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Marshall McLuhan’s Theory Essay

How might Marshall McLuhan’s theory of hot and cold media be used to explain the surge of interest in mobile technology, especially text and picture messaging?

‘Any invention or technology is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies, and such extension also demands new ratios or new equilibriums among the other organs and extensions of the body’, Marshall McLuhan in ‘Understanding Media’ (1964, p43). A comment which has possibly never been truer than when understood with regard to a mobile phone. McLuhan’s theories have recently been given new life with the onset of the Internet; however, they can also be usefully applied to the massive explosion of mobile technology. Given it is a medium which some may consider to be cool; its impact on society has been immeasurable.

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In today’s society it is difficult to meet a person between the ages of fifteen and fifty who do not own a mobile phone. Like televisions, it is the electronic accessory of the moment and it is advancing fast. Only five years ago text messaging was in its infancy and not all phones offered it; picture messaging was unheard of. Nowadays picture messaging is very much here and already the technology has moved towards video messaging. Some ‘mobile phones’ would be more accurately described as hand held computers as the telephony is only a fraction of its capabilities and often not even its main function. As with most mobile phones the main function consumer’s use is text messaging.

According to McLuhan in ‘Understanding Media’ (1964) the advent of a hot explosive medium can cause drastic changes to politics and society. This can be seen in the effects that such technology has had on not only the telephone but the way people communicate in day to day life. However, when contrasted with a hot medium such as television or cinema, text and picture messaging are comparatively cool. They provide far less information and demand more participation from the receiver to fill in the gaps. Pictures received in messages are only small and very symbolic rather than detailed. There is also only limited space for text and language is often limited to abbreviations and annotation. Of course when compared to the standard telephone, mobile technology is considerably hotter, however, in order to stay within McLuhan’s theory, and for the medium to cause such a change in society, one would assume that the medium itself would need to be hotter.

Such a change could be better explained and explored by the theories of Roland Barthes, particularly his writings on myths and semiotics. In a collection of articles entitled ‘Mythologies’ (1973) Barthes explores practical objects and their cultural meanings. Examining such objects as cars and haircuts he scrutinizes the ‘signifiers’ and ‘signs’ that they contain. ‘Barthes begins by making explicit the meanings of apparently neutral objects and then moves on to consider the social and historical conditions they obscure’ (McNeill 1996). He examined cars, comparing them to Gothic cathedrals, due to their uses over and above their basic functions. Cars carry status and tell a lot about the person who owns them (Barthes 1973). Such meanings can also easily be drawn from mobile phones. Far more useful than assessing whether or not they are hot or cold, deeper more analytical conclusions can be derived from Barthes’ methods. By examining the semiotics of the medium its position in society and culture and its effects could be estimated. In ‘Mythologies’ (1973) ‘he argued that myth was a mode of signification.

He argued that in myth, the link between the signifier and the signified was motivated…so that a culturally constructed sign becomes a signifier, thus allowing what is signified to become naturalised’ (Hartley 2002). Hartley goes on to apply this theory to brand named sports wear and their attached meanings. Such an application could be used with mobile technology as not only are there many different mobile phones with different functions but many different brands. ‘Nokia’, in particular, as the apparently leading brand, has different model phones which contain different signifiers. Some appear fun and contain lots of features and gadgets; others appear sophisticated and look sleek and small. Others exist for practical purposes for uses who are less taken by mobile phone culture. Given the huge range of choice on offer, not just by ‘Nokia’ but all brands, the decision of which phone to purchase is an active one which takes serious contemplation. More can be said for a person who uses picture messaging. Society has not quite reached a stage where its considered a ‘necessity’ like text messaging so those who do use it are those who are particularly interested in the culture. More so as these phones and messages cost more it signifies how much money a person has or at least how they prioritise their spending. More meanings could be drawn from how often a person uses their phone and how many different people they know who can accept picture messages.

