1.25: TV or not TV?

New technologies are initially described in terms of old technologies. Film was first seen as a means of preserving a play so that you could view it again. Television, in turn, was first seen as a means of viewing films at home. It took some time before the new technology struggled free of its old associations and developed its own distinctive function. We are seeing the same process with respect to the new technology of videotex.

A list of alternative descriptions of videotex is provided in Figure 1-2.12 Of those various descriptions, let us focus only on the descriptions of videotex as extensions of television and of telephony. As we will see later, the two major visions of the new technologies are as extensions of television and of telephony. The Department of Communications presented the Canadian videotex system, Telidon, as two-way television - that is as an extension of the television set. This is perhaps an unfortunate association - especially around 1984. Two-way television! - that means that not only can I watch it but it can watch me? Besides it is not a very accurate description of videotex. It could more accurately be described as an extension of the telephone, which enables one to talk to computers as well as to people. The television monitor is merely a handy device for allowing the computer to talk back.

Attitudes to a new technology are clouded by attitudes to the old technology with which it is associated. It is important therefore, if you want to assist in the penetration of a new technology to associate it will an old technology which has had a good press. New technology is known by the company it keeps. Telephony has had a better press than television. Big Brother could not operate over the telephone. To describe videotex as an extension of the telephone handset rather than of the television set makes good subjective, as well as objective, sense.

However, strictly speaking, videotex is not an extension of television or of telephony but an entirely new communication technology. If an extension of anything, it is an extension of the computer. The telephone and the television are merely input and output peripheral devices. They are merely eyes and ears, arms and legs, whereas the computer is the brain. To be even more strictly accurate, the brain behind the screen is not the computer (which itself consists largely of peripheral devices) but the microprocessor within the computer, popularly known as the chip.

If we probe deep enough beneath the surface of the various new things, which are currently bewitching, bothering, and bewildering us, we will almost invariably find this chip. Hence, the title and topic of this book - the ubiquitous chip. In describing the tip of the iceberg, I confined myself only to the microprocessors which are associated with the two major communication systems within your home. Just beneath the surface, as we begin to raise the iceberg, there are many hidden microprocessors beyond those associated with television and telephony. Silent and invisible microprocessors could be at work in your microwave oven, your washing machine, and your refrigerator. There may very well be microprocessors in the traffic light you stopped at this morning, in the diagnostic devices in the garage you went to for gas, and even in the car itself.

The microprocessor is to the information society what the electric motor is to the industrial society. How many electric motors do you have in your home? Make a wild guess! Now, go systematically through the rooms and count them. Most people underestimate widely. The ubiquitous is paradoxically elusive. The fish will be last to discover water (or, in this case, last to notice the chips).

You could consider systems as forming a hierarchy of three levels. Control systems are based on information systems which are, in turn, based on energy systems. That is, just as information systems require energy to operate, so control systems require information to operate.

We tend to think of microprocessors in terms of information systems. However, they are also elements of control systems. Your thermostat controls the heat in your home, by receiving feedback information from its environment about the temperature and turning on the heat when it falls below a certain threshold. Any such device which requires control and, thus, information, is a candidate for a microprocessor.

Day-by-day, we read in our newspapers about different functions of the microprocessor. I started making clippings of articles describing those various functions during my daily reading of The Globe and Mail starting in 1980 but had to abandon the project in 1983 since there were too many such articles. Figure1-3 lists a sample of such functions, gleaned from those articles in 1980 through 1983, as an illustration of how ubiquitous the chip is.

12   The full references for the descriptions are:

Brown, H. G., C. O. O'Brien et. al., A General Description of Telidon: A Canadian Proposal for Videotex Systems. Ottawa: CRC, Department of Communications, December 1978.

Calder, Nigel, Quoted by Val Sears in The robots are here. The Toronto Star, 10 March 1979, Page A18.

Fedida, Sam & Rex Malik, The Viewdata Revolution. Fleet Street, London: Associated Business Press, 1979.

Lane, M. & R. Winsbury, Viewdata, everyman's database/Second International Online Information Meeting in London on,5-7 December 1978, Pages 211-218.

Logue, Timothy J., Telext: (Towards an information utility). Journal of Communication, Autumn 1979, 29(4), Pages 58-65.

Lyman, Peter, Canada's Video Revolution: Pay-TV, Home Video and Beyond. Canadian Institute for Public Policy Series. Toronto: James Lorimer, 1983.

Madden, John, Videotex in Canada. Ottawa: Department of Communications, 1979.