2.31: Convergence in Informatics

It is not the innovations in computer technology nor the innovations in telecommunications technology but the synergetic convergence of those two technologies in what I will call "informatics", which is the powerful force pushing us from an industrial to a post-industrial society. A new communication system requires both new "tin cans" and new "strings".

This supershift will send reverberations throughout our society, since it is a structural rather than merely a sectorial shift. No institution will be unaffected. Indeed, our future society could very well be defined in terms of the social impact of electronic technology.

As we manage the transition from an industrial to a post-industrial society, the outcome of the struggle will determine whether the emerging information society will be much like the industrial society (that is, continue to use technology for oppression) or a dramatically different society (that is, use technology for liberation). Those alternatives could be described as the telematique scenario based on television (with a few sources beaming information down an electronic highway to millions of destinations) and the privatique scenario based on telephony (with a network of interconnected nodes each of which is both source and destination).2

Telematics is the term often used to describe this computer-telecommunications convergence. However, it is not a good term. The first wave of communication technology emphasized the "tele" prefix [e.g. telegraph, telephone, television, telecommunications]. The impressive breakthrough was communications at a distance, and was nicely encapsulated in the Latin prefix "tele" meaning "at a distance".

This second wave of communication technology emphasizes the "video" prefix [e.g. videotex, videogame, videodisc, video-cassette-recorder]. The impressive breakthrough is that everything is becoming visible, and this is nicely encapsulated in the Latin prefix "video" meaning "pertaining to sight". This is very important since it makes things accessible to the most powerful modality of our species. Perhaps we should speak of "the televideo revolution", since this captures the piggy-backing of technologies which make communication visible on technologies which make communication possible at a distance?

Another feature of this wave of communication technology, which is not captured in either of those prefixes, is that communications of various kinds are reduced to a lowest common denominator of 0 and 1. As we saw above, this is the only "language" the computer can talk. We have long known that computers can manipulate numbers by reducing our familiar decimal system numbers {0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9} to 0s and 1s. Now we are learning that they can also process words by reducing our familiar alphabet {A, B, C --- X, Y, Z} to 0s and 1s and process images by transforming them into a pattern of 0s and 1s. Those various transformations for number-crunching, word-processing, and image-creating are diagrammed, in simplified form, in Figure 2-2.3

This reduction of numbers, words, and images to a lowest common denominator is very important, since it provides a "language" which enables numbers, words, and images to "talk" to one another. Thus, you can integrate those various elements within a single machine - the computer. You can throw away your calculator (for number-crunching), your typewriter (for word-processing), and your camera (for image-processing) and replace them with a computer which can perform all those functions, simply by changing the software or by adding a cheap peripheral. Further, the products of those processes on the computer can be integrated within a single visual presentation, whereas the products of your calculator, typewriter, and camera would be a number on a display, a pile of paper and a roll of film - three widely different forms of presentation which can not be easily integrated.

Another feature of this wave of technology not captured by telematics is interactivity. This technology permits you to inter-act with the information machines. The traditional television set permits minimal interactivity - you can switch channels or turn it off. The traditional telephone handset permits interactivity with other people by means of the technology. However, the computer-based technologies permit considerable interaction with the machine itself.

Do you think the world is ready for "the televideointegrativeinteractive revolution"? In the interval, let us simply use "informatics" as a neutral term which can serve to describe those four important features.

2   Valaskakis, Kimon. The information society: The issue and the choice. Information Society Program, Integrating Report. Montreal: GAMMA, 1979.

3   The third session of this figure - translation code for image-creading-is taken from George R. Marshall. Computer Graphics in Application. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1987.