on media, image poverty, and affect

Marshall McLuhan’s hot and cold media bother me.

The general gist, that hot media that extend one or another of our senses into ‘high definition,’ if you will, allow little to no room for viewer engagement as opposed to cold media, which extend sight, sound, what have you, in low-def, leaving ostensibly more room for “participation” in the media, I get. He loses me with the various media he assigns to each type; television, for example, is cold, radio, is hot, he obviously pre-dated the Internet, but following his logic, my guess is he’d characterize the Internet as cold as a whole, although as others point out, the Internet is necessarily composed of various media types that can be either hot or cold. 

Perhaps this just reflects changes in technology that have occurred in the last 50+years, but would anyone today, based on the very simple summation of hot excludes, cold includes, think of radio as hot and television as cold? How long can you listen to the radio without distraction? But turn on the television and six hours go by without even the blink of an eye (and that’s saying something since television is a visual medium…) Am I missing the point? Hot media are not conducive to engagement, they don’t require participation, cold media do in order for the information being transmitted to “work.” 

Perhaps I’m thinking of the characterization purely in terms of the encouragement/requirement of audience engagement, perhaps McLuhan would have taken it for granted audiences would have been actually listening to the radio when it was on (it was after all, a substantial form of entertainment once upon a time), they weren’t plagued by alternatives and suffering from the technological onslaught of attention deficit disorder. Or perhaps I take issue with the essentialism of defining a technology without accounting for its lived life. Either way, I think a slightly modified version of hot vs. cold media then, might be helpful in tracing some of the ideas that might help explain the ways in which we use the Internet and more specifically, the existence and prevalence of user-generated content, especially, but not limited to, memes.

Here’s my proposed understanding of hot and cold in media for 2018, one based on lived experience and observed audience utilization of and engagement with various media while also taking into account the various permutations of these media that might more accurately account for our varied experiences with any given technology: whatever a medium lacks, the brain kicks in to supply: if the medium lacks a visual element (ie. radio or telephone), the brain imagines the visual, making it a cold medium, if the medium supplies both visual and auditory (ie. television, film), the brain engages less, it doesn’t need to do as much work, the technology is sufficiently immersive making these hot media (meaning virtual reality would be the hottest of media): the cold includes, the hot excludes authentic spectator engagement. (Forgive the rather speculative brain science, I’m operating on an assumption that our brain is never not “seeing” something, I really have no idea if this is true, it just seems true in my experience.)

I was just reading this morning David Joselit’s interview with artist Lucy Raven for the Fall 2017 issue of October. In the piece she discusses her practice in terms of calling attention to the ways our brain works to correct our vision when it experiences something as being in error; it’s not actually an error, our eyes see what they see, but our brain is too accustomed to the usual, it must create it regardless. Of course we’re not aware of the work our brain is doing until we encounter something that disallows the usual, art, like Raven’s “Curtains,” is good for this kind of thing. In the piece she deconstructs 3-D imaging technology, bifurcating the two images which usually coalesce into one with 3-D glasses, only slowly allowing them to come together as one, an illusion she notes as one the brain desperately tries to complete despite what the eye actually sees.

Joselit mentions Hito Steyerl’s concept of the “poor image,” an image which lacks a certain, typical degree of resolution as “a consequence of…its wide circulation,” in the interview. In “In Defense of the Poor Image,” Steyerl is attempting to make sense of the conceptual and visual effect the appropriation, rips, downloads and re-uploads, and general instability of an image’s life online might have on its viewers (and really, producers). It’s a political argument, the one she eventually pursues, citing third world manifestos regarding the “imperfect cinema,” one which would challenge the dominant divisions of labor (something new media most especially participates in) but also reveal life for what it is “blurred, amateurish, and full of artifacts.” I’m more interested for my own research, in that second meaning of the imperfect cinema or poor image; the ways in which user-generated (essentially) images and content more accurately reflect life and also, by extension, encourage active participation in the technology through which we encounter these images. 

I’ll give you that it’s a bit of an idealistic notion, Steyerl’s ideas, but probably even more-so mine, that there might be something different in terms of an audience’s conceptual engagement with imperfect work, be it images, film, what have you. Steyerl reads a lot of subversive potential into these images; to subvert the elitist control of media production and dissemination, to create its own history (the history of users, not its creators), to create new global networks not dictated by those in power, to alter forever the value and definition of “good” when it comes to visuality. But I’m more interested in talking about the ways in which these images are often so marked, so aesthetically implicated with their technology, and therefore their age…to be more direct, these images provoke their viewers through their revealing of their time, their place, their era, their making, they provoke these viewers most directly with an affective response…is that not engagement? 

Michael Mandiberg compiled the Social Media Reader about ten years ago stating in his introduction that technological shifts including but not limited to social media, make it no longer acceptable to become content consumers solely, we all shift into the dual role of both consumer and producer, if you want to look on the bright side, its a radical democratization of the source of information, if you want to look on the negative you can think about the ways digital media still dictate our interactions with their technology or note the ever-increasing privitization of even the technologies through which we think we have agency.


This is only a rambling, round-about way of trying to find a way to express my own encounters with these “poor images,” to express that while they may not systematically or intentionally interrupt our expectations of what they should do (as Raven’s project does), these images still encourage our brain to spring into some sort of response. I’d like to argue that it’s an affective response, not necessarily a conscious one (as even Raven acknowledges) but I’d like to argue that sub-conscious responses count as engagement as well. That all of these media experienced through these visual mediums, mediums through which realistically we experience the majority of our lives, are cold, they can be nothing other. That now we have to engage, whether explicitly as many of us do, altering or at the least producing our own images, or at the least, implicitly, in responding affectively to the encounter. Whether the poorness if the image is evident through age, alteration, or something else, we’re engaging.

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