Barthes also wrote about Text itself and its semiotics, arguing that words are strong and can be used as political weapons, as they have been in post World War II politics. He charts the beginning of the ‘moment of the text’ as 1968 (Hartley 2002). This seems to have affected the whole of society as people now talk to each other less, preferring to e-mail or send text or picture messages. McLuhan has commented on discourse and text. According to a website called ‘Marshall McLuhan: spinning the web of the future’, <accessed 13/12/03> ‘specifically, McLuhan feels that the best way to convey information between two people is to maximize the use of the senses…[therefore] ancient oral civilizations appeared to have the greatest and most clear form of communication.’ That is not the written word, but the spoken. This has, however, been criticised by Miller (1971) who ‘disagrees with this assumption because he feels that humanity has evolved with technology and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. The reality is that further technological advances have given humanity the ability to communicate using mediums that are essentially extensions of the spoken word.’

McLuhan expressed concern over the effects of technology and its result in the loss of human identity, although he did not see it as a bad thing, it was something to be maintained and supervised. His concerns could be justified, however, in that nowadays people talk to each other less, preferring to communicate by the written, or typed, word. Concern should probably not to be so extreme as to fear the breakdown of society but it has seriously affected how we communicate and what we now spend our money on. According to McLuhan in ‘Understanding Media’ (1964) intense, hot media needs to be cooled off by our senses before it can be assimilated. Possibly then the appeal of the text and picture message is that they are easier to take in on a sensory level. They are quick, take only seconds to read and write and enough time is given to process the information between each message and response. Radio and cinema act as an assault on the senses demanding that attention be paid in order to take it all in, although fewer gaps need to be filled. In two-way communication, however, it allows the user time to consider their response and therefore reduces the risk of saying something which one may regret later.

If we put together the two theories of McLuhan and Barthes it is possible to achieve composite critique of the phenomenon of mobile technology. Although much of what was written by, particularly McLuhan, has been excessively criticised, some disregard it all together, he makes some points which are useful when examining this area of contemporary media and technology. Using McLuhan to explore the more technical aspects of text and picture messaging, suggesting why it may be so popular. Due to its being hotter than a normal telephone it is likely to be the next step in technology and its convenience makes it so popular. Also fact that it is cooler than other direct forms of media and allows more time and less information for the brain to process ensures it is easier on our senses. Its very presence has caused an upheaval in our society and we have taken the next cultural and technological step in our ever progressing development.

Barthes, on the other hand, we can look to for inspiration in analysing the cultural aspects of such communication technology and what it means. Using his methodology of examining mobile phones for signs and signifiers many conclusions can be drawn. As phones differ widely in style and in what features they contain each person can be judged on the phone they own, or the phone they wished they owned. Someone who has a phone that looks good, rather than containing many features is clearly saying something about the way in which they want to present themselves. Furthermore, a person who cares less about how the phone looks and more about what it does suggests something else. Most phones which contain more features, particularly a camera are usually larger and look less neat than those with fewer features. Phones that can be used to record short pieces of film or watch videos on are bigger still yet there are already people who own them. Such people may be looking for a phone with more functional value, as well as their having an interest in gadgets. That said, however, we can assume they gain intrinsic pleasure from showing a person what their, apparently less attractive, phone can do. We could also assume that such people wish to be ahead of technology and enjoy being one of the first to own such items.

Near enough all young people own mobile phones and few would deny that they gain pleasure and enjoyment from them. ‘Texting’ has become a common, everyday form of communication; one that did not exist during the lifetimes of Marshall McLuhan or Roland Barthes and it can be assumed that neither would have anticipated this surge in technology. Both would express concern at its immense popularity as it risks people becoming less sociable and having less actual conversation. Another side to that argument, however, could be that it increases human interaction, it just takes place in a different way. People can now contact their family, friends and acquaintances much easier and faster. To send a text message to say ‘hello’ is far quicker and easier than making a phone call which could result in lengthy conversation. Whereas once a person may have decided against the phone call for that reason they will now send a text message. It is probably safe to say that, given that human beings are an innately social species, and indulge in conversation for pleasurable as well as functional purposes that if what they desire is a conversation then that will be sought above a text message.

It is hard to predict where society and culture will go with this ever increasing technological development. In the next year or so we can assume that videophone will become much more popular and that mobile phones will continue to develop into small computers than ‘phones’. Living in a century where convenience is emphasised and encouraged and our lives are busier it is likely that less face to face interaction will take place however with the help of the mobile phone we can avoid losing contact altogether.

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