Keitai Stories and McLuhan

This morning on the BPP, author Barry Yourgrau was in to discuss his “keitai stories,” an emerging form of fiction specifically written for mobile phones. (Keitai is the Japanese word for mobile phone, and its culture is highlighted in Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs.)

Yourgrau, describing the compact and concise style of writing required to pull these stories off, noted how the simplicity of the form created an engaging experience, as, with its lack of information, the reader needs to use his or her imagination to fill out the narrative.

This lack-of-data-ness is an example of what media theorist Marshall McLuhan called “cold media“:

There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in “high definition.’ High definition is the state of being well-filled with data. . . . Hot media are low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience. . . . The hot form excludes, and the cool one includes.

This somewhat arbitrary and long misunderstood concept is still useful when thinking about how media works, especially regarding the participatory impact of the kind of social media we use today. The sparseness of apps like Twitter, constraining users to express their thoughts in 140 characters or less, often results in tweets that are extremely witty and poetic (“tryin to prove something my intuition is telling me“). Similarly, bloggers, who interact pseudonymously, with only their words to create their common bonds, manage to, for example, have a real impact on our politics.

The bare-bones face of social media — a web browser, a cell phone screen — hardly inhibits people from using these sites to interact, and, in some ways, may actually encourage it. Without imagery, without in-person non-verbal cues, we need to engage each other, one tweet at a time.

Yourgrau, over at Huffington Post, quotes a conversation with a friend, and notes a rising concern about this short form and its impact on the literary world:

He echoed the unease expressed by Moto–but had a different take. “Editors and writers in Japan,” said Roland, “are quick to note that keitai novels are not conventional literary novels. They feature shorter sentences, slang, insider references, and fast, easily digestible soap-opera oriented plots, and their characters are usually young, romantic and disenchanted–like the very readers who are buying and downloading them.”

Keitai novels are therefore not considered ‘real novels.’ “And the fear,” said Roland, “is that technology is changing the content, leading it into ruin.”

This echoes a common fear about text messaging, how it is corrupting the English language.

What’s next? Twitter is ruining the art of the conversation?


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