The World Wide Web as a ‘cold’ medium and the ‘practice’ of YouTube.

Marshall McLuhan writes of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ forms of media in his book, Understanding Media. In the chapter “Media Hot and Cold” he explains a ‘hot’ medium as an extension of a physical sense (such as the eyes) in “high-definition.” That is, an extension of a physical sense that is dense with information. For instance, McLuhan gives the examples of the image and text as ‘hot’ visual mediums. They are ‘hot’ because they provide an abundance of visual data to the eyes and leave little room for interpretation and further thought on the part of the audience. The delivery of information is straight-forward. On the other hand, examples given by McLuhan of ‘cool’ visual mediums are the television and the cartoon which are extensions of a physical sense in “low-definition.” These forms of media possess very little information and consequently require from the audience a higher degree of participation. Other non-visual forms of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ media mentioned by McLuhan are the radio and the telephone, respectively. McLuhan cites the example of American behavior towards radio as entertainment as explaining his classifying it as a ‘hot’ medium. Conversely, because so much has to be filled in by the listener, the telephone is classified as a ‘cool’ medium, requiring more participation in order to “get” the correct information. The basic idea is: “the hot form excludes, the cold one includes.” A hot medium allows for less participation and is therefore more difficult to learn from than a cool medium. An example of this is the difference between a seminar (cold) and a lecture (hot). You learn more from the seminar because it allows for more participation.
A partial importance of my research focus lies within the different levels of participation required by ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ media. The World Wide Web is an aggregation of various forms of media, most of them overwhelmingly ‘hot’. However, I believe if we were to classify the World Wide Web in these terms, we could classify it is a ‘cool’ medium based on its ever-increasing move towards connecting people in various ways from all over the world, or at least those who find themselves on this side of the digital-divide. As Kevin Kelly states in his article “We are the Web“, the Web is growing, even learning, at an alarming rate precisely because of our generous participation. But what then of McLuhan’s concepts of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ media? How can a medium that appears so overwhelmingly ‘hot’ on the surface be so ‘cool’ in practice? I offer a tentative answer: because the infrastructure of the World Wide Web, that which it is built upon, namely the Internet, is comprised of a series of computers connected electronically and electric technology, according to McLuhan, is responsible for retribalization (inclusion) and the “cooling” of media. This seeming contradiction is one aspect of the Web I want to explore in my research.

More specifically, I want to extend this investigation into the realm of YouTube and begin to think about the interaction of the different forms of media present there. Building on this idea of ‘cool’ media, YouTube (along with similar video sharing sites like Dailymotion, Metacafe, and LiveLeak, among others) contains these “low-definition”, high-participatory elements in the form of television-style videos that require the audience to participate with most of their senses. And to talk more about McLuhan, his famous aphorism “the medium is the message” or more recently “the medium is the massage” embodies a key concept I want to explore in my research. To put it simply, “the medium is the message” implies we learn by what we do, and to expand on this idea, what we do is shaped by our environment while at the same time shaping the environment itself. This idea touches on the theory of the late French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, who uses the notions of ‘field’, ‘habitus’, ‘capital’, and ‘practice’. According to Bourdieu, the social world is made up of actors who are essentially playing a game to gain resources they deem necessary to achieve their respective goals. This behavior, of actors maneuvering within the social space in order to accumulate specific forms of ‘capital’, would be called ‘practice’. ‘Practices’ depend on the ‘field’, or an area of struggle for ‘capital’, within which they are functioning. In addition, ‘practices’ are also dependent on an actor’s ‘habitus’. ‘Habitus’ can be defined as the actor’s disposition, her interior, subjective world that unconsciously influences her behavior. It is the interaction of ‘habitus’, ‘capital’, and ‘field’ that result in ‘practice’ [(Habitus x Capital) + Field = Practice)]. Aside from the verbose explanation and at the risk of oversimplifying the whole thing, the basic idea behind all this is we all have specific attitudes that are the result of our personal histories and various other variables that make up “who we are” but these specific attitudes are influenced by our environment while at the same time shaping it. We are born into a structure only to the extent that it was formed by those who went before us. We are by no means bound by an unchangeable environment or set of rules; we have the power to influence and change it and by doing so, it will then influence and change us, so on and so forth. It is these kinds of relationships I want to explore on YouTube.

So, in conclusion, besides being interested in the structures of the Internet and the World Wide Web, which I believe are a necessary precursor to my primary research interest, I’m interested in the ‘practice’ of YouTube and through investigating this I think I will also reach interesting conclusions on the influence of the World Wide Web on the actors who engage in it. To trace out my proposed avenues of research, I’ve listed a series of research questions below.

