The electric era described by McLuhan in the future has already arrived. It has even evolved into a new electric era, which surpasses McLuhan’s imagination. The computers, smart phones, the Internet…it’s time for McLuhan’s prophecies to be obsolete. However, some of his prophecies, still remain to be true.
McLuhan’s central theory is that human modes of thinking are altered by our predominant media of communication. The television, telephones are just tools that men can use for better or worse depending on their talents and moral strength. They radically alter the entire way people use their five senses, the way they react to things, and therefore, their entire lives and the entire society.
Have we been changed?
Let’s take the telephone for an example. In McLuhan’s time, a telephone is just a simple machine whose only function is to provide instant voice messages exchange, and it has a fixed location. According to McLuhan, a telephone gives the ear relatively little data, is thus cool, as is speech; both demand considerable filling in by the listener. However, in our time, the counterpart of telephone— the smartphone, has completely changed.
A smart phone! It is not fair to compare a smart phone with a telephone! Right now a smart phone can do almost everything. It can be a camera to take videos and photos; it can be a map to tell you the directions; it can be a type writer to help you write down and send out your thoughts; it can be a computer to receive and process information; it can even be your wallet to get access to your bank account and pay. Different from the “cool” telephone at McLuhan’s time, our smart phone is so hard to define whether it’s cool or hot.
According to McLuhan, a hot medium is one that extends a single sense with high definition. And high definition means a complete filling in of data by the medium without intense audience participation. The smartphone has so much rich data. We can have visual phone calls, as if the person we are talking to is vividly in front of us; We can see street views with high definition on google map provides us. Not to say the other apps, mimicking the real experiences, aiming to make people think less. They’re trying to be real, so that we can easily absorb the information without so much participation.
But on the other hand, the smartphone still provides a huge space for participation. With the huge boost of transmission efficiency, copy or alter some information has never been this easy. Meanwhile, thanks to app stores, people can now use different apps to create whatever on their smartphones. They can edit a video, write a program, or even alter some functions on their smartphones. The reason why a smartphone is being called a “smart” phone, is because it’s more than just a phone. It gives you the freedom to create, to get involved, to present who you are. It is an identity more than a tool. Hence, it requires much participation.
So we have got our conclusion: a smartphone has both the features of high definition and high participation. Weird! It can neither fit into the definition of hot media nor cool media! Maybe because the smartphone has evolved too much from simply a telephone, and has absorbed too many functions, which makes it hard to be analyzed.
Then let’s put away the disturbing new functions and just focus on the “heirs” of a telephone.
Telephone’s role was to enable people to communicate instantly. To that extent, its counterpart should be phone call and text message.
Let’s begin with the traditional function, phone call. Smartphone (after discarding those disturbing functions, maybe we should say, mobile phone), different from telephone, is mobile and portable. So people can talk whenever and wherever they want. It is a huge convenience, because people can be reached at any time, and any place. Everything’s so certain, just with a call. But the huge convenience can also be a huge disaster.