Hot and Cool in the MediaScene: A McLuhan-Style Art and Theory Project

AUTHORS

Julia M. Hildebrand (Drexel University) and Barry Vacker (Temple University)

1. INTRODUCTION

Anthropocene — Mediacene.

Layers of fossils — Layers of media technology.

Ways of living — Ways of seeing.

If we are in the Anthropocene, then how can we not be in the Mediacene? If technological civilization has transformed the eco-systems on its host planet, Earth, then how can mediated civilization have not transformed the ego-systems in its host species, human consciousness? If we have extended visual technologies into the tiniest particles, into our bodies, around the planet, and into deep space, then how can our visions have not been transformed?

Mediacene. Mediaseen. Media(S)cene.

We do not mean “Mediacene” in a strict scientific sense. Rather, we mean it as a techno-philosophical concept related to how media technologies make us see, and in turn, how we can see them. Hence, the playful term “Media(S)cene.” The goal is to creatively combine theory and art. Rather than explain, the goal is to explore, expand, explode.

As such, we are inspired by media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who claims that “Scientists make their discoveries as ‘artists,’ not specialists. Such scientists construct experiments as “works of art” to probe the environment.”[1] With the Media(S)cene, we want to present an imaginative probe into our contemporary media environment. It’s like McLuhan’s approach upgraded for the 21st century — “McLuhan 21.0.”

More concretely, the Media(S)cene is a model for a visual media ecology and a call for art for this media epoch, a project for this seeing, this accelerating media evolution — on Earth, in space, into the Hubble universe of the 21st century. Why? Because it’s the media epoch. We’re in it. There is no exit. We need a fresh understanding. We agree—theory needs art, design, architecture, and other creative works. Now.

Banner and poster design: Sheryl Kantrowitz, Temple University.

2. LOVE AND THE VOID

1967 saw the publication of McLuhan’s classic art-text, The Medium is the Massage, exploring how media — human-made technologies — “massage” our senses, our ways of feeling, thinking, and being. Its original cover featured a woman wearing a LOVE-dress. Fittingly, that year also saw the release of the Beatles’ classic song, “All You Need is Love” — which was created as Britain’s contribution to Our World, the very first live international satellite television broadcast that literally reached around the globe. A prophetic forerunner to YouTube, Our World featured programming about everyday life in nineteen nations and reached 400–700 million people, the largest television audience ever up-to-that date. The program was broadcast on June 25, during the famed Summer of Love. As an expression of the utopian optimism of the moment, the Beatles performed “All You Need is Love” to close the broadcast.

McLuhan’s famed book of media theory (L). Logo for “Our World” satellite global broadcast (R, Top); The Beatles singing “All You Need is Love” to close the broadcast of “Our World” (R: Bottom).

Five decades later, it seems as if “All You Need is Like in Our World that has media infrastructures and mobile technologies spanning the globe, further massaging our senses, ways of seeing, moving, doing, being. At the same time, our media technologies have extended deeper into outer space, making Our World seem like an utter speck amid the voids of the Milky Way and the expanding universe. We face the paradox of our civilization’s greatest discovery: The universe is vast and majestic, and our species is insignificant and might be utterly meaningless. We’ve found 2 trillion galaxies, but no aliens, no gods, and no universal meaning for human existence. Zero, nada, zip.

The paradox of our greatest achievement: we’re brainy, but tiny. The infinite and the infinitesimal.

Is that why, every day most of us fill an empty hand with a mobile phone and fill our eyes with an electronic screen roaming that world? McLuhan’s “global village” jam-packed with online tribes vying for more followers, fans, but also feuds? Media massages that help us feel special in an immense universe? Our tech consolation for our cosmic insignificance? Media building, loving, liking, shaming, hating… sensory massaging to fill existential voids?

We are facing voids in the universe, our philosophies, our knowledge, and our everyday. We create theories, technologies, practices, and relationships that help us distract from, close in, or fill those voids. Yet, in the ever-expanding universe, the voids, too, are expanding. More massages, please!

