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6.11: From Technology-Society to Machine-Person

There have been many broad theoretical statements of the impact of technology on society. They range from the thesis of the technological optimists - for example, R. Buckminster Fuller - that the impact has been good in the past and will be better in the future to the thesis of the technological pessimists - for example, Jacques Ellul - that the impact has been bad in the past and will be worse in the future through various more balanced statements, considering both positive and negative impacts, by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Erich Fromm, Harold Innis, Lewis Mumford and many others.1

There seems to be general agreement that the industrial society was powered by energy technologies and that the emerging information society is similarly powered by the twin information technologies of computers and telecommunications. A society based on technology-push is qualitatively different from other societies which are based on a psychosocial rather than a technocommercial foundation.2

GAMMA, the think tank in Montreal to which the author belongs, has been exploring the peculiar strengths and weaknesses of a technological society. Our Conserver Society Project was an exploration of strategies for protecting the industrial society from its most vulnerable aspect - running out of fuel for its machines. Our subsequent Information Society Project is an exploration of one post-industrial scenario which may be less vulnerable, since it emphasizes information over energy, though it too must be protected from its most vulnerable aspect - having the plug pulled out.3

The broad statements about the impact of technology on society are useful to clarify such large issues. However, it is unlikely that we will gain an intimate understanding of our technological society without supplementing this analysis at a macro level with an analysis at a micro level. We must analyze technology- into its elements (that is, individual machines), analyze society into its elements (that is, individual persons), and study the influence of machines on persons as well as the impact of technology on society.

Behaviorists have gained a more precise understanding of the impact of the environment on behavior by analyzing environment into its elements (that is, stimuli) and by analyzing behavior into its elements (that is, responses). They can thus translate the vague statement environment affects behavior into the precise statement stimulus X triggers response Y.

A parallel analytical strategy can be applied to gain a more precise understanding of the technological society. The analysis of technology into individual machines and society into individual persons enables us to translate the vague statement technology affects society into the precise statement machine X influences person Y [see Figure 6-1].

As we shift from the molar to the molecular level of analysis, we consider not the impact of technology on society but the influence of a particular machine on a particular person.

What happens to Bill Caxton, who has served 6 years as an apprentice in typesetting and has worked for 20 years for the Montreal Gazette when he gets zapped with a bolt of electronics as an electronic typesetter replaces him and he finds himself out on the sidewalk in a picket line?

What happens to L. Bert Diner, a struggling author, who finds, on being introduced to a word processor, that he can now submit much neater manuscripts in half the time?

What happens to Molly Parker, an experienced librarian, who discovers that she must face a terrifying electronic data terminal or suffer the fate of silent screen stars who could not survive the transition to talkies?

What happens to Sadie McTavish, world traveller and photographer, when she finds that her entire slide collection can be stored on a videodisc the size of a long-playing record (such that she can show them in any sequence she chooses) and still have space left over for a couple of home movies?

Encounters between the person and the machine have been documented in countless anecdotes.

(a) James Thurber regales us with stories of his aunt, who was terrified of empty electrical sockets since the electricity was leaking into the house, and of his own misadventures with the early automobile.4

(b) Len Sorochan, a computer engineer who designs training programs for home computers, tells of a client who looked suspiciously behind the screen for the wire leading to the "computer" which would record all his errors. He was not reassured by repeated demonstrations that the only cord attached to the terminal was the power cord.5

(c) Louis-Marc Ducharme tells how his lovely lady, Michelle, refused to use a computer but was subsequently persuaded to use a hand calculator. He then told her that she had just used a computer - a cosy, compact computer but a computer nevertheless.

(d) Benoist-Méchin tells the story of Ibn-Séoud's strategy for persuading religious leaders to accept the introduction of telephones in Arabia by reading passages from the Koran to them over it and showing that the Devil, the leaders thought to reside in the device, did not distort his words.6

(e) Fred Thompson describes computer addicts who sign on several times a day, are frustrated when the system is inaccessible, can't compose or think off-line, are not interested in communicating with colleagues off-line, have insomnia until they can sign on for one last time, and dream about EIES when they finally do get to sleep.7

(f) Edmund Carpenter reports that mechanics working in the Arctic trying to fix an engine would be repeatedly amazed by local Inuit with no mechanical training who would amble by, peer over their shoulder, tinker around, and fix the machine.8

Each of us could recount several such anecdotes from our own personal histories and from the recent cultural history of our species, which has been characterized by a love-hate relationship with technology. Such anecdotes serve to provide some of the subjective flavor of the person-machine interface and a collection of them would be a useful preliminary contribution to our understanding of this important subject.

