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Monthly Archives: August 2013

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McLuhan’s hot and cool, an initial consideration

A “hot” medium, a “cool” medium – Marshall McLuhan’s classification of media into these two basic types is fairly well-known even among people only partly familiar with his work. A hot medium is high-definition, engages a sense totally, and doesn’t place much demand on the user for active involvement and participation. A cool medium is low-definition, provides much less detail, and consequently requires users to be active participants of the medium in order to fill out the details.

What doesn’t seem to be remembered as frequently is that McLuhan also applied these two categories to social groupings, and even to individual people.

In fact, from re-reading the relevant chapter in his book Understanding Media, the whole point of the hot/cool classification seems to me to be so that it could be used as a way to assess the nature of the relationship between different media types and different types of people. And to do so in terms of dynamic processes of change, not just in terms of static comparative classification.

It’s almost certainly too simplistic to regard all societies, social groupings and people as existing solely on either side of a single dichotomy, but McLuhan’s ideas are, as he once put it in a journal article, “analogical”, not logical. The point is not what categories are “objectively correct”, but what insights might be gained from thinking in terms of this metaphorical outline. Of course, it’s possible that “what insights might be gained” from employing many of McLuhan’s metaphors could conceivably be what stupid metaphors they are, but let’s not prejudge.

The “hot” and “cool” division for McLuhan was also related to the division between oral and literate cultures. “Hot”, according to McLuhan, also meant “mechanical, uniform and repetitive” – the same characteristics he attributed to societies where literacy predominated –  while “cool” was immersive, holistic and participatory – the characteristics he associated with societies dominated by orality; this included both traditional (pre-literate) “tribal” cultures as well as what might be called “post-literate” cultures, or cultures where electrically-based media were coming to predominate.

Hence it’s possible, according to McLuhan, to understand societies based on what type of media predominates: hot medium = hot society, cool medium = cool society. But, as McLuhan discusses the heating up and cooling down of societies, it seems to me that for McLuhan, hot and cool aren’t just categories, and societies are never just stably “hot” or “cool”. “Hot” and “cool” also refers to ever-present heating and cooling processes. A society might be “hot” or “cool” at any given moment, but they are also always heating up and cooling down, and this is always due to the effects of a medium. McLuhan never discusses a situation where media and society might be in equilibrium that I can see. Instead, he is always concerned with the nature of the current change: is a cool society heating up? Is a hot society cooling down? Or is there a serious problem whereby an already-hot society is becoming even hotter? (Curiously, McLuhan never discusses a situation where a cool society might be getting colder).

This is somewhat more complex than I usually see in discussions of “McLuhan’s hot and cool media”. To further complicate matters, McLuhan’s definition of “medium” seems, from the vantage point of 21st century media studies, astonishingly broad. Light bulbs, money, wheels, and even different types of dance are all discussed as different types of “media” by McLuhan, each presumably understandable as “hot” or “cold” (or perhaps more accurately, having “heating” or “cooling” effects) in their own right. The entire metaphor is either amazingly profound and far-reaching or a massive  and massively unhelpful oversimplification. At this point, I don’t know. But if this particular idea of McLuhan’s is worth pursuing, it’s worth pursuing as more than just a classification of media alone, and as more than just a way of applying static and unchanging categorical labels.

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Beyond reading in print – “close reading” vs “hyper reading”

Reading somewhat generally for my PhD while I still can, I’ve come across an interesting thought on the subject of…erm, of reading.

N. Katherine Hayles is a scholar in the field of what might be called “Digital Humanities”. She has a book called How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Hayles is well within the scholarly school of thought that sees the range of possible human thought and action as strongly related to the tools that humans use, especially tools of thought like media. In this book, her main point of interest is the difference in the practice of the traditional humanities, centred as it is on print and printed books, and the newer “digital humanities”, which rely more on digital tools. But she also has some interesting things to say about reading and media more generally.

For instance: for Hayle, the apparent similarity between the reading of printed words and the reading of words on a contemporary computer screen is misleading. Despite both involving the visual attention to text, the practices developed through reading in the two media types are actually quite different. Hayles refers to the traditional style of reading, cultivated through print, as “close reading”. She calls the type of reading associated with computer reading “hyper reading”.  She describes the differences between the two reading practices on page 12 of her book:

Hyper reading correlates..with hyper attention, a low threshold for boredom, alternates flexibly between different information streams, and prefers a high level of stimulation. Close reading, by contrast, correlates with deep attention, the cognitive mode traditionally associated with the humanities that prefers a single information stream, focuses on a single cultural object for a relatively long time, and has a high tolerance for boredom.