By juxtaposing the LOVE with a VOID dress (and yes, of course, there is a smartphone), we want to zoom in on a macro-media-theory that connects the small with the big, the inner with the outer, the finite with the infinite. How we make that visible and how, in turn, we are affected by those visibilities. Media scenes and Media seen. The idea is to think about contemporary media massages on a larger scale. A big strata.

3. BIG STRATA

Our different ways of seeing span eons. Petroglyphs to photographs, movies to TVs, phones to drones, supercolliders to space telescopes — technologies of sight all now made visible on screens, made mobile and global via networks that traverse the planet, made interstellar by leaving the solar system and peering into deep space.

Extending from inside the human body, into society, across and above Earth’s surface and into outer space are layered networks of media technologies — a media strata. The contemporary physical layers are obvious: Fiber optics and phone lines are underground and under the oceans, while mobile phones are above ground and drones are in the air and satellites are in space; the Large Hadron Collider is buried underground, while the Hubble Telescope is orbiting the planet and Voyager has exited the solar system.

Within those media layers are other media layers spanning the planet, permeating our cities, propelling data through our devices. A central infrastructure is the Internet, within which is the World Wide Web, within which are social media. Data centers, data bases, software, code. Layers of tweets, timelines, and status updates. Cell towers and satellite dishes. Street lights, electric lights, and LED signs. There are platform layers, interface layers, address layers, and user layers. “Grids” on the surface, “Clouds” above, housing and being housed by Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, the National Security Agency, and endless other firms and government agencies around the world.[2] Big strata, big data, big brother.

Extending in multiple directions from within the big strata are several overarching types of visual media technologies — each unique yet overlapping and interconnected. Each positions the view and viewer, the gaze and gazer, the sight and seer in particular ways shaping both subject and object, the visualizer and the visualized. As McLuhan argued, individually and collectively, media technologies “massage” our consciousness toward media-specific ways of seeing, ways of knowing, ways of believing.[3] We recognize four major types of visual and visualizing media technologies:

ENDO-MEDIA

These look into the inner workings of things in the universe, be it human or nonhuman. Current examples include the Large Hadron Collider, microscopes, digital x-ray imaging, magnetic resonance imaging, and many genetic technologies.

EGO-MEDIA

These look at humanity’s socio-cultural activities, the individual and the collective, the self and the other, the profane and the sacred. Examples include cave paintings, drawings, photographs, cinema, television, computers, smartphones, and, of course, social media.

ECO-MEDIA

These look down upon Earth’s surface, landscapes, architectures, infrastructures, oceans, and continents. Here, we are using “eco” in the broad sense of technologies that look at geographies, ecologies, habitats, and environments, natural and human-made. Current examples are aerial imaging technologies such as satellites and drones.

EXO-MEDIA

These look away toward the planets and stars, into the interstellar and intergalactic, attempting to reach furthest out into the universe. Current examples are the Hubble Space Telescope, the Atacama Array, Voyager, Mars Rover, and any other telescopes and space probes.

Each visual technology is a specific “vision machine,” to use Paul Virilio’s term, with its “vision” shaped by the direction of the gaze and the distance it travels. Each vision machine opens up novel abilities to see and visualize (along with monitoring and control).[4] Differentiating between those four types and exploring the direction of their gazes opens up new avenues for understanding our current visual media environment and its effects on us individually and collectively.

The types of visual media technologies can overlap and are interconnected. The electric light, McLuhan’s medium without a specific content, is the ground for all screen media, be it endo, ego, eco, or exo. It illuminates paths, streets, and cities and can thus function as an eco-medium, while also visualizing ego-media on digital screens. One can argue that the glowing lights from screens and cities spanning the planet, effecting a 24/7 civilization, has become a spectacle that erases nature and the night sky from our daily consciousness. Exo-media images (galaxies, black holes) circulate via ego-media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), while all four media types are linked via the Internet. Operated at a distance, the civilian drone is an eco-medium capturing beaches and sunsets, treating humans as mostly surface phenomena. Yet, the closer the drone to the human, the more ego becomes the medium. Ego-media and exo-media in particular can conflict easily. Why? One is hot and the other one cool.