Another useful contribution would be accounts by historians of science and technology of the factors which contributed to the enthusiastic acceptance of some technologies (for example, television, CB radio) and the rejection of or indifference to other technologies (for example, video telephone, quadrophonic sound). Great Planning Disasters could be surveyed to see which were doomed by technological factors, which by psychological factors, and which by some complex interaction between those factors.9 Such studies would be analogous to post-mortems on plane crashes, which seek to determine the contributions of machine error and human error and would have the same function - to determine how to prevent such great planning disasters in the future.10

Such anecdotes and case studies (which are essentially extended anecdotes) would serve as a rich source of hypotheses for the controlled experiments, which would be required to go beyond the limited understanding they would provide. For example, anecdotes (b) and (c) above point to the importance of characteristics of the machine. Anecdote (b) suggests that stand-alone machines may be preferred to terminals attached to a central computer and anecdote (c) that small machines may be less threatening than large machines. Anecdotes (a) and (e) point to the importance of characteristics of the person. Some people may be technophobes, as in anecdote (a), and some may be technophiles, as in anecdote (e). Anecdotes (d) and (f) point to the importance of interaction between the person and the machine. it may be necessary to exorcise the machine of ghosts while introducing it, as suggested by anecdote (d), and it may be easier to train Third World mechanics than we tend to assume, as suggested by anecdote (f).

1   See Ellul, Jacques, The Technological Society. New York: Random House, 1964.

R. Buckminster Fuller, An Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Between Two Ages: America's Role in the Technotronic Era. New York: Viking, 1970.

Erich Fromm, The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology. New York: Bantam, 1968.

Harold H. Innis, The Bias of Communication (Second Edition). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964.

Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963.

2   It is difficult to imagine Shirer attributing The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to the acceptance or rejection of technological innovation or imagine Gibbon attributing The Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire to running out of fuel.

3   The Conserver Society Project is summarized in Kimon Valaskakis, Peter S. Sindell, J. Graham Smith & Iris Fitzpatrick-Martin, The Conserver Society: A Workable Alternative for the Future. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

The Information Society Project is summarized in Kimon Valaskakis, The information society: The issue and the choices. Information Society Program, Integrating Volume. Montreal: GAMMA, March 1979.

4   Thurber, James, The Thurber Carnival. New York: Dell, 1964.

5   He was right, of course. There was indeed a computer making a record of all his responses. His only mistake was in assuming that the computer is a huge machine with the microcomputer being merely a terminal attached to it.

6   Benoist-MÈchin, Ibn-SÈoud: Le Loup et le LÈopard. Paris: Editions Albin Michel, 1955.

7   Thompson, Fred G., Computer-assisted Communication. Ottawa: Department of Communications, 1980.

8   Carpenter, Edmund, Eskimo Realities. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973.

9   Hall, Peter, Great planning disasters. Futures, February 1980, Pages 45-50.

10   Some such retrospective assessments of failed technologies have indeed been conducted - like, for example, that on the videophone by Dickson and Bowers (E. Dickson & R. Bowers, Video telephone: The Technological Assessment, 1974). Such technological assessments tend to emphasize techno-economic factors over personal-cultural factors. Perhaps, however, human factors were involved in both cases mentioned in the text. Video telephone may have been rejected partly because, in our eye-dominated culture, we are more apprehensive about being overseen than of being overheard. Quadrophonic sound may have been rejected partly because we have only two ears. Stereo may be twice as good as mono because it simulates the situation in which we pick up live sound with our two spaced-apart ears. Thus, it does not follow that quadrophonic sound is twice as good as stereophonic sound. Organic systems, unlike mechanical systems, optimize rather than maximize.