Sunday, May 26, 2024


“Put on the corned beef hash” is a well-known misheard lyric from Kenny Loggins’s song “Footloose”, as I discovered when I misheard it myself being played on a speaker at a food festival.

I immediately wanted to check the correct lyric, but I could not get a signal on my smartphone to check. I am very used to the impulse of checking what I don’t know with my phone, so when I couldn’t, that impulse had to be used up a different way, so I checked how many steps I walked so far – that was something the phone could count by itself.

This was the point I realised I had the perfect opening to an article about smartphones, so I opened my note-taking app to make an early start.

I have previously talked about Marshall McLuhan’s delineation of media as being “hot” or “cool” in terms of how demanding they are of their user’s attention, with television being defined as “cool” because of its lower fidelity picture and sound relative to the real world, and it having to compete for attention in the settings they are usually found.

However, is the smartphone a “medium”, or a Swiss Army knife-type delivery system for many different media? Does the device demand my attention, or the combination of all the things it can do?

Having explained the delineation of hot and cool media in his 1964 book “Understanding Media” subtitled “The Extensions of Man”, McLuhan looks at many different media to determine where they stand, and what their true message is, for example the telephone removing walls and distance from human conversation.

It is entirely possible for me to create a table from the different media McLuhan discusses, taking an average of whether the smartphone is overall “hot” or “cold”. My phone is expected to reproduce both the spoken word, through radio and recorded music, and the written word, simulating print media from newspapers and magazines to comic books and various forms. It is expected to make photographs and act as their frame. It is a telegraph, through telephony, various messaging apps and in submitting information to the internet and recalling from it. It displays various advertisements. It is my television. It is my typewriter. It can be used to light up a room. I could also throw it... but I need it so much I fear breaking it.

However, the smartphone leaves me “cold”, as it were, because it relies entirely on my attention. It may be one step on from having separate devices for each of its individual uses, but it takes you one step away from the advantages those devices had: larger screens and surfaces, better sound systems, better microphones, brighter light, and so on. I have to bring more to my smartphone to make it work the way I need it to work, which may require me to compromise to bridge the gap created by the loss of fidelity that I could have achieved with a proper camera, a book, a pen, a Blu-ray player, a torch and so on. The smartphone is a new level of compromise.

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