This post, along with seventy-eight others, is collected in the book Utopia Is Creepy.
The lightbulb, Marshall McLuhan wrote at the start of his 1964 book Understanding Media, is an example of a medium without content. Walk into a dark room and hit the light switch, and the bulb generates a new environment for you even though the bulb transmits no information. The idea of a medium without content is hard to grasp — it doesn’t make sense in the context of our assumptions about media — but it’s fundamental to understanding McLuhan’s contention that the medium is the message, i.e., that the medium creates an environment independent of the content or information it transmits.
So what are we to make of the smartphone, the medium of the moment, our portable environment? If, as McLuhan argued, the content of any new medium is an old medium, the content of the smartphone would seem to be all media: telephone, television, radio, cinema, printed book, electronic book, comic book, record, MP3, newspaper, magazine, letter, newsletter, email, telegraph, conversation, peep show, library, school, lecture, ATM, desktop, laptop, love note, medical record, rap sheet. Contentwise, the smartphone is Whitmanesque: it contains multitudes. The smartphone is what happens when the architecture of media collapses. It’s a black hole full of light: information supercompressed but radiant. In its singularity, it might be described as the first post-media medium. Its circuitry dissolves plurality; the media becomes the medium.
Bursting with information, the smartphone is, in McLuhan’s terms, a hot medium, maybe the hottest imaginable. It invades the sensorium of its user with an absolute imperialist zeal. Flooding the visual sense, it allows no signal but its own. To look into the screen of a smartphone is to be lost to the world. Like every hot medium, the smartphone isolates and fragments the self. It individualizes, alienates. Not only does it reverse what McLuhan described as the coolness of the aural phone, turning it into a superheated visual medium, but it reverses the entire re-tribalization pattern that McLuhan saw emerging from electric media. The smartphone out-de-tribalizes even the printed book. The smartphone’s “interactivity” is a ruse, for the only activity it allows is the activity it mediates. Its dominance precludes involvement and participation.
But that can’t be right. What does one do with a smartphone but participate — interact, converse, communicate, shop, create, get involved? Here we find the conundrum of the smartphone, the conundrum of our new artificial environment — and the conundrum that wraps around McLuhan’s hot/cool media dialectic.
In a 1967 essay, the critic Richard Kostelanetz wrote that McLuhan’s books “offer a cool experience in a hot medium.” The lo-def ambiguity of the writing fights against the hi-def clarity of the printed word; the information demands the reader’s involvement while the medium forbids it. It may be that the smartphone is of a similar nature, hot and cool at once (but never lukewarm). At the very least, one could say that the smartphone creates an environment that encourages participation at a distance: participation as performance. The smartphone re-tribalizes by putting us always on display, by eating away at our sense of the private self, but it de-tribalizes by isolating us in an abstract world, a world of our own. You hit the light switch, and the bulb comes on and you find yourself in an empty room full of people. To put it another way: participation is the content of the smartphone, and the content, as McLuhan wrote, is “the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” The illusion of involvement conceals its absence. Here comes Walt Whitman, alone and isolated, dreaming dreams of connection, turning a barbaric yawp into silent words on a flat page.
Image: Erik Drost.