Hot and Cool

McLuhan attempted to gauge a medium’s temperature based upon how participatory they were, but we should not confuse this with the level of engagement which can be driven by a multitude of factors. Hot media like a 3D film in fabulous color is overwhelming – it leaves little room for audience contribution or participation but engages us nevertheless. Cool media like cartoons and television required the audience to fill in the blanks, to think more about what they are absorbing. This requires a greater degree of mental participation, but the level of engagement can be driven by many factors such as the vividness of the image, the interest in the topic, the freshness of the medium and the content to the viewer, etc. In “Understanding Media”, McLuhan stated that hearing a symphony orchestra is a hot experience while viewing an orchestra’s rehearsal is a cool one. The level of engagement would vary based upon one's enjoyment of the type of music or particular work involved, the amount of intimate detail revealed observing the rehearsal, the distance between the audience and the stage, etc.

A hot medium can be intensely engaging – to one audience it could be a great musical or film that overwhelms in story, sound and dramatic performances. To another it is an action movie with continual car chases and shootouts. A cool medium can likewise vary in engagement – a colorful cartoon with developed movements and characterization can be engaging but one that is poorly drawn with little movement would be very dull, even if we subconsiously fill in the details. It is perhaps the ratio between engagement and participation that determines the effectiveness of a medium or a work of art or commerce (i.e. advertising) within that medium. For example, we can now see a movie or TV show and communicate our approval or disapproval via conversation, social media devices, or our initial reactions during the viewing. We can read an article on line and then click on a display or text ad that was relevant to our state of mind when we read the article. The ratio of visual stimulation and participation is a major driver in the addictive attributes of interactive games. Regardless of its media temperature during an initial reading or viewing, engagement will be strengthened with ongoing participation.