Understanding Media (The Medium is the Message / Hot and Cold)
McLuhan posits that the medium itself is of primary significance, often to the point that it subverts what it is transporting… Ian Bogost’s talk at SoftWhere ’08 comes to mind in which he illustrates this within early videogame development; why certain design decisions were made based largely on the constraints of the Atari 2600 console… resulting in a prevalence of symmetrical game boards… or perhaps less esoteric is Foucault’s account of one culture’s description of another.. Say a broad American interpretation of Vietnam… is ultimately worth little in understanding Vietnamese culture but reveals much in describing America itself.
McLuhan describes the differences between various mediums which must have appeared clear and articulate at the time, but within a model where mediums are constantly revised, repurposed, and transposed it may seem displaced. Hot and Cold things aside… Forms like YouTube have taken hold of mediums once inaccessible… for example.. Though popular cinema has been accessible at the relative whim of the consumer via the neighborhood video rental store for nearly three decades (now supplanted largely by Netflix)… and reproduced forms of contemporary art available as coffee table monographs, the one medium at the rear of the train that has only begun to grant access to its modest consumer base is the less easily translated and monetized medium of video and film of the “fine art” grade. This was largely due to the persistence of the physical object that was both the condensed form of valuation for exchange and also easily replicated without any loss… a condition that few other art objects realize. It may seem hard to believe that the monetary value of many acclaimed video artists is packaged as a certified or signed DVD-R disk… which played a large role in the reluctance to relinquish the content stored on it over to consumers who lacked the resources to buy the “original”… yet without the appreciation of a broad consumer base other than the privileged collector, the art object struggles to gain cultural value… existing in a vault or vacuum of sorts… alas.. convenience always wins in the end.
To make a parallel… I imagine that there are a number of collectors that would be eager to bid thousands for the original hand typed manuscript of Steven King’s “The Stand”… while it may reveal some editorial omissions not apparent in the published version… the message is largely the same in terms of what is read… but the medium is quite different. It’s not the story that the collector is so eager to possess but the uniqueness of the dog-eared, notated, and coffee stained pages.
Getting back to YouTube.. While the online video service offers a vast spectrum of quality, it makes accesible things that never were before. Mathew Barney’s Cremaster cycle, once viewable only at limited screenings or at your own liesure via a costly Laser Disc!.. is now viewable in snippets online. Preserving the orginal’s integrity perhaps through a degraded medium, but allowing general viewership and it’s propagation. See also the more controversial ubu.com.
I would conclude with my largest criticism of McLuhan being that for all his efforts away from categorization he has a tendency to drift back toward it. It’s hard not to in 2010, even harder in 1964. Things like Hot and Cold are perhaps fun constructs, but are ultimately more divisive than constructive. While certain mediums like the graphic novel may appear to engage a different mode of consumption than say film or TV or the internet… it’s most likely relative. If you’ve ever ridden the subway in Tokyo and watched a businessman rapidly turn the pages of his manga in what seems a mechanical and unconscious reflex, it’s arguable how much effort he is conciously exerting to engage with the medium… because in a sense McLuhan is right, the medium is the message and the medium is us.