From my limited weeks of sojourning in the world of mass media, I have noticed a pattern in the types of entertainment available. There are passive media sources, content to simply sit in the background and play, and if you watch them, fine. Then there are more aggressive media sources, designed to draw in your focus and demand your participation.
Examples of passive media sources are as simple as television, radio, and music. They can be turned on and forgotten about, blending into the background. They simply continue to present what their programming demands, doing what they want and letting you do what you want. Unless you find the program relevant or interesting (or the rhythm particularly entrancing), you can come and go freely and it will progress on its own.
Aggressive media is different in that it demands your full mental capacity to yield you any information. These media sources have a greatly varied range; books, magazines, and the dying newspaper, which all require you to focus both your mental and physical attention on reading the material in order to fully comprehend it; webpages full of articles and images, similarly attention-intensive; video games and other interactive entertainment, actually pulling you in by causing you to actively think and react to virtual stimuli; All of these things are aggressive media.
Herbert Marshall McLuhan, whose work is viewed as foundational in communication theory has, as expected, theorized on this.
His analogy for this media dichotomy is as simple as a thermometer: The more aggressive a type of media is, the hotter it is on the thermometer. Television is relatively cool compared to a book, regarding the energy (or “heat”) involved in taking it in.
In our modern, media-saturated social environment, we often take in more than one media source at a time. The ability to do this depends on our choosing the correct combination: we can’t take in more than one aggressive media at a time, but passive medias will blend well into the lulls between our aggressive media consumption. A youth may play his videogame with the television or his favorite music playing in the background. A manager may listen to radio while reading his daily emails.
A student, interestingly, may often break this rule, trying to take in more than one aggressive media source at once. Trying to memorize a literary media assignment and practice a musical one, however, can lead to academically disastrous results.
We should, in other words, learn to coordinate our media consumption. The key, in short, is to keep things hot and cold. Your brain will spit a lukewarm combo out.
What is your favorite media combo? Why do you take your media that way, and how does it help you?