Distance Learning #7 – Re-reading Marshall McLuhan, pt. 2

Posted on Dec 12, 2009

More on re-reading Marshall McLuhan’ s “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” (1964).

When McLuhan describes media as “hot” or “cool”, he is referring to the “richness” of data that the medium offers to the consumer of it. For example, a cartoon is a “cool” medium because of its lack of detail. What it lacks in fidelity, the consumer “fills in” the rest, or becomes more involved in extracting meaning. A “hot” medium, like a photograph, provides high definition, and does not require the viewer to “fill in” the visual information.

McLuhan cites another example of a “cool” medium in a more social context: when a woman wears sunglasses, it conceals her eyes, causing men to “complete” the mysterious, capricious, aspects of her image. This “cool” form of socially acceptable flirtation contrasts with the overtly “hot” medium of pornography, whose narrative invariably concludes with a most explicit statement of sexual availability. Pornographic visual narrative is almost entirely predicated on transporting the viewer from a “cool” ambiguous starting point in a relationship (or a feigning of it) to a presumably socially unacceptable or taboo “hot” relationship. In other words, pornographic narrative begins at a point where there is little information to describe the relationship between the actors, and abruptly ends when the relationship is defined in its most unambiguous terms.

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone writes about human female “genital exposure avoidance” in great detail in “Corporeal Archetypes and Power: Preliminary Clarifications and Considerations of Sex” (Hypatia, Volume 7 Issue 3, Pages 39 – 76). Her proposition describes, among many things, how sitting and standing postures for men and women reflect differences in acceptable genital exposure, and how they also emulate differences in power, or the negation of power. This behavior has been explained, errantly, on biological assumptions of the meaning of primate sexual behavior, e.g. submission, inferiority, choice or lack of it. Biology has been used in patriarchal canon as a basis for prescribing what behavior or postures are appropriate for woman as though they are rooted in nature.

These proposals about “hot” and “cool” media and behavior point to a relationship between the communication medium and the adaptations found in social behavior. We find that certain media elicit (or fail to elicit) a social response to “cool off” or “heat up” the message according prescribed boundaries of social behavior.

This relates, in my view, to the tension that I had written previously about comparing the sensory disparity between Distance Learning and Face-to-face learning to the comparison of pornography to real sex, stating that making an assessment of DL with respect to f2f learning was an inconsonant comparison. They are completely discrete forms, in my view, and should not be used as relatents in any comparative evaluation of effectiveness. I had stated previously that the two are not exactly apples and oranges, but more like apples and applesauce. I also suggested that perhaps there was a biological basis for rejecting technology, or that which intervenes between the teacher and students – that the transfer of critical knowledge as a means for survival had occurred necessarily as a face-to-face transaction, and that our species has survived as a result of it. Perhaps unconsciously, some teacher’s self-described “safety zone” is more than simply an aversion to being inconvenienced with learning new mechanisms to communicate – that their aversion is perhaps a remnant of some survival imperative.

Why have I brought this up? Because, I believe there must be an assessment of our methods of instruction through Distance Learning that can be explained in terms of their “hot” or “cool” differences to their live f2f counterpart, and that we must explore whether there is/has been a socially prescribed “cooling” of the learning experience (or “learning exposure avoidance”) through one method or the other by the transduction of it through technology. The potential dissonance between applying concepts of f2f “heat” inside a DL “cool” medium (or vice versa) may explain the disorientation of learners who are acculturated to a particular learner/teacher dynamic, and their commensurate attempts to resolve the differences by degrees of intellectual involvement. Or, too, we may explore the adoption of learning patterns of native DL learners, and how the terms of learning evaluation may or may not be in harmony with the terms used in f2f learning.

In other words, has the adaptation of technology for use in instruction (and its imposition of proprietary language, both linguistically and in McLuhanesque social message) caused “gaps” filled with Gaussian feedback that yearn to be filled-in, or has the technology caused a sensory boil-over and a corresponding counter-adaptive “cooling”? Is DL too “cool” or too “hot” to handle in its present semantics and language without a translating intervention? Has there been a socially prescribed structure that characterizes how f2f and DL, respectively, achieve their “heat”, and has it been “released” in the technology in a way that breaches patterns of “learning exposure avoidance”? How have learners adapted to this phenomenon, and can learning be measured with validity using old methods?

This analysis may inform Instructional Designers to consider if f2f and DL “biologically” reject each other, and that we dare not consider prescribing DL over f2f, thereby metaphorically transplanting a kidney in our bodies with another liver.

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