4. HOT vs. COOL

In the 1960s, McLuhan developed a hot-cool binary based on how much human involvement is needed when engaging with a medium. A hot or high-definition medium such as film requires little participation and involvement from us to make sense of the information provided. Think: a movie audience watching in the theater. In contrast, a cool or low-definition medium, such as a landline telephone, asks for much more sensory investment from someone conversing on the phone, filling in mental images around the words of the person on the other line.

Intrigued by the poetics of the hot and cool, we re-theorize McLuhan’s binary towards a different hot-cool scale that spans our endo-, ego-, eco-, and exo-media. This hot-cool scale allows us to hone in on how those layers of visual media operate and why.

HOT MEDIA

Endo and ego-media are hot media that promote an inward gaze, with viewing subject and viewed objects in close proximity to each other. Hot media deal with higher densities of matter, molecules, atoms, events, energy, humans, and thus high friction. In proximity, entities can rub or smash against one another. Acceleration, quick reactions, short attention spans, instant feedback loops. Temperatures are higher, tempers are hotter.

Meme-style graphic for the above paragraph.

As such, endo-media reveal atoms and molecules billions of years old, along with tight clusters of subatomic particles, protons, neutrons, electrons, hadrons, leptons, muons, and ever smaller. Ancient rocks, precious metals, light metals, heavy metals, radiation. Inside our bodies, we see cells and neurons, diseases and antibodies, replicating viruses and mutating DNA. At and below the Earth’s surface, we see our ways of living conflict with Earth, humanity’s ego-systems disrupting the planet’s eco-systems. Layers of our fossils, detritus, pollution, leftover radiation from atomic bombs, along with increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In the oceans, there are warmer waters, rivers of nitrogen, increasing acidification, dead zones, bleached coral, gyres of plastic garbage. In the Anthropocene, hot endos and egos fuel the global warming of eco.

Hence, heat and friction also lie in our global layers of ego-media, giant clusters of networks and webs, all jammed with ever more contents and contexts. Platforms, websites, services, affordances. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, Netflix. Social media sharing, caring, shaming, connecting. Hashtags and emojis, clickbait and catfishers. Hot takes, hive-minds, eHarmony. YOLO. Tinder love, tribal chieftains, Internet trolls, TV realities, Twitter gods. Fake news, false flags, and filter bubbles. FOMO. Cute cat videos and candy crushes. LOL. Meming and mining. Copies of copies of copies. Reduce, remix, redact. Colliding echo chambers. Siri and Alexa. Firewalls and border walls. Breaking news, Streetviews, Times Square. Screens and screening. TSA, NSA, MI6, MSS. Governments, corporations, and capitalism. Democracy, socialism, and fascism. Arab Spring. Occupy. Women’s March. #MeToo. Superheroes, Super Bowls, and World Cups. Empowerment, domination, entertainment, distraction. Tribe rubs against tribe. Proximity, friction, and heat in hot ego-media.

Meme-style graphic for the above paragraph.

COOL MEDIA

Eco- and exo-media are cool media. Those technologies with mostly an outward gaze, with objects further apart or moving away. Earth is below us, the stars are beyond us, and galaxies are moving away. Cool media deal with lower densities, lower friction, with distance, drift, wander, wonder, wow. Temperatures are lower, tempers are cooler. Whatever is hot out there — such as stars, black holes, and supernovas — is surrounded by the cool, the void, the entropy toward absolute zero. Big bang to the big chill. Deep space, deep time, deep futures.

Meme-style graphic for the above paragraph.

