West Palm Beach, FL. In the movie Network, when the disheveled veteran news anchor Howard Beale yelled “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” some people thought he had snapped. Then, surprisingly, people watching his meltdown on live TV echoed his sentiments and his saying and started yelling out of their own windows. In Network, Beale’s meltdown was exceptional and created an opportunity for an aspiring and amoral producer. Today, such outrage is ordinary. Unkempt and angry people can be seen yelling in public or on television seemingly all the time. Keeping our composure is no longer a personal or professional cultural expectation. Losing our cool has become commonplace. We’re all mad as hell, all the time. But why?

There are various reasons for each person’s anger, but a contributing factor to our hot tempers may well be our hot mediums. As we and our world have been heating up, so has our media. In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan distinguished between two kinds of mediums, hot and cool. He described a “hot medium” as “high definition” and “well filled with data;” it is easy to digest and requires relatively little work by the viewer or listener for comprehension. Cool mediums take work to comprehend. McLuhan wrote that “any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one.” Radio is hotter than the telephone, television is hotter than a conversation. Hot mediums require little effort and they are exceedingly abundant today.

McLuhan thought that our media had become pretty hot in the 1960s, but the temperature continues to climb. Never has there been less work for the recipient of entertainment media to do. Visual images provide more detail than ever before. Grainy television has been replaced with HD and 4K. We arguably see too much on our screens now; we can be distracted by blemishes or a buzzing fly and disappointed by the limitations of in-person events. Our audio is beyond “high fidelity.” And if we attend the right theaters, our movies can even come equipped with physical sensations to accompany what we are watching – we no longer need to wonder what something would “feel like.” Very little is left up to the imagination; we are nearly as passive as passive observers can possibly be.

As the forms of our media have become hotter, the speed with which it is delivered has also grown hotter. A television show is now considered to have heightened drama if the audience has to wait a week for an episode. Plot-generated drama is barely required. We binge entire seasons of shows at once when we have the chance, happy not to have to wonder what happens next. We are reluctant to fill in details on our own or connect the dots ourselves. Neither will we invest in deciphering new plots or new characters, as the massive popularity of movie remakes and sequels demonstrates. This diet of remakes may not appeal as much to our nostalgia as to our laziness. This is to say nothing of the news media, which promotes many shows that instead of presenting information for us to interpret merely offers opinions for us to mimic.

These increasingly hot mediums extend beyond entertainment; they are all around us. Our cars watch for us, brake for us, and soon will drive themselves. Our email software autoprompts our replies. Devices check the front door for us. Our mail lets us know when it’s delivered. Our refrigerators can remind us what we need to shop for, and we don’t even have to place the orders ourselves. We no longer press the button on the television remote, we only have to lift our voice. Seemingly everything is on track to require less and less effort from us.

This is not surprising because humans love ease of all kinds. Twentieth-century America flourished with the rise of labor-saving devices and technological innovations. Similarly, humans adore cognitive ease, as shown in the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes that “when you are in a state of cognitive ease, you are probably in a good mood, like what you see, believe what you hear, trust your intuitions, and feel that the current situation is comfortably familiar.” In Western society today, comfort has become a preeminent cultural value.  

There are plenty of places to see the practical consequences to the decline in effort required for our existence. Our caloric desires easily outstrip our caloric needs, for example. But we are also famously losing our intuition and our navigational abilities. In 2016, Noel Santillan became a “folk hero” for following his GPS in Iceland, despite visual cues, and ending up very far off course. Santillan became famous, but many people ignore their eyes and end up in the middle of nowhere. Our competency in other areas is also in decline. We are less able to fix things, to figure things out, and maybe even to use our own hands. These things can seem like occasional hassles for an otherwise very convenient arrangement of outsourcing some of the effort of living. But there are also psychological consequences that accompany our increasing ineptitude.

One of these is that while our lives have gotten easier, we seem to have gotten angrier. Before his fall from grace, and even his widespread fame, Louis C.K. circulated the internet in a video clip from the Conan O’Brien show explaining that “everything is amazing right now and nobody’s happy.” He starts by talking about growing up using rotary phones and “you had to stand next to it and you had to dial it.” He highlights other technological changes that represent warming media and focuses on the ways that people complain about air travel. People are so consumed by their perceived inconveniences that they forget that they are partaking in “the miracle of human flight.” Louis C.K. was onto something because air travel today has reduced the difficulty of human travel from all previous centuries, yet it is our most consistent source of videos of normal people completely losing their minds and melting down in public.

Hot mediums are making us hot-tempered. Since the 1990s, cars have gotten easier and safer to drive, but our anger behind the wheel has increased. Road rage can be a response to actual accidents, but more often it is a response to aggressive driving, which may endanger and anger us but has not actually harmed us. We are increasingly intolerant of challenges and unable to cope with the demands of cool mediums, like driving with other people on the road.

Our expectations are now built around the experience of hot mediums. So much happens so easily, with little engagement or difficulty on our part, that we feel inconvenienced by smaller and smaller things. Every obstacle encountered is potentially “the worst.” It can make the real world a source of constant frustration. When anything isn’t “easy,” we find ourselves with a reason to be angry.

A telling example is our relationship to loading icons. A recent 99% Invisible podcast explored the history of loading icons, which began as static images but quickly came to include movement, though not initially indicating progress. Fortunately, Brad Myers created the progress bar. Yet even the progress bar was a source of great frustration for people, especially when it stalled. As 99% Invisible reminds us, “a few seconds can feel like an eternity online.” Today 30 seconds for a website to load feels like infrastructure failure to many Americans. Now progress bars are often designed to start slow and speed up at the end, as though a task is being completed faster than expected. This is the same approach that has transformed airline flight time predictions. 

