Smartphones are hot


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.

22 thoughts on “Smartphones are hot

  1. Kevin McLeod

    Is the smartphone a medium?
    If it is, it is controlled by McLuhan’s sensory-limiting Gutenberg text.
    Remember, McLuhan told us that humanity can’t evolve until we “close the book” and the smartphone is not only not closing the book, it’s being ruled by it.
    The smartphone is a machine ruled by Gutenberg at lightspeed computation. Key words divined through algorithms. Whether or not the output is visual or text is irrelevant. Words, a semantic-free code, whether employed to encrypt spoken word or computer code, it still the underlying “medium” of a grab-bag of content forms.
    You can slice all of the tribal aspects you want, my take on the smartphone is that it’s inherently detribalizing (in McLuhan’s terms), if we are to extrapolate his views of TV, phones and reproducible text (see the Mar 69 Playboy interview).
    “Hot” and “cool” are labels that seem to apply (in his terminology) not to mediums or content, but people.
    I think you have simplified McLuhan to suit this generation’s irrevocably catastrophic lunge into total textual information minus any attempt at psychic visual literacy.

  2. Kevin McLeod

    And I think your observations in “Understanding Media” turning 50 are premature. Of COURSE text and phonetic alphabets are fossils. Just because society clings to them far past their expiration doesn’t mean McLuhan was wrong, it means we’ve needlessly sanctioned devolution.

  3. Kevin McLeod

    A correction, both of my first post and your post.

    Phones seem far more cool than hot in McLuhan’s terms:

    McLuhan on mediums: “a hot medium excludes, a cool medium includes; hot media are low in participation, or completion by the audience, and cool media are high in participation.”

  4. Alan Booker

    Talking of black holes, the leading lights, no pun intended, maintain that Einstiens theory of relativity that’s ends with multiple infinities is a mistake.


    But as you so deftly point out not a mistake, they are unable to make the leap from infinity, “the medium creates an environment independent of the content or information it transmits,” in this case does not transmit, to a completely new paradigm that present day science, astronomy, physics cannot penetrate.
    Yes Nick, we are sadly very lost in the message although I will quibble about the light bulb analogy, does not the light foster a message, illumination after all is not passive. Your point is nevertheless very well made.

    Wonderful post. Warm regards, Alan

  5. Charles

    In and of itself, an electric light bulb transmits precisely one bit of information: it is on or off. An electric light bulb connected to a switch conveys two bits. The medium is electricity and the message is whether it flows without interruption. This may not seem like useful information, until you flip the switch on and discover the bulb is burned out.

  6. Nick Post author

    Kevin McLeod,

    “Is the smartphone a medium?” Yes, of course.

    “If it is, it is controlled by McLuhan’s sensory-limiting Gutenberg text.” Yes, I believe that’s what I said.

    “Whether or not the output is visual or text is irrelevant.” Text is visual, a fact central to all McLuhan’s thinking.

    “‘Hot’ and ‘cool’ are labels that seem to apply (in his terminology) not to mediums or content, but people.” He did apply the labels to people, but he coined them as descriptive categories for media. That’s why Chapter 2 in “Understanding Media” is titled “Media Hot and Cold” (though it strikes me as odd, even by McLuhan’s standards, that he didn’t title it “Media Hot and Cool” – I guess I’m too much of a Gutenberg Man).

    “Phones seem far more cool than hot in McLuhan’s terms.” If you’re referring to smartphones rather than telephones, you’re misinterpreting McLuhan’s terms.

    You remind me of that guy in the line talking about McLuhan in “Annie Hall.”


  7. Nick Post author

    re: “though the bulb transmits no information.”
    Yes, you’re right – the bulb does transmit a little information about itself. I should have probably used “content” there – but you get the point.

  8. Kevin McLeod

    How can I be misinterpreting McLuhan?

    This is pretty far from abstract:

    “a hot medium excludes, a cool medium includes; hot media are low in participation, or completion by the audience, and cool media are high in participation.”

    And it goes on further…Playboy Mar 69

  9. Nick Post author

    “well filled with data” = “high definition” = “low participation” = “hot”

  10. Kevin McLeod

    Then his labels are variable now, since the phone is a transmedium of hot and cool. Warm it is.

    My guess is we’re both on-line at the Beekman:

    I doubt McLuhan would 180 regarding moveable type. It is the key to our cycling. No internet-smartphone revolution can revive sensory tribalism.

    Nor should we want it to. The answer is post-text.

  11. yvesT

    “Of COURSE text and phonetic alphabets are fossils. Just because society clings to them far past their expiration doesn’t mean McLuhan was wrong, it means we’ve needlessly sanctioned devolution.”

    lol, text and the alphabet are in fact the most efficient medium, and by the way everybody in the phone industry (at the beginning of mobile) were thinking video chat and didn’t see the sms/texting explosion coming.

  12. Charles

    Well I get your point, Nick, and I was mostly just teasing you. But of course you can interpret that one bit of information in a lot of different ways, with different implications in different contexts.

    I could have sworn I learned about the 1 bit bulb while reading “Understanding Media” many years ago when I was in art school. But before posting, I dug up a digital copy and searched through it and it was not in there, it was not even implied. I must have come up with that crackpot theory all on my own.

