With Amazon's Black Friday in Full Swing, What Would Marshall McLuhan Think of Voice Control?

As Black Friday kicks into gear throughout the US, Amazon has been quick to adopt the occasion as an opportune event for getting more Echo devices into Prime customer households. MIDiA has been writing a lot the past year on implications of voice technology, and it got me thinking about what one of the most noted voices in media criticism in the 20th century would have thought of the device and its consequences.

Though his name may not immediately resonate in the general-public, when it comes to tech-media history, few are as famed as Marshall McLuhan. A writer and lecturer on emerging media theory, McLuhan achieved fame in the 60s, just as the television was entering the western mainstream. His books Understanding Media and The Medium is the Massage (based on his Medium is the Message philosophy), became influential, and whilst he never was a tech person in the sense of programming, his ideas on ‘the global village’ are often viewed as a foreshadowing the rise of the internet. For this, he was eulogised on the Google homepage via the ‘doodle’ earlier this year.

McLuhan’s theory, at its most rudimentary, would categorise media forms between hot and cool, with hot mediums engaging the entire senses of the participating audience and cool media bein something the user could tune in and out of.

  1. Verbal Communication (Cool)
  2. Reading (Hot)
  3. Radio (Cool)
  4. Cinema (Hot)
  5. Television (Cool)
  6. Internet and Social Media (Hot)

So, what of voice control? As a form of interactive radio, it aligns with cool-media lack of total sensory engagement. However, that it responds to the user means it is arguably something far more complex. This is because given that the technology will develop its capabilities and recognition over time, it is likely it will begin to become far more engaged with the participant and become conversational – therefore becoming a hot medium. Such a scenario has already been portended by the 2013 Joaquin Phoenix film Her, where a lonely writer begins a relationship with an AI voice controlled entity.

McLuhan’s perception of media as an extension of ourselves would therefore likely lead him to believe that such a device, with its design to feedback and magnify the existing entertainment choices of the user, arguably bridges both hot and cool – as would future developments such as AR. This suggests future media developments are becoming ever-harder to categorise in McLuhan’s original framework.

However, just by writing this I feel I am being watched from beyond the grave, close to receiving one of McLuhan’s putdowns as immortalised through his cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.

‘You know nothing of my work, how you ever got to write a blog on anything is totally amazing’.


Tagged in: AI, Amazon, Black Friday, Cool Media, Hot Media, Marshall Mcluhan, Media, The Medium Is The Message, Voice Control

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