“We become what we behold . . . We shape our tools and, afterward, our tools shape us.”
— Marshall McLuhan
Periodically, I see a query about what person, living or dead, you would most like as a dinner partner. High on my list is Marshall McLuhan.
In college, I was captivated by the ideas of McLuhan, a little-known English literature professor in Toronto who burst onto the scene in the 1960s with radical ideas about how the media was shaping our world. He’s been credited with introducing today’s concept of media into the lexicon. He coined the phrase “the global village” and “the Age of Information.” He posited that technology was enlarging our world and simultaneously making it smaller. But the technologies he was considering were television, radio, and Xerox machines.
From observing how people were using the earliest photocopiers, McLuhan suggested that the technology could enable everyone to become their own publisher and spread their own ideas without being beholden to publishing companies. You can imagine the thrill of being an academic as he was and imagining that scholars could bypass the often stultifying review process and go directly to other scholars or even the masses with their ideas. Eventually, of course, the internet fulfilled that vision, changing the shape of media and every publication, including this one.
The medium matters
McLuhan was a quote machine, spinning out snappy phrases that would both capture his ideas and provoke others to wonder what he meant. His best known was “the medium is the message,” which he later morphed into “the medium is the massage.”
His point was that the medium through which you acquire information — and he used the concepts of medium and information very broadly — influenced what you received and how you reacted to it and with it.
Integral to this was his concept of hot and cool media. Cool media did not invite interaction; hot media required it. Cool media would waft over you; hot media required that you get involved.
Television was a cool medium because its dazzling but ephemeral images and sounds were here one minute and gone the next. A viewer did not have to do anything more than lounge in a chair to receive information from a television. Books, newspapers, and anything in print were hot media because a user had to interact with them to get information from them. In the parlance of today, readers had to be engaged with the medium.
A few years ago, tech writer Nicholas Carr wrote that the internet doesn’t really fit into McLuhan’s hot and cool dichotomy. The internet “encourages participation but it also sucks up our attention and dominates our senses. When we gaze into a computer screen, we tune out everything else.”
At the core of McLuhan’s message was that the medium matters. How you acquire information shapes how you receive the information. Literacy researcher Maryanne Wolf tapped into this idea when she told me during an interview in 2014, “When I read on a screen, I become more like the medium. I read for speed and immediacy.”
Naomi S. Baron says as much in her article in this issue (p. 15) when she describes how millennials — our most tech-savvy generation — know that they learn more when they read in print rather than on a screen. Reading online, she says, is more appropriate for “finding information” than for reading for understanding.
Marshall McLuhan died in 1980, well before the internet and iPhones dominated our lives so you have to imagine what he would make of all the media in our lives today and the distractions that have ensued. While he raised cautions about technology, McLuhan was not a Luddite who wanted to destroy new media. However, I think he would want us to understand that these tools that we created are now recreating us and that we should use them to our purposes and not allow media — whether hot or cool — to run our lives. — JR
Originally published in October 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (2), 4. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.