Close reading is what you do when you get engrossed in a book. Hyper reading is what you do when you’re websurfing.

Unlike some contemporary critics of the Internet and its relationships to learning, Hayles doesn’t see hyper-reading and the consequent lack of ability to maintain attention on one text for long as problematic, just different. In fact, the only reason that developing skill in hyper-reading at the expense of skill in close-reading is seen as a problem at all is because close reading has the advantage of the privilege of its traditional importance, stemming from when it was the only type of reading style that existed.

Hayles challenges this, and suggests that in the teaching and practice of the traditional humanities, close reading is given too much of a privileged position. She doesn’t want to abandon the cultivation of close reading altogether, but she thinks it should not be the only type of reading treated as worthwhile:

These correlations suggest the need for pedagogical strategies that recognizes the strength and limitations of each cognitive mode: by implication, they underscore the necessity for building bridges between them.

I like this approach. It’s neither utopian nor pessimistic about “what the Internet does to reading ability”, even as it changes the nature of what “reading ability” might actually entail, and why.

Persona Celebrity Publics Seminar: Graeme Turner, the media industry and the celebrity-commodity

Last Friday I was at the first seminar to be held by Deakin University’s new Emerging Research Group of which I am a student member: Persona Celebrity Publics. As it says on the website blurb, this is a research group that’ll be looking at….well, persona, celebrity and publics for the most part. Celebrity in particular is going to be treated as an essential phenomenon for gaining better understanding of how individual lives are publicly lived in a massively mediated culture. To that end, the first seminar was presented by Graeme Turner, author of the book “Understanding Celebrity”. Graeme’s putting out a second, updated edition of the book (first published in 2004) in the very near future.

His presentation focused on what has changed since the publication of the first edition, both in terms of the operation of celebrity itself and in terms of how celebrity studies had established itself as a credible discipline. The latter strikes me as an important thing to justify, given the tendency of celebrity to be written off as something vapid, ephemeral and unimportant, and therefore unworthy of dignifying with academic study. Taking celebrity seriously, for Graeme, means understanding celebrity in terms of its relationship to the political economy of the media. Celebrity isn’t just a representational froth on the top of deeper, more “important” media processes. Celebrity is a commodity, one that structures, and is structured by, relations of production and consumption in the media industry. The study of the contemporary media industry therefore must be, at least to some extent, the study of celebrity.

The actual extent, and the nature of the relationship between celebrity and media, is obviously a fruitful area of ongoing investigation. However, it seems fairly clear to me that this is complicated by the fact that ideas about what is meant by both “celebrity” and “media” are moving targets. In terms of media, Graeme at one point suggested that recent changes to the media industry have been so profound that they now outstrip the ability of established theories of media analysis to explain them. Part of the reason for studying celebrity, for Graeme, is because he claims that the impact of celebrity is itself one of the things behind that transformation.

That was one of Graeme’s more memorable claims: Graeme is currently of the opinion that the transformed importance of celebrity has effects on the media industry that are equivalent in importance to the diffusion and adoption of new media such as social media. The two most prominent aspects of media transformation that Graeme directly relates to celebrity are the phenomenon of “mediatisation”, or the tendency of media to become the central axis for the understanding and experience of social life, and the transformation of the media industry from being oriented towards the propagation of both information to entertainment to being oriented towards propagating pure entertainment alone. Both are products of the importance of celebrity to the continuing operation of the contemporary media industry.

Has celebrity similarly changed as a concept? Graeme seemed more equivocal about this. In terms of updating examples in his book, much of what he apparently did was simply provide examples of more contemporary celebrities to illustrate the same phenomenon: replacing Britney Spears with Kim Kardashian, for instance. Graeme also claimed that the rise of social media (something that didn’t exist when his book was first published in 2004) isn’t all that distinctive, with the types of “structures” found in the new social media forms pre-existing their instantiation there.

That said, Graeme did pick up quite a few issues with celebrity that were specifically raised by social media interaction. The new concept of “micro-celebrity” on Twitter, as prominently described by boyd & Marwick, has raised new issues about how celebrity as a concept might change with scale, which have not fully been explored. A well-established concept in mass media studies has been that of para-social interaction, or the way in which audience members experience an intimate social connection with someone on TV, who never interacts back. On social media of course, such public figures can – and do – talk back to their fans. Where this leaves the idea of para-social interaction is not at all clear.

