Hot and Cool

So I'm reading McLuhan's Understanding Media. His classification of any medium as either hot or cool is especially interesting. He says a hot medium is high definition, low on interactivity, specialized, and usually limited to one sense. Examples of hot media he gives are radio, film, and books. Cool, on the other hand is low-fi, interactive, generalized, and engages more senses. The telephone, comics, and TV are classified as cool by Marshall. I realize this distinction is a continuum, not black and white. (I think read somewhere that Baudrillard, using this scheme, called all media cool.) But it's still useful for thinking about a system in general instead of focusing on content. So I asked the following question to try to understand this metaphor better:

Are weblogs a hot or cool medium? (there are arguments for both.)


  • primarily text
  • one-way
  • immediate (thought to publish)
  • structured (loosely by time)
  • one sense (visual)
  • chatty, spoken word
  • interactive
  • expressive
  • casually constructed
  • not usually "packaged" (random observations)
  • non-specialized (thanks to weblog tools)
Based on this, I think I would call weblogs a cool medium that used to be hot.

He goes on to classify cultures as either hot or cool, and makes predictions about how temperatue clash can affect them.

I'm still having trouble with the clissifications. Shows like X-Files or ER seem to make TV a hot medium, while talk shows and "reality" TV seem to make it a cool medium. But then I'm missing the point about not focusing on content.

Anyway, great book. :)


Hmmm. Wouldn't that make weblogs "disgustingly lukewarm?"
hehe. not sure about "disgustingly", but yeah, somewhere in the middle. It's interesting to me to think about "heating up" or "cooling down" weblogs. How to take them from their current temperature to a new one.
I'd say good "blogs" tend to be cool since they're not exclusively text.
McLuhan's "hot" and "cool" are all about intensity and sharpness of the media on the senses. It wasn't one of his strongest descriptions and didn't really last long after Understanding Media.

If you want to read the "McLuhan line" on the web checkout the book Marshall's son Eric wrote, "Electric Language, Understanding the Message" (1998;ISBN: 0312190883). Got some great discussions of "Post-Modern," "computer" writing as well as a radical graphic design like the elder McLuhan's "Medium is the Massage" and "War and Peace in the Global Village."
how funny. I just pulled out my old, falling apart original copy of "Medium is the Massage" today to bring along to class. I never get tired of that book.
mine's old and falling apart too b/c I bought it for a buck at a used bookstore. ;) Thanks for the book recommendation, Orv. The intensity/sharpness comment helps me understand it a little better, so thanks for that too.
Remember that hot and cool is very closely linked with the "resolution" of a medium. Hence film=hot while TV=cool. That's a simple one because it's part of the very media themselves - in other cases you have to imagine if something is high res or low res.

The interesting case is the X-Files, a TV show that a) is inherantly cool due to the limitations of TV but b) could be said to have gained a different kind of resolution through the ongoing story lines. When they flipped it over and made the movie, visually I was worried because devices they relied on in TV wouldn't work on film. They actually did a pretty good job on the transition - which I think is related somewhat to the resolution gained by the ongoing story. That allowed them to bridge the gap, perhaps.

Weblogs share the long-term factor of a show like the X-Files in that you can learn about someone increasingly over time, in many cases - and thus resolve a better picture of them in some ways. At the same time, the granularity of most weblogs' commentary seems to lend some coolness - each piece on a weblog is short and incomplete, in a way - and therefore not well resolved (just as the dearth of pixels in TV means it's low res in its own way). And on and on...
Gosh, I need to re-read me some McLuhan. I tend to think of weblogs and personal sites in general as, to paraphrase that old public radio slogan, "the rare medium that's seldom well-done." ;-)
"each piece on a weblog is short and incomplete, in a way - and therefore not well resolved"

I agree. I think they're thoughts that sometimes become orphans (at least for me). Some bloggers have started linking related thoughts by using categories, but there's no easy way to establish linkages and pathways between blogged thoughts, as when you have a final product like a book or something.

Kind of like when you sketch in your sketchbook. You need a way to flesh out your observations and resolve them into rules and corollaries.

Not all of them. Some are just fine being orphans.
I think this is another argument for weblogs as "cool". The disconnected thoughts force the reader to connect the dots in order to form a picture of the author's personality. (if that's what they're doing.) Kind of like a Haiku, the coolest of cool poetry, which just gives you an impression of something...leaving the real work to the reader.
I wrote a little on this topic back in October - I do find it to be an interesting discussion.

I have a feeling that, somehow, various mediums will have to merge to give the web a push... call it a gut feeling.
I think in the past year, we've seen headlines that would seem to confuse the issue more...

"Weblogs are hot!!"

"Weblogs are cool!!"

Er, sorry for taking the low road ;)

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