Participation & Asphyxiation

In his highly-quotable, rarely understood and seminal work, Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan distinguishes early on between what he calls “hot” and “cold” media, which are, respectively “high” and “low” definition.  A hot, high-definition medium is low in participation, while the colder and the lower-definition a medium is, the deeper our participation in it must be: that is, high-definition media transmit large quantities of information, while low-definition media provide less and require us to supplement to the completion of the intended meaning.  From the Thomistic, semiotic standpoint, this is an incomplete picture, inasmuch as the effects of media must be understood not only in terms of their relation to exterior senses but as signs involved in triadic relations to interior senses–that is, to the powers of perception as such.  McLuhan often mentions perception, but without any elaboration of the faculties involved.  More’s the pity.

Regardless, there are a few statements McLuhan makes concerning high-participation or depth-participation media which jumped out at me today.

“A cool medium… leaves much more for the listener or user to do than a hot medium.  If the medium is of high definition, participation is low.  If the medium is of low intensity, the participation is high.  Perhaps this is why lovers mumble so.” – [31] “The Television: The Timid Giant”, p.425.

“Depth involvement encourages everyone to take himself much more seriously than before.” – [17] Comics: Mad Vestibule to TV, p.227.

“The problem, therefore, is not that Johnny can’t read, but that, in an age of depth involvement, Johnny can’t visualize distant goals.” [17] Comics: Mad Vestibule to TV, p.229.

For one thing, we in general pay too little attention to the influences on our thinking, especially–as McLuhan keenly points out, repeatedly–in terms of the medium.  That is, we think an awful lot about the content of our media without thinking about how we are affected by the means of the content’s delivery; especially when we fail to notice that the content itself is another form of media.  As Charles Peirce put it, the entire universe is perfused with signs.  We not only see the light through the television, but the person; we see not only a person, but a model for action; we see not only a model for action, but a statement on our culture–and so on.

For another, media are not good or bad by virtue of being cool or hot: as instances of cool media, McLuhan lists the medieval manuscript right alongside the (low-definition 1960s) television.  The definining characteristic of being cool simply means that one must participate in what the medium brings in order to attain a completion, a full “sensation” of what is being presented.

And for a final thing, high participation media–particularly those which require a depth-involvement in the moment–captivate us if we engage them; a captivation which dissuades us from other pursuits.  In other words, we direct our mental energy to that medium.  In contrast, high definition, low participation media are passively engaged.  Supplying us enough information of their own, we simply sit there and absorb.  There is a tremendous difference between watching a 1950s sitcom and one from the 2000s; or between watching Firing Line in the 1980s and Tucker Carlson in the 2010s–not just in terms of content, but in terms of medium.  It is little surprise that with high definition television, television programming now requires lengthy arcs, seasons; episodic adventures are a thing of the past.  Seinfeld would no longer work; the Netflix model–followed even by those who do better than Netflix–is that of the “40-hour movie”.  Binge-watching is encouraged; regular binge-watching, of course, dulls any habits of active participation.  Contrariwise, too much high-participation engagement–for instance, social media–shuts off our receptivity to new ideas.

To understand our intellectual anemia, we will need first to free ourselves from the suffocating ubiquity of our social connectivity.  If only we had the energy…

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