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ARCHIVED - Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan

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Hot and Cool

When McLuhan discussed visual space, he usually associated it with "hot media." Hot media are high in definition, and thus demand little participation on the part of the user. Generally speaking, they are associated with the eye, rather than the ear. Some hot media (such as print), are like visual space in that they are sequential, linear and logical.

Acoustic space, on the other hand, is usually associated with "cool media," and generally with the ear. Cool media are low in definition, and demand high participation from the user. In contrast to hot media, which favour analytical precision, quantitative analysis and sequential ordering, cool media demand perception of abstract patterning and simultaneous comprehension of all parts.

Hot and cool media are not well-developed concepts and, by forcing media into binary categories, seem to lead McLuhan in the direction of the functionalism he sought to criticize. 18 For instance, many readers find the characterization of television as a cool medium puzzling, since television is usually considered to be less participatory than radio. Since cool media are associated with acoustic space, it can be confusing to discover radio is considered a hot medium. One way to make sense of "hot" and "cool," however, is to consider McLuhan's emphasis on the extension of one sense over the others as a defining feature of hot media. The intense and singular focus on the ear led McLuhan to think of radio as hot. Looked at this way, concepts which may appear as oppositional or binary become more relational. When comparing two media, hot and cool are measures on a scale -- "cooler than" or "hotter than" -- not dichotomous terms. 19

McLuhan's understanding of oral culture differed from Innis's in a significant way that's worth noting here. While Innis valued the discussion and debate emphasized in the oral cultures of ancient Greece, McLuhan favoured the predominantly oral cultures of the Middle Ages, which were rooted in chant and memory. 20

HOT: high in definition; low in participation Media: film; radio; the lecture; photograph

COOL: low in definition; high in participation Media: television; the seminar; cartoons

McLuhan frequently referred to a chart that hung in his seminar room at the University of Toronto. This was a type of shorthand for understanding the differences between hot and cool media, characterized by their emphasis on the eye or the ear. 21


left hemisphere (hot) controls right side of the body;

  • visual
  • speech
  • verbal
  • analytical
  • mathematical
  • linear
  • detailed
  • sequential
  • controlled
  • intellectual
  • dominant
  • worldly
  • quantitative
  • active
  • sequential ordering


right hemisphere (cool) controls the left side of the body;

  • spatial
  • musical
  • acoustic
  • holistic
  • artistic
  • symbolic
  • simultaneous
  • emotional
  • creative
  • minor
  • spiritual
  • qualitative
  • receptive
  • synthetic
  • gestalt
  • facial recognition
  • simultaneous comprehension
  • perception of abstract patterns
Photograph of Lester B. Pearson's image on television screen, 1960, by Duncan Cameron


Lester B. Pearson's image on television screen, circa 1960, photograph by Duncan Cameron

Photograph of John G. Diefenbaker seated in a radio broadcast studio, circa 1960, by Duncan Cameron


John G. Diefenbaker during a radio broadcast, circa 1960, photograph by Duncan Cameron

Photograph of Marshall McLuhan wearing academic garb, January 21, 1967, by Yousuf Karsh


Marshall McLuhan, January 21, 1967, photograph by Yousuf Karsh


18. Marchessault, Marshall McLuhan, Cosmic Media, p. 177.

19. Katz and Katz, "McLuhan: Where Did He Come From, Where Did He Disappear?"

20. Carey, "Marshall McLuhan: Genealogy and Legacy."

21. See also "Harold Innis: The Philosophical Historian. An Exchange of Ideas Between Prof. Marshall McLuhan and Prof. Eric A. Havelock," recorded at Innis College, Toronto, October 14, 1978.

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