7.31: After the Revolution

For our purposes, it is reasonable to assume that the penetration of informatics into our industrial society is inevitable and that social impact studies of the impact of a particular machine on a particular institution merely serve as progress reports on the precise pattern of penetration and the shape of the penetration curves. The argument that this technology is an irresistible force rather than our society is an immovable object is based on a number of factors:

  • Powerful multinational corporations and national governments have a vested interest in pushing this technology.8 They are both involved in a race to capture a share in the huge emerging international market for informatics and both must use this technology to be competitive in the traditional markets. The international market for information products and services (that is, informatics) was 400 billion in 1983 and is estimated at 930 billion in 1990.
  • Firms within industrial societies have to automate in order to counter the challenge from developing countries with their lower labour costs.
  • Individuals within industrial societies have to become familiar with the new information technologies to compete in a shrinking job market. They are involved in a benign version of the arms race.
  • The fact that information machines are becoming "friendlier and friendlier" makes it easier for people to learn how to use them.9
  • The fact that information machines are becoming "smarter and smarter" makes it possible for them to perform more and more human functions.
  • Young people, who are conspiring to outlive us, are more at home with the technology.
  • The informatics technology is relatively ecologically benign and, thus does not encounter the resistance of conservation groups.10
  • The raw material of the technology is silicon and human intelligence, both of which are universally available. The industry is thus footloose, since it is not confined to a particular geographical area where its raw materials are available.
  • The spate of innovations in informatics are a product of human creativity, which can not be coerced by force or by fiat.
Assuming that technological innovation will continue as before to involve a burst of inventions followed by a stable period of consolidation, there will emerge a stable picture of the communication system after the current information revolution. Rather than simply trying to monitor the current confusion and wait till the situation settles down again, the prospective approach attempts to prescribe that situation and recommend interventions in the current situation which will contribute toward the desirable future situation.

Whereas the first stage is descriptive, this second stage is frankly prescriptive. It makes no pretense to objectivity but bases its prescriptions on a clearly-articulated set of values, based in turn on our current understanding of psychological and sociological processes.

This description of a desirable post-revolution future will be constructed by gleaning the writings of the experts for positive statements which will be elements in the optimistic scenario for that future. Negative statements, which emphasize threats rather than promises, will be considered by building elements into the scenario which counter those threats.

The after-picture is, of course, not as easy to sketch. However, it is reasonable to predict that, after the current explosion of innovations, the system will once again enter another stable stage. Technological change is typically characterized by such alternating bursts of interdependent innovations and periods of consolidation. A number of reasonable assumptions can be made about changes in the structure of the Canadian communications situation after the current revolution in telecommunications:

  • More information will be "informediated".11 That is, a higher proportion of communications from person to person will be mediated by some machine.
  • There will be many more "lanes" on the electronic highway. The bewildering variety of recent innovations - videotex and teletext, satellites, personal computers, cellular radio, videodiscs and video-taperecorders, and so on is opening up many more lanes.
  • There will be much crossing from lane to lane. That is, the myriad lanes in the after-picture system will be interdependent in contrast to the few traditional lanes in the before-picture system. Thus, electronic mail will be "delivered" to a local station over the telephone lines and then delivered to your home or office in the traditional way. Your newspaper will be "delivered" (as is The Globe and Mail already) by satellite from city to city and then thrown at your door by a neighbourhood kid in running shoes.
  • The problem of incompatibility among systems (the price one pays for free enterprise) will have been solved by the departure of the many losers in the current struggle for the huge markets and by the development of compatibility companies to provide the means for the remaining systems to "talk" to one another.
  • The system will be viewed more and more as an information utility. Just as you plug into a electrical outlet with little consideration for where the electricity comes from, so you will plug into an information outlet with little consideration for where the information comes from.
  • More information will be available to more people in more places at more times. Dave Godfrey's dream of all information available to all people in all places at all times will be closer to realization.12 However, it will be qualified by some constraints to protect privacy. If the information is about me, some information for some people in some places at some times at my discretion. It will also be constrained by economic considerations, since information will become more of a commodity. Hence, all information in all places at all times to all people (who can afford it).
The Shannon-Weaver model of communication, proposed in 1948, has been the theoretical basis for the before-picture [see Figure 7-2a for a simplified version of the model].13 This model is a useful heuristic device for clarifying the complexities of the communication process. For example, the author has used it to classify explaining and understanding skills [see Figure 7-2b] and communication settings [see Figure 7-2c]. However, Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver were electrical engineers and their theory, designed to describe communication between machines, is inadequate to describe communication between persons.

A number of communication theorists - Roland Barthes, Barrington Nevitt, Marshall McLuhan, Walker Percy, and Tony Schwartz, to name only a few - have pointed to the inadequacy of the model, which is dismissed as a transportation theory of communication.14 In its place, they propose, in their various languages, a transformation theory of communication. That is, the information is not merely transported from the source to the destination but is transformed at the destination, in the light of the information already there.