  • What forms of capital are important on YouTube?
    • Popularity?
    • Authenticity?
    • What are the struggles for this capital?
  • What are the different ‘fields’ of YouTube?
    • Different social networks?
    • What is the dynamic of different ‘fields’ coming together? ‘Habitus’s’?
  • In what ways has the ‘field’ influenced the ‘habitus’ of the actors on YouTube and vice versa.
    • Increasing elements promoting community
    • In what ways are the actors constrained by the structure of YouTube? The web?
      • How does that limit their negotiation of the social space?
      • Download vs. upload speeds
      • Director, comedian, guru, musician status
      • Video window size
      • Video quality
      • etc.
  • Where is YouTube going?
  • To what extent it YouTube ‘cool’ or ‘hot’
    • What are the consequences of this?
    • How does the medium affect us?

I am still unsure about how to represent my research visually. Currently I’m envisioning some sort of history of the Web and YouTube, showing the various structures that they are formed out of and their limitations. I will be interviewing various professors on campus about the influence of media on human behavior and their predictions for the future of emerging forms of media. I also would like to interview YouTubers concerning the same things. I would like to conclude my video with an image of the future of YouTube as imagined by those I interviewed. Of course, any recommendations are warmly welcomed and appreciated. If you have any questions you think I’ve overlooked, please feel free to comment. I would love for this to be a communal effort.

Literature Review

There exists plenty of literature on the effects of media on human societies and behavior spanning almost every conceivable academic discipline. The most relevant to my present research interest, however, flows from the realm of the literature-related disciplines through such late scholars as Marshall McLuhan and Walter J. Ong. Both men possessed ideas relevant to the trajectory of media, albeit each with their own idiosyncrasies. Ong is particularly concerned with the progression of western European societies in regards to media where, in my opinion, McLuhan provides a more worldcentric and holistic approach to media, accentuated by his popularized phrase “global village.” Nevertheless, Ong’s ideas correspond well with McLuhan’s and if nothing else provide an alternative lens to peer through when studying the effects of media on human societies

When examining the ideas of both men, three similar stages of human societies come to the fore. For Ong, this progression consists of a shift from oral to literate then back to oral culture. McLuhan’s idea is much similar, where he uses the terms acoustic space and visual space to denote approximately what Ong refers to as oral and literate, respectively. A synthesis may be made, if only temporarily, to orient thinking about these concepts by combining the two ideas into a progression from oral (and aural) culture existing in acoustic space to literate culture existing in visual space then back to oral culture existing in acoustic space.

The premise behind this concept of the progression of human societies lies in the nature of the dominant media of each stage. Oral, acoustic space is said to be characteristic of preliterate societies where particular emphasis is placed on oration. According to McLuhan and anthropologist Edmund Carpenter in their co-authored article Acoustic Space this emphasis has considerable transformational effects on human societies.

“In many preliterate cultures the binding power of oral tradition is so strong that the eye is subservient to the ear. In the beginning was the Word: a spoken word, not the visual one of literate man.”

Pre-literate societies are said to exist in a world of non-linear, invisible forces. This perhaps is a consequence of the nature of sound, which is spontaneous and seems to emanate from everywhere at once. When participating, the audience, if you will, receives a more cohesive and involved experience compared to the detached experience of the more visual observer found in literate societies. The memory of any sudden noise that sent an intense involuntary jolt through the entire length of your body should be enough to convince you of the difference in sensory impact of audition over vision. Also of importance is the nature of speaking itself. When one speaks, the words are never frozen in time or space, but progress until they fade from sensory perception. Visually, since if you are reading this you are hailing from a literate culture, this would look much like the oscillations associated with sound seen on an equalizer. Oration is fluid, much like sound, and is not fixed. These characteristics, according to Ong and McLuhan, markedly influence the behavior and worldview of the societies in which they are present.

For literate societies, the story becomes much different (pun intended). Contrasted with pre-literate societies characterized by emphases on oration and audition, literate societies find themselves firmly planted in a highly visual instead of acoustic world marked by an increased emphasis on lineality, chronology and individualism. The individualism many of us pride ourselves on is said to be extremely foreign in pre-literate societies, where such detachment from the group is seen as profoundly alien. Ong and McLuhan claim this characteristic of literate society stems from the written word. The written word turns the reader inward, detaches her from the group. Thus, the subconscious is born. The inward incorporation of the reality of oral society. H. J. Chaytor expounds on this idea in his article Reading and Writing where he explains the process of turning “acoustic images” into “visual images” using the example of a child learning to read. According to Chaytor, when a child is first learning to read she finds it necessary to pronounce the written symbols on the page in order to orient them as an acoustic image, as the child is theretofore unable to think in visual images. Eventually, as the child continues to learn to read, she internalizes these acoustic images as visual images and is initiated into the internalized world of visual space. However, Chaytor claims we never abandon these acoustic images and cites the phenomenon of “kinesthetic” or “speech-motor” imagery in support of his claim. Edmund Carpenter comments further on the effects of literate culture,

“… the book was ideally suited for discussing evolution and progress. Both belonged, almost exclusively, to book culture. Like a book, the idea of progress was an abstracting, organizing principle… The sequence of events was believed to have a direction, to follow a given course along an axis of time… Here we see the three main elements of book lineality: the line, the point moving along that line, and its movement toward a desirable goal.”