  13. Brutus

    The subject post is insightful, but the comments ran wild. A few points:

    “Its circuitry dissolves plurality; the media becomes the medium.” This doesn’t sound right. True, smart phones are now omnimedia, but the various apps within still segregate modes of info delivery, requiring cumbersome switching (compared to seamless switching in the sensorium). The remarks about masking every signal but its own and faux interactivity are well taken. I note that screen size has been recognized as an inherently limiting aperture into digital worlds. VR goggles (Oculus) aim to overcome that limitation by convincingly replacing the visual field with its own media.

    The arguments in the comments about everything ultimately being text in digital environments and how the answer (to what?) is post-text is a red herring. Whereas machine language is textual and the computer began as command line, the user experience shifted to graphics/icons and is slowly shifting again to video as the primary interface. This is necessary as the loss of true literacy accelerates (poor, hatcheted writing in the comments bear this out). Further, although text is perceived through the eye the same as with graphics/video, text is processed in the language centers of the brain, (Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area in the rational, symbolic left hemisphere). More purely visual information, however, is processed as Gestalts in right hemisphere, which are immediately associated with emotions. This is why a picture is worth a thousand words: it’s intrinsically more memorable and motivating because of its emotional freight. This fact is also why advertisers and propagandists find the public easy to manipulate and why skilled rhetoricians speak in word-pictures.

  14. Linux Guru

    Just before he died,Sir Aurthur C. Clark broadcast e message about what the three most important innovations of the last century were:
    He placed the mobile phone at the top of the list. He did not elaborate about it but it seems to harken back to Marvin. Minsky’s Society.of Mind. Implying that the cellphone had created a new global collective intelligence not unlike those of bee and ant colonies. Since as Claude Shannon showed information is a “message” that resolves uncertainty in the brain of the receiver resulting incommunication. At the high level, the physical medium becomes meaningless since it is the resulting synchronization of the individual minds that creates the global mind.

  15. Ivelin Sardamov

    Regardless of the “content” accessed, using every spare minute to stare at a screen probably leads to chronic inhibition of the DMN – which largely overlaps with the “social brain.” This is so ironic given the label chosen for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. – “social” networks. As the Russian poet once said, “it would be comical, if it wasn’t deeply sad” (sounds even better in Russian)…

  16. Linux Guru

    The concept of the light bulb as medium is interesting. The Michelson/Morley experiment disproved the idea that light was transmitted through a medium – the ether – which lead to Einstein’s Special Relativity and to quantum mechanics which said that light was a wave until perceived( message received). I believe that the ancient Greeks who maintained that the human eye shown out light and illuminated the world in order to perceive it may have beat quantum mechanics by several thousands years. What is McLuhan really mean if there is no “medium” at all but merely infinite unresolved quantum uncertainties and subjective perception only?

  17. sdm

    A smart phone absorbs you to everywhere, except where you are now.

    Sounds like a device that replaces the surrounds around you.

    People now days seem not to observe whats around them. It has been replaced. Have we have outsourced ourselves?

  18. Linux Guru

    Alan, thanks. Cut and pasted the wrong link. That was Dr. Matoff’s archive nothing to do with me. LOL

  19. Kevin McLeod

    Literacy is not growing on the planet. Indo-European education is on a downward curve despite increasing technophilia. (See the UN Report on Education Jan 2014). Twitter and txt-mssgs add to a collapsing literacy rate, as social media takes over from other mediums. Only China’s literacy rates remain at 99% (and who knows if that’s a solid number).
    And outside of the ivy’s, none of the 20 year olds I’ve interviewed can construct solid paragraphs anymore.
    You use the word efficient to describe phonetic alphabets and moveable type, yet its efficiency in portable, handheld PCs may be its downfall.
    Precision and reference are necessary in communication, and are brought about through little known parts of language like recursion and deixis, yet text won’t be able to encode this without literacy.

  20. Alan Booker

    “I believe that the ancient Greeks who maintained that the human eye shown out light and illuminated the world in order to perceive it may have beat quantum mechanics by several thousands years.”

    Linux Gurru, quantum mechanics, just a modern term for something that was not defined by earlier language or humankind’s ability to articulate it as such. The world as we might view it today is usually limited by contempory consciousness, we are too close to the source and alas, experience nothing more than an abstracted manifestation.
    The Greeks might have still been awake in the experience fordered through the eye as inner light, as beings still integrated, thereby illuminating that which existed beyond ordinary/basic sensory perception and they were still very much connected with the natural environment.

    Media as medium and a technologically changing cultural landscape, nothing new, just the newest. Nick is shedding light upon one small part of the evolution of cultural, technological and individual consciousness although I would suggest that the questions revolving around technology and how radically it is shaping us and our world are not usually/individually penetrated as such.
    There might be a quibble here or there but as always in retrospect it will be plain to see.

    Regards, Alan

  21. Linux Guru

    Alan, what I was trying to _point out was that QM was the first scientific discovery that dethroned absolute detrrminism in favor of observer created rrallity which I think almost all humans instictavly understood to be true. It was true of the ancient Greeks and their successors the nostics.

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