Marshall McLuhan, the media expert who predicted the development of the Internet, saw all media as extensions of the senses, bodies, and minds. He used the terms “hot media” and “cool media” to differentiate diverse types of media but noted that they exist on a continuum.
“Hot media” demands little interaction from the user and typically engages one sense. A notable example would be announcements given on films, radio, or in print. During the covid pandemic, people were told where to obtain vaccines and when to get a booster shot. They could follow directions or reject them, but neither approach is suitable for interaction. On the other hand, “cool media” uses low-definition media in contrast to the high-definition “hot media.” “Cool media,” such as televised discussions and telephone conversations, demand considerable interaction on the part of the user. McLuhan classified comic books as “cool media” because the user needs to interact with the drawings to appreciate the humor. Some users would not fathom the humor, some would grasp it immediately, and still others would provide an unexpected response to the cartoons. Cool media demands that the user is familiar with the conventions associated with its use. The user needs to be familiar with a telephone and how to manage it. The user must know how to turn on a television set and how to select the desired channel. If the user is not sure of the desired channel, a procedure known as “surfing” may be employed, which falls into the “cool media” domain.
Twitter is “hot” because it engages a single sense. It tends to be brief and demands little interaction. Facebook (or Meta) and Instagram are “cool” as the content tends to be longer, thus prone to elicit a variety of responses. Both engage more than one sense, thus requiring considerable interaction. “Hot media” are linear, but “cool media” are non-linear, hence it is often difficult to trace cause and effect. Chaos theory can be helpful in positing the content of “cool media.” There is an “initial condition” that can be triggered in a way that evokes a variety of responses, differing from person to person. The user “brings order out of chaos,” creating meaning from the content. Different people will ascribe different meanings to the media content.
When news about the pandemic is released, its reception may depend upon the media that is utilized for the announcement. For example, an announcement that gives the location for vaccination would be “hot media.” The announcement may be read, or it may be listened to, thus employing one sense. A televised debate on the utility of vaccinations would be an example of “cool media.” It employs more than one sense, and it implicitly demands the user’s evaluation of each speaker’s position, often followed by a decision regarding appropriate action.
Misinformation can be spread by both “hot” and “cool” media but in diverse ways. An incorrect announcement is likely to be spotted by a user who has critical thinking skills. If the information is incorrect, an informed user will spot it and reject it. A more naïve user might accept it and suffer the consequences. Neither response to the announcement requires interaction.
Critical thinking is essential to spotting misinformation spread by “hot media.” Users who view a televised panel discussion engage in interaction, even if they find themselves unable to engage in evaluation. Interaction also characterizes Zoom and Skype; users need to bring their critical thinking skills with them to make the best use of these interactions. This is especially helpful when discussing topics relating to covid and the pandemic. Young people are especially vulnerable to misinformation. A recent article by Jolley, et al. (2021) in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology identified age 14 as the time when vulnerability to conspiracy theories is common; younger children do not utilize social media as often. Girls and boys who view blogs on social media and other “hot media” often accept “fake news” because there is no opportunity for interaction and reflection.
A veteran teacher in Seattle, Washington was in the news recently. She began the term at a charter school with high hopes, having been told that her classes would be composed of intelligent students. She was shocked to find that many of her students argued that the covid pandemic was a hoax. They also told her that the Holocaust never happened and that the results of the 2020 elections were rigged. When she asked how they obtained this information, social media were cited, an example of “hot media.” “Cool media” are not exempt from misinformation. Some televised news programs are intentionally biased yet are trusted by millions of viewers. Interaction with the content of “cool media” does not always lead to wise decisions.
The Museum of International Propaganda in San Rafael, California, exhibits items from all over the world. It is remarkable how often the propaganda utilizes cartoons and comic books, both of which are “hot media.” Propaganda promotes a product, an idea, or a cause. This can be done in a rational way, using accurate information. But contemporary propaganda more often misinforms potential users. Propaganda may include just enough accurate material to entice the user to accept the inaccurate material. This can be done by creating the “bandwagon effect,” claiming that “everyone is doing it.” Propaganda typically evokes emotional responses, demonizes its opponents often by resorting to stereotypes, and negates opposing perspectives. It employs testimonials by “experts” or by celebrities. The Museum of International Propaganda exhibits material from North Korea, China, Cuba, the former Soviet Union, and the United States, among others. Many demonstrate the “plain folks” technique, showing political leaders surrounded by children, adoring families, or by workers in the fields or factories. The Museum tries to educate its audience by alerting them to common propaganda techniques.
McLuhan’s categories of “hot media” and “cool media” are somewhat controversial and are not accepted by all media experts. However, McLuhan’s viewpoint can be a provocative starting point for an informed discussion of media, its role in contemporary society, and its use and misuse, especially during the current pandemic.
Jolley, D., Douglas, K. M; Skipper, Y., Thomas, E., & Cookson, D. (2021). Measuring adolescents’ beliefs in conspiracy theories: Development and validation of the Adolescent Conspiracy Beliefs Questionnaire.” British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 39, 499-520. https://bpspsychub.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/bjdp.12368
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.
McLuhan, M. (1951). The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. New York: Vanguard Press.