I think social media is one area that Graeme might still be working through. As such, his suggestion that the changes he described above might be understood as a change in celebrity practice from “production for public” to “production for network” might be taken as a guide to further elaboration and inquiry rather than as a fixed set of established explanatory ideas. To me it suggests that it might be just as fruitful to examine how transformation in media forms and the media industry might affect the nature of celebrity, not just the other way around. My impression of Graeme’s talk was that he was much more focused on the latter, possibly at the expense of the former.

Although to be honest, there are quite a number of threads regarding celebrity and media that warrant investigation. I’ve barely touched upon the many other recent publications around celebrity that Graeme mentioned in his talk. The overall focus, though, seems to be one of examining the “dynamics” of how celebrity – whether as commodity, phenomenon, or even possibly “pathology” (though Graeme strenuously disagreed with that last one) – is implicated in an “intervention into the social”, as one set of researchers described the effect of reality TV programs on social life.

As a student fairly new to the field of celebrity studies, my main interest is in the demarcations of areas of relevance and relative importance that, to my eye, are still being made in this field. Questions from seminar members seemed to me to confirm that this demarcating process is still ongoing. How, for instance, does celebrity relate to contemporary political life? Graeme described a process of “spectacularisation” that has occurred in contemporary politics, where celebrity practice now acts as a model for political practice: Obama’s political campaign cultivated a political base in much the same way that celebrities cultivate a fanbase, for instance. The operations of news-gathering around celebrities – reliance on publicists over investigative journalism, and interest in the private life of a person above everything else – may also have spread to the news industry generally, to the detriment of effective public policy debate.

Another ongoing debate is what separates “celebrity” from “fame” (or from “spectacularisation”, for that matter). Graeme’s identifying characteristic of a person who is a celebrity has been an interest in a person’s private life, above and beyond what is generally publicly accessible. I’m not sure if this distinction explains everything that is distinctive about celebrity, even if it is important. How, for instance, does it relate to the iconography that surrounds many celebrities (e.g. Marilyn Munroe’s windswept dress), or that attaches itself to political figures, possibly contributing to the process of their celebritisation (e.g. the Obama “Hope” poster)?

And how does the commoditisation of celebrity relate to the available media types available in the society? Graeme seemed to focus on “the media industry” as a whole, but I think the materiality of media technology – the visual spectacle available through film once it achieved prominence in the 1930s, the concept of “celebrity news” as it was instantiated in print, what Marshall McLuhan might call the increasing “hotness” of television as a medium as high-definition TV becomes the norm – these seem to me to be important issues to examine if one wishes to focus on specific areas of media at a lower level of abstraction, as I do, and if one suspects that the quality of celebrity is in part constituted through what kind of media are available, as I do.

All told, I found the seminar quite a useful way of getting an “in” into the world of celebrity studies, and provided me with an appreciation of how celebrity can be useful as a heuristic concept when studying the relationship between media and social life – including areas where celebrity might not seem to have much relevance given the supposed “vapidness” of the phenomenon. I would be interested in seeing how the political economic concept of the celebrity-commodity might fair should one descend from the high position of analysing a singular “media industry” in terms of celebrity-commodity as a structural determinant.

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“Just text Me” by Keisha, and the message in the medium of texting

This amateur music video has been getting a bit of circulation:

Let’s take a moment to recognise that text messaging has become so embedded in our culture that a simple song from a guy dressed as a woman making Seinfeld-like observations in rap about the etiquette of texting someone versus calling them can achieve a relatively significant amount of collective resonance.

That said, what exactly is this song really saying?

The point seems to be one of effective time management, and how the hapless person-who-always-calls-and-never-texts makes that rather more difficult for the person on the receiving end of their “unnecessary calls”:

You don’t see it as a sign that you’re the only one that calls me and at the worst times.

and

it’s just that you’ve already wasted a minute of my time when I could’ve been doing something else.

There’s also a clear undercurrent that the poor subject of the song should “get with the times” and make the effort at understanding how to use the technology “properly”. At the very beginning you can catch a glimpse of previous texting on the main singer’s phone, and the girl she sings about has sent a self-pic to the main singer, immediately followed by the message “sorry, accidental selfie”. There’s a not-too-subtle suggestion that the person who always calls and never texts is (a) stupid, and (b) bad at using technology. These two facts may be related.

The assumption is that texting has made exchange of simple information easier and less burdensome, and that this is a good thing, at least so long as some fool doesn’t consistently fail to make use of the convenient new facility. This is the sort of default assumption that I think Marshall McLuhan was seeking to question in much of his work. His idea, radical at the time he first articulated it, was that assumptions about how media were presumably configured by human thought and behaviour tended to obscure the much more interesting process of how human thought and behaviour were configured by media.