In the cool gaze, events slow, attention spans grow, reflection trumps reaction, the species supersedes the tribe, borders and wars become artificial and absurd. Micro-particularities and hot affective conditions are not visible, but large-scale patterns, movements, and locations become more apparent. The more distant, aerial, and heightened perspective — beyond the thick, hot, reactive layers closer to us — opens up larger views and visions. Google Earth, Hubble Deep Fields, Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The cosmic web of galaxies, in a universe getting less crowded by the moment, with all galaxies destined to disappear beyond all horizons. Thrust apart by ever expanding voids of space, the universe is expanding in all directions, likely forever, across trillions of trillions of years, toward thermodynamic exhaustion, zero energy. Voids, holes, and emptiness in outer space and our philosophies become visible. We are the center of nothing. Negative space. Nihilism. Enlightenment. The universal over the tribal. Terrestrial heat replaced by the cosmic chill. There are no widely-accepted politics or political narratives in the cool. Hot politics freeze in the cosmic background temperature.

Meme-style graphic for the above paragraph.

Can hot and cool overlap? Yes. That’s why this is a hot-cool scale and not a typology with fixed categories and clear-cut boundaries. Google Earth gets hotter the closer it zooms in toward Streetview but gets cooler the further it zooms out to show Earth as a planet in its totality. The Large Hadron Collider is a hot endo-medium, but its intense heat and energy might help us understand the expansion of the universe mapped by cool media. Deep Field images appear in hot Twitter, but we know the Hubble telescope is peering into an ancient universe expanding from the heat of the big bang toward the deep cool of infinite entropy. Deep space, deep cool. The void. Also, atoms are mostly empty, with vast spaces of mostly nothingness. In voids and vastness, hot meets cool.

Moreover, there seems to be a traceable dynamic between ego- and exo-media of one countering the other (see Extension-Reversal graphic below). Hot and cool collide and conflict. Hot prevails over cool, when we focus on ourselves and consume ego-media’s endless spectacles, shares, and status updates. Extensions into the cool trigger reversals into the hot. It’s more comfy in the warm.

5. EXTENSIONS AND REVERSALS

Over the past century, exo-media and ego-media technologies have co-evolved in a strange dance of extensions and reversals. Since Edwin Hubble’s unveiling of the expanding universe, there has been a long line of dual discoveries and innovations — scientific discoveries revealing a vast universe of which we are not the center as well as technological innovations that place us at the center of the mediated universe. It seems as if ego-media might be our consolation for exo-media, for not being the center of the universe.

Drawing from Marshall and Eric McLuhan, this co-evolution can be theorized in terms of enhancement, retrieval, obsolescence, and reversal, as detailed in Laws of Media (1988). Each media technology simultaneously extends our senses and retrieves something previously lost. At the same time, each technology contains the genetic code of its own reversal, the point when the technology is pushed to an extreme — or overextended — flipping its original functions and benefits. For example, the car is an extension of our feet, enabling a more mobile society, but its overuse and proliferation resulted in traffic congestion and accidents, thus less or no movement. The development of the car engine and the phenomenon of mechanical acceleration resulted in cultural byproducts such as “fast” food and increased waste, which eventually reversed into the “slow” food and city movements.

TELEVISION

Let’s consider an ego-medium. Television is an extension of our eyes, ears, and consciousness around the planet, while the light shining through the screen retrieves cave paintings and campfire tales (television programming). By retrieving images and information from around the planet and outer space, TV’s glowing screen (the light shining through toward us) effects a reversal of the vanishing point in mirroring the world — thus placing human consciousness at the center of everything. A similar process is visible with social media. In a sense, Facebook is television by other means.

TELESCOPES

As an exo-medium, telescopes extend our eyes and expand our awareness, enabling us to increase our knowledge of the universe as well as further understand our own planet. By gaining this knowledge, we’ve encountered both the cosmic sublime and cosmic nihilism. Terrified, we reverse and seek refuge in anything that would return us to the center of the universe, such as theism, television, or social media technologies. Like all telescopes, the Hubble Space Telescope extends the electronic eye and consciousness into deep space, along with the television, the microchip, and the computer, while retrieving the petroglyph, the campfire, and the night sky lost to electric light in the metropolises. As with television, the visual vanishing point is still reversed, but the additional information provided by spectral photography challenges the centrality of the human viewer by showing a universe of vast size, scale, and age.

