelves until I did find the paperback copy I had during my one Radio, Television and Motion Picture class I had in college. It was interesting to see what passages I had marked as important at the time, as compared with what I am now marking as significant some forty years on. The other part of it is the reading, and re-reading, and re-reading of various passages that has occurred this time around without my getting any clear grasp of what McLuhan is trying to get at. It makes me wonder what I got the first time through many years ago.
Among the great confusions, it is perhaps McLuhan’s classification of media as either hot or cold that has my head spinning in wildest abandon. He has hot media as being ones that have a lot of information that require little input or "completion by the audience" as he states it. A cool medium on the other hand has a low amount of information requiring lots of participation by the audience. What baffles me here is that he has film and radio pegged as hot media, while telephones and television are rated as cool. Granted, when this book came out, television was still making a big deal out of color programming, and a poorly aimed antenna yielded a less than crisp image of any given broadcast. But the showing and viewing of images of any quality of a given event on television would seem to me to require much less participation by the viewer than the mental interpolation and image construction needed to realize the same event as heard over the radio.
I suppose one could go wide here and point to McLuhan’s contention that the medium is the message. As I have read it more than a few times, this premise steps beyond the content that is being transmitted to the essence of the medium itself determining how the content is perceived- the holistic approach. I do get that the technical parameters of a given medium can shape and limit the form and type of content one might find there. I do get that economics has a big influence on what can be shown and what continues to be shown. What I still am having a hard time with are the hot and cold boxes that McLuhan proposes for everything from a light bulb- a medium without a message- to ballet (hot).
While McLuhan seems to enjoy a bit of celebrity for his medium as message premise, he was indeed visionary in coining the term "surfing" in regard to information searches, as well as for his prescience twenty some years in advance of the internet for recognizing before its true time the coming of the electronic "global village". He also coined the term high definition, calling it the "state of being well filled with data". This would certainly describe our modern day hi-def television panels, but it would also, it seems, wreak some havoc with McLuhan’s placement of television as a cool medium, when he defines a hot medium as one that "extends one single sense in high definition." In this sense, the Columbia professor that Mr. Allen mocks and embarrasses in ‘Annie Hall’ may have the last laugh, in that he states that television is a hot medium resulting in the McLuhan rebuff. I’m not sure that I will ever totally understand what McLuhan was trying to get at in all of this, and I’m not sure I’m going to continue with these thought bubble headaches in pursuit of finding out the answer. I do however like this quote from David Bowie’s character - Thomas Jerome Newton- in Nicholas Roeg’s classic ‘the Man Who Fell to Earth’: "The strange thing about television is that it doesn’t tell you everything. It shows you everything about life…but the true mysteries remain. Perhaps it’s in the true nature of television. Just waves in space." Happy New Year.