So instead of seeing texting as a better way of exchanging simple coordinating information like “do you want your coffee hot or iced?”, McLuhan would have us investigate the way in which the existence of texting may create the belief that we should economise some of our communications. It’s not just that certain information is automatically better-suited to being texted, it’s that communicating this type of information with friends can now be understood as separable from the more affect-based component of communication as a means of building and maintaining relationships. And because this is now possible there’s this new idea that friends ought to do it wherever possible so as not to disrupt their friends’ time management unless, as the singer says early on, it’s something “much more important”.

Of course, McLuhan was often criticised for his basically non-existent consideration of the importance of non-media aspects of social life like, for instance, economics and capitalism. I believe it was the New Left of the 1960s who coined the derogatory term “McLuhanacy” to describe his philosophy  and its lack of concern for the economic underpinnings of society, something the New Left regarded as central in importance. So I wouldn’t say it’s texting alone that contributes to a sense that wasting friends’ time with “unnecessary” voice communication is bad. The scarcity of time obviously plays an important part.

But I do think the existence of texting has generated assumptions about appropriate and inappropriate uses of time in communication given time’s scarcity, and those assumptions might in turn affect the value given to certain types of communication based on how the process of communication in question need to be configured in time, both individually and collectively. The guaranteed control and rapidity of information sharing via text seems more valuable than the emotional depth available in voice communication, with its relative slowness and need for temporal synchrony. It’s only when there’s certainty that communication will have an emotional component –  when it’s “important” – that voice is preferable to text.

Or, to put it another way, every text message is a closing off of the possibility of an unexpected emotional experience in communication. And many people will readily sacrifice this  possibility for the certainty of being able to control their own schedule.

How Taboo is Facestalking?

“Facestalking is the act of reviewing in detail another person’s Facebook page to follow their activity without necessarily engaging in any form of communication with the person.” This is how Kirsty Young defines facestalking on page 26 of her (publicly accessible) journal article, “Social Ties, Social Networks and the Facebook Experience“. It’s a good first effort at a definition, and Young’s research suggests that this activity of monitoring without engagement is quite common: 67% of her 758 survey respondents said they used Facebook to “follow what is happening in the lives of others”.

I think Young’s research has glossed over an important distinction, though. There’s a difference between monitoring the activity of a Facebook Friend, and monitoring the activity of  someone who is not a Facebook Friend, and is probably never going to become one. “Facestalking”, or variants on the term, seems to be used as a description specifically for the latter situation more often than not, in my experience.

The existence of the distinction, and why this narrower version of “facestalking” is perceived as problematic rather than “generally positive” (as claimed by Young) , is suggested in an open-ended response to one of Young’s survey questions. In response to the question of how a survey respondent would feel if their Facebook profile ceased to exist, one of them said that they would feel “relieved that my ability to stalk other people and look at their lives (eg. ex-boyfriends, etc) is over because that part of Facebook I have issues with and felt slightly guilty about doing”.

Young felt that the guilt was unwarranted given that it was quite common for people to use Facebook to monitor the activities of others. I think Young missed the importance of the fact that monitoring the activity of ex-boyfriends was given as an example of guilt-inducing “facestalking”. I can hazard a guess that this felt problematic because the survey respondent and the ex-boyfriends in question were no longer a part of each other’s social lives – but were still accessible to each other on Facebook.

How common is it to look at the Facebook profiles of people who aren’t in your social life, maybe even tracking their profiles as an ongoing matter? I suspect it occurs far, far more frequently than people actually admit. And why shouldn’t it? People like to know about other people, and the information is there to be read.

There shouldn’t really be any stigma attached to it according to the dominant ideas about privacy and “publicness” of the day: if a profile makes some details public, then it should come as no surprise that members of the general public are going to be able to see those details. And yet, I can’t think of a situation where two people have made unplanned mutual contact for the first time, and one of them casually mentions that  they’ve already had a good look at the other person’s profile. Even if they have. Especially if they have.

So it seems to me that there’s a taboo on this kind of facestalking. Or possibly it’s just taboo to admit to it. Or perhaps it’s taboo to treat it like it’s not something that’s really weird to do. I’m not sure exactly. And I’m not sure as to why such a taboo exists. At the very least I think it suggests that, even in today’s supposedly super-connected world, the appearance of disinterest in people that aren’t in your social life is expected. Even when available technology makes taking an interest easy. Especially when available technology makes taking an interest easy.

What’s the nature of the taboo around facestalking? How strong is it? How strong should it be?