Since telescopes and other exo-technologies have allowed us to see we’re not the center of the universe, we argue that a massive McLuhan-like reversal has been underway. The technologies of the space age were greeted with global enthusiasm in the 1960s, yet the very meanings of the vast universe lack such global attention and passion when those sights and insights challenged previous cosmologies, ideologies, and theologies. We had to rethink or reverse. For the most part, we have reversed towards ego-centric instead of exo-centric patterns.

As shown in the graphic below, the evolution of electronic television, hypertext, the world wide web, and Facebook follows a parallel trajectory to Edwin Hubble, the Hubble Space Telescope, and how we see ourselves in a vast and expanding universe. Television and the electronic screen, for instance, are ego-media emerging and evolving with key moments in the use of telescopes, the central exo-media in revealing the size and scale of the universe. The graphic shows how key discoveries of exo-media are paralleled by major technological developments for ego-media. Just as exo-media show we’re are not the center of the universe, ego-media simulate that we are the center of the universe, at least the center of everything important.

6. THE SCREEN IS THE SCENE

The Media(S)cene is simultaneous explosion and implosion, taking place on our screens and in our society. Digital media are proliferating rapidly, as visible in the explosion of screens, images, and data. Yet, these same technologies are also causing an implosion of perception, resulting in networks of echo chambers.

As McLuhan explains in Through the Vanishing Point (1970), television (with its light flowing through the screens) effects a reversal in the vanishing point, which is no longer “out there” but “in here” — such as in the spectator’s living room and consciousness. “Our World” is just beyond the screen, coming towards us, massaging us with a torrent of views, visions, vistas.

McLuhan’s insights are even more relevant in the 21st century. Screens keep proliferating, through which vanishing points are reversed and images collide and collapse upon human consciousness. In effect, each viewer is a vanishing point, a neural node of electronic subjectivity and cosmic centrality, point zero for echo chamber culture.

To consume the world via the screen is to let the world crash upon and into you — implosion. Simultaneously, images replicate, screens get larger, vision sees further, big data grows exponentially, and the universe along with our knowledge of it expand in all directions — explosion. The viewer is a mobile vanishing point for all things, the center of everything, the pre-Copernican in a Hubble universe. Ego-media make us the center of the universe. iPhone therefore I am.

The cult show Black Mirror gets this, for the black mirrors are our screens reflecting us to us — we’re the vanishing points, the echo chambers. With electronic screens, all points end in us, not in some external realm of universal enlightenment. It’s been that way since the first black mirrors, the obsidian disks used 10,000 years ago. Cathode ray tubes. Liquid Crystal Display. Plasma screen. Gorilla Glass. All black mirrors. Screens.

Our electronic experiences collide, collapse, and crash into the spectacle on the screens, shooting photons into our eyes and shaping perception in our minds — ways of seeing what counts as real, true, good, valuable, and beautiful on planet Earth hurtling through the universe.

In the Media(S)cene, both our visual media world and media-specific worldviews demand attention. So how do processes of implosion and explosion show across endo-, ego-, eco-, and exo-media?

ENDO-MEDIA

Explosion through smashing the smallest particles in the universe, through invasion into the smallest parts of the human body. We’re made of stardust, our atoms forged in stars. Teletechnologies, such as the microscopes and cameras, extend the gaze ever inward, from the Human Genome Project to CRISPR, gene mapping to gene-editing. Virilio warns that after teletechnologies have conquered “the territorial body and the geological core of our planet, our own “animal body” is to be colonized in an “intraorganic intrusion of technology and its micromachines into the heart of the living.[5] The result is a new Darwinian, from natural evolution to techno-evolution. An edited and augmented human is emerging, better and worse at once.