Furthermore, our concept of time as individual units, of the limits of space, and three-dimensional perspective are also all believed by various media scholars to be nourished, if not created, by literate society.

With the creation of radio, and even more so the progression of electric technology, McLuhan states that literate, visually oriented human societies began the shift into acoustic space once more. No longer is primary emphasis placed on the written word, but now we’ve become oriented once more around the oral and aural aspects of reality. Television allows multiple perspectives; we’re no longer limited to a fixed position in the audience as was characteristic of the theatre experience. The telephone allowed us to favor the spoken word over the written word as we abandoned the notion of sending letters through the mail. And even the advances in transportation make it easier to come into contact with our peers, which calls also for direct, verbal communication. However, this shift should not be understood as a regression—to do so would be to see the new shift in terms of the old, a habit McLuhan implies would be best to break—but rather a new orientation in terms of the interaction and effects of media, or extensions of man. As humankind approaches this acoustic space once more, we find ourselves “awake” through the profound extension of electric technology which serves as, in the eyes of McLuhan, an extension of our central nervous system. For the first time we are aware of our own “extensions” and find ourselves placed in a field of total awareness. This has profound implications and is responsible for McLuhan’s terms of “retribalization” and “global village.”

The internet, I feel, is a key factor in this “retribalization” or “awakening” that McLuhan mentions. The internet is an aggregation of many mediums and to our knowledge never before has such a congregation taken place. In McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man he mentions Hans Selye’s and Adolphe Jonas’s concept of “autoamputation,” a bodily strategy of maintaining equilibrium when one sense is overwhelmed to the point of discomfort. Although Selye and Jonas employed the concept in regards to disease, McLuhan applies it to his notions of media. To illustrate, McLuhan talks of the wheel as an extension of the foot. As information exchange increased it was necessary to create the wheel as an extension of the foot because, in effect, the foot could not keep up with the rapid acceleration and transfer of information for which the wheel was better suited. If it were to try, it would no doubt find itself in an incredible state of discomfort! Each media is seen as an “amputation” and in effect seen as fragmenting. It is not mentioned in the literature, but my own curiosity leads me to speculate whether we are finally seeing an integration of these “amputations” with the rise of the internet, especially now with the World Wide Web and its tendency towards forming network-based communities rather than group-based communities (DiMaggio et al. 2001).

Although the internet is planted in literate soil (hence why Ong chooses to call his third stage “secondary orality” in order to emphasize the distinct difference from original “orality”) it incorporates oral and aural media, as well as visual. Where will such an aggregation of media take us? What will its effects be? Heretofore I’ve explored some of the previous thought on the effects of media on human societies, but now I find myself probing with my hands extended in front of me in thick blackness. No conclusions may be made on my part, only questions and speculations. It was McLuhan himself who said he’s not interested in concluding, but in probing. I’m also hesitant to make any conclusions and am in the business of probing.

In light of everything mentioned before, which I think needs to be mentioned and considered before further examination of any phenomena on the internet, I feel YouTube is fertile ground for examining the shift into secondary orality and the return, albeit awake, to acoustic space, mentioned by Ong and McLuhan. Are we indeed making this shift? If so, how and why? What will be the outcomes?

Key Works // To be updated soon…

Carpenter, Edmund
1960 The New Languages. In Explorations in Communication. Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan, eds. Pp. 162-179. Boston: Beacon Press.

Chaytor, H. J.
1960 Reading and Writing. In Explorations in Communication. Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan, eds. Pp. 117-124. Boston: Beacon Press.

DiMaggio, Paul, with Eszter Hargittai, W. Russel Neuman, and John P. Robinson
2001 Social Implications of the Internet. Annual Review of Sociology 27:307-376.

McLuhan, Marshall
1960 Classroom Without Walls. In Explorations in Communication. Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan, eds. Pp. 1-3. Boston: Beacon Press.

McLuhan, Marshall
1960 Five Sovereign Fingers Taxed The Breath. In Explorations in Communication. Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan, eds.
Pp. 207-208. Boston: Beacon Press.

McLuhan, Marshall
1964 Understanding Media. New York: The New American Library.