Immediacy has become an expectation, one which real life can hardly meet. Jason Farman, author of Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient World to the Instant World (2018) and a guest on that 99% Invisible podcast, suggested that waiting for websites to load results in a “deep feeling of powerlessness.” This is because Americans have become incredibly bad at waiting. In his book, Farman suggests that people feel that their time is being wasted when they wait. Regarding a study about elevator wait times, Farman writes that “when we are waiting, we don’t feel that we have control or agency over a situation. It’s not simply that we’re waiting; it’s also that we’re not sure how or when things will be resolved.”

The problem isn’t just our pique. Hot mediums are also increasing our risk of errors. To return to Daniel Kahneman, a situation or task accompanied by cognitive ease feels comfortable, but “you are also likely to be relatively casual and superficial in your thinking. When you feel strained, you are more likely to be vigilant and suspicious, invest more effort in what you are doing, feel less comfortable, and make fewer errors, but you also are less intuitive and less creative than usual.” In the same way, autopilot can contribute to crashes because pilots are less capable of facing difficulties in the air. Cognitive ease comes with hot mediums and makes us feel good, but it increases overconfidence about bad decisions.

Considering that political preferences today often seem to be dictated by whichever party seems most comfortable to the voter or whatever “seems obvious,” without much consideration, cognitive ease may also be dividing our society. The tribalism we see in today’s politics operates without much demand for close and thoughtful engagement of policies or opponents. Political identification is often hot, not cool. And if individuals easily fall into such patterns, parties want to keep them there. Who hasn’t received a text message in the last two years warning that someone is trying to ruin the country, but you can help prevent that by donating $20 without leaving your couch? The alleged ease in making choices and solving problems is quicksand for conscientious citizenship.

Social media can challenge the dichotomy between hot and cool mediums, but we often employ it in hot ways. Unlike watching television or listening to recorded music, social media offers us opportunities for engagement. We can like, comment, post, and participate in debates. But very often we simply scroll. And all too often we comment and debate without considering how our words might be taken or how they might affect another person or even how they relate to reality – we operate like we are not in a real conversation. A real conversation is cool, requiring us to consider tone, logic, and persuasiveness or otherwise to face the consequences. You often look someone in the eye. Social media can offer us the opportunity for connection and conversation, but we often do not take it, preferring to keep its temperature up.

Despite their promise of ease, hot mediums are making our lives harder. They surround us at work and at home but make us less able to cope with unpredictable environments that require our critical engagement – which is most of the real world. Life is inherently unpredictable and requires engagement without certainty of outcome. It also often requires patience. No matter how many labor-saving and time-bending devices we create, we will never exist in a completely predictable and easy environment. “Convenience” ceases to be convenient when it is sapping us of the courage we need to encounter everyday life.

When we consider what entertainment we will consume or what tools we will use, we should remember that we need to develop the virtues and skills needed to flourish in the often cool environment of real life. As Aristotle reminds us, virtues like patience are not inherited, they must be cultivated and practiced. Cool mediums, which require engagement and effort, can refamiliarize us with reality, making the real world less disorienting and disappointing. Keeping cool mediums in our lives may also make us better neighbors. Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the effect of hot media treatment cannot include much empathy or participation at any time.”

While it seems counterintuitive, hard things can make us happier. Adults who become long-distance runners often see ripple effects across their lives as they set and reach their running goals, a process which can require tremendous time and effort. The sense of fulfillment that comes from accomplishing something challenging is more intense than the shallow rewards that come with little effort.

We live in a world of hot mediums. And as it becomes hotter to the touch, we melt down more often. Life is worsened by chronic impatience, cycles of outrage, and an atrophied attention span. Our addiction to ease and efficiency is making us angrier and ill-equipped for the complex challenges we face as individuals and as a society. Anyone can see that we need to cool off our hot tempers. Relying more on cool mediums is one way to become the calmer, more patient and empathetic people that our culture needs.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Another excellent article, Elizabeth. I particularly appreciated the way you wove together padded flight times and the progress bar.

    However, there is nothing “Today” about “30 seconds for a website to load feels like infrastructure failure”. Jakob Nielsen’s 1999 classic Designing Web Usability described studies that show: 1/10 second is the time limit for a user feeling that response is “instantaneous; 1 second for “uninterrupted flow of thought”; and 10 seconds for “keeping attention focused”.

    In other words, as internet speeds have increased, the bells, whistles, ads, eye candy, and other clutter have made software clunkier, resulting in minimal improvement of loading times compared to 20 years ago.

    I’m also unclear about your interpretation that “Cognitive ease comes with hot mediums” when the gist of your article is that we will be less stressed if we reorient toward cool mediums.

    Aristotle may have been right that “virtues like patience are not inherited” but they can be passed along in some cultures via tacit transmission, which is distinct from overt cultivation.

    Thanks again for one of the most insightful articles I’ve read on FPR this year. You might be interested in reading Mary Harrington’s recent article that addresses cool and hot from another perspective:
    https://unherd.com/2022/06/fragile-students-just-need-a-hug/

  2. I have been trying to articulate this concept to several family members for quite some time and here you have done it better than I ever could. I gave up cable news for the very reasons you are describing quite some time ago and try to be careful about how I take in the news to this day. I had not thought of it through the lens of entertainment though and you have given me some new perspective on my frustrations with recent home renovations. Thanks for the food for thought!

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