EGO-MEDIA

Ego-centric views and visions projected onto life and Earth. Implosion of the social into the virtual, explosion of the self upon the screen, implosion of the self into oneself. Self-consumption, self-absorption, and ultimately self-amputation.[6] Total tuning in leads to sensory overload. According to McLuhan, we can’t help but become numb and tune out. Amplification turns into amputation, cutting off our awareness of ego-media’s impact on us. Numbed, we turn to the ego-defaults. Money. Power. Domination. Distraction. Social media: Facebook, Facetime, Snapchat, Instagram. Twitter. Tinder. Networked narcissism, shared e-subjectivity, the search for sex and love. Mobile vanishing points. Screens spanning the abyss. The new pre-Copernicans.

ECO-MEDIA

Explosion of visual media above the planet, looking at and down, visualizing global patterns. Apollo 8’s Earthrise image. Earth from space at night, cities aglow and networked around the planet. Continental drift, deforestation, ice sheets melting, C02 emissions, urban sprawl. Meanwhile, implosion of the earthly resources (that help build and maintain endo-, ego-, and eco-media infrastructures and ecologies).

EXO-MEDIA

Explosion of views into outer space, to the edge of reachable space and time. Two trillion galaxies, expanding outward — explosion. Photos rushing toward us, through the Hubble Space Telescope, through our screens — implosion. Deep space, deep time. As human knowledge of the exo expands, actual and potential operations cramp back into the ego; Mars colonization, moon mining. Exo- meet endo-media at the Large Hadron Collider. Acceleration inward to recreate the big bang, smashing particles at the Large Hadron Collider — explosion and implosion.

In combination, eco- and exo-media can have profound effects on us when it comes to environmental and cosmic awareness of the self and other. Seeing Earth from space, as with Apollo 8’s Earthrise image, has deeply affected not only numerous space travelers but also ecological theory more generally. While aboard the Apollo spacecraft or the International Space Station, astronauts and cosmonauts report experiencing deep feelings of awe, self-transcendence, and a primal connection to the universe. Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell described the experience as an “explosion of awareness.” This “explosion of awareness” provides an exciting and existential basis for a 21st century media philosophy — for the future of the human species on Earth and in space.

7. CODA or WHY WE NEED ART

The Media(S)cene presents such a media philosophy for our contemporary visual media environment. It serves as an aesthetic and artistic framework that can be a “teaching machine for the training of perception and judgment.”[7] As endo-, ego-, eco-, and exo-media shape and reshape our ways of seeing and being, we call for artistic reflection and creative action to assess and address the contemporary hot and cool, the implosive and explosive character of the Media(S)cene and its effects on us.

The Media(S)cene is why Apple computers became the first company worth $1 trillion—its elegant design and architecture capitalize on hot ego-media, filled with reversals centered on humanity and its activities. This makes Apple an entertainment company as much as a computer company, with its elegant design smoothly delivering far more entertainment than enlightenment. The elegance of Apple begs to be countered an elegant theory. Hot and Cool is that theory. As McLuhan presaged, “Perhaps it is time for the roles of artist and bureaucrat/entrepreneur to reverse positions. Our New World of chaos and complexity is too volatile, too precarious, too important to be left in the hands of the merely practical administrator.”[8] Indeed, it is time. Time for the explosion of media to be countered by an explosion of awareness, a counter-aesthetic. Apple, please move over for the artists, as well as the designers, architects, and other creative theorists.

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[1] Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan, Media and Formal Cause (NeoPoiesis, 2011): 55.

[2] Benjamin Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015).

[3] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964): vii-viii; Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage (San Francisco: Hard Wired Books, 1996 [1967]): 68; Marshall McLuhan, Counterblast (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1969): 85.

[4] Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb (London: Verso, 2000).

[5] Paul Virilio, The Art of the Motor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999): 100.

[6] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).

[7] Marshall McLuhan, opening of the last chapter of Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting “The Emperor’s New Clothes” (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).

[8] Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan, Media and Formal Cause (NeoPoiesis, 2011): 139.

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