A new sub-discipline is emerging within communication studies, which focuses on communication between the person and the machine. Whereas transportation theory is a useful model for machine-machine communication and transformation theory is a useful model for person-person communication, person-machine communication requires a convergence of transportation and transformation theories. Let us explore the synthesis emerging out of the transportation thesis and the transformation antithesis as a theoretical basis for person-machine communication.

Since person-machine communication is a relatively new domain, we tend to talk about it by analogy with old domains. The unfamiliar tends to be assimilated to the familiar. The two major analogies are with person-person communication and with machine-machine communication. Let us look, in turn, at machine language, at person language, and then at a possible hybrid language, which could perhaps more accurately reflect this hybrid discipline than the melange of machine and person terms which is currently used.

Discussion of the relationship between the person and the machine has so far clearly emphasized the machine. This is betrayed by the language used. The person is defined in terms of the machine - he/she is a user. The relationship between the person and the machine is described in mechanical terms as an interface. Communication between the person and the machine is described within the Shannon-Weaver model of communication over a channel between a source and a destination.

When the person appears at all, he/she appears only within the miscellaneous category of human factors. Discussion of human factors tends to occur at the end of projects and speeches, in a tone that suggests the serious stuff is over and now we can relax with a few homilies about the human impact. The serious stuff focuses on facts, whereas the concluding remarks on human impact focus on values, so sadly split off from facts by objective science."The 'human factor' becomes simply another variable to master to ensure that a system works properly"15 The focus is firmly on the functional design of the machine.

The "human factors" approach has produced much interesting work on ergonomics - particularly that inspired by the Behavioural Research and Evaluation Group at the Department of Communications of the Federal Government.16 Thus, we have collected and collated much valuable information about the optimal design of work-stations, organization of keys on a keyboard, presentation of text and images on a screen, and so on.

However, this information is of value only once the person has come in contact with the machine. Good ergonomics increases the probability that a user will become a re-user but can have little direct impact on turning a person into a user. An important concern, however, is why people approach and avoid machines in the first place. People have to learn the electronic equivalent of taking the book off the shelf.17

Such questions are beginning to be addressed by psychologists. A sub-discipline is emerging (called - somewhat to the embarrassment of many - "tech psych") which considers the relationship between the person and the machine - from the perspective of the person.

It has already spawned a special issue of Psychology Today and a spate of books.18 This literature is concerned with issues such as the user-friendliness of a machine. Does it invite the person to use it?

The user-friendly concept is an encouraging step toward recognition of the importance of the person, even if only as a user interfacing with a machine. However, it is necessary now to go beyond this concept to that of the convivial tool. The tool must not only be friendly (that is, inviting to use) but also convivial (that is, having accepted the invitation, it contributes to the quality of life). Big Brother, in George Orwell's 1984, was friendly enough but was not convivial. The stick used as a club, which may have been our first tool, was friendly (to the user if not to the used-upon) but was not convivial.

In approaching the person-machine relationship from the person side rather than the machine side, one notices an interesting asymmetry. The person has an attitude to the machine whereas the machine does not have an attitude to the person. The study of attitudes to machines is, therefore, a central characteristic which distinguishes the inside-out approach, starting with the person, from the outside-in approach, starting from the machine.

The anecdote told in Section 6.21 may serve as a gentle entrée to this topic. When we trundled a word-processor into our office, one secretary was delighted whereas the other secretary was terrified. It was the same machine, sitting innocently in the corner, threatening nobody and promising nothing. However, Cassandra viewed it as a threat and Pollyanna viewed it as a promise. The important thing, then, is not the machine itself but the various attitudes to the machine.

The importance of attitudes is, of course, a function of the importance of the things to which one has attitudes. Our various attitudes to poppies are, for most of us, not very important. We can lead a decent life, without ever coming in contact with poppies, in any of their manifestations. Our various attitudes to people are, however, very important. The quality of our lives is largely dependent on our interpersonal relationships. As the new information machines penetrate our society, they move from the status of poppies toward the status of people. Despite what some technophiles suggest, they will never be as important as people. However, as they become more and more pervasive, our attitudes to them become more and more important.

Arthur Kroker has suggested that the Canadian contribution to North American thought is a synthesis of the acceptance of the technological society by scholars in the United States and the concern for the human impact of that society by scholars in Europe.19 This book could be considered as a small part of such a Canadian contribution. It seeks to determine what is a healthy attitude to technology. A healthy attitude is not, merely, a positive attitude. It is a selective acceptance of the positive human impacts of each technology and rejection of its negative human impacts.

The TOTE unit, diagrammed in Figure 7-3, may perhaps provide a useful language for talking about the relationship between the person and the machine. It considers the person, by analogy with the computer, as acting according to a program [plan] to reduce the discrepancy between input information and a desired state, represented by information stored within the memory unit [image], on the basis of fedback information from operations dictated by the plan.20

Analogies are useful even when they break down. Indeed, especially when they break down. The analogy's failure to fit points to the essential difference between the two systems compared. The computer-person analogy breaks down when you ask Who programs the programmer?. The computer's program is written by the programmer but the person's plan is self-programmed. The computer is extrinsically "motivated" whereas the person is intrinsically motivated.

Note that Figure 6-3, which contrasts the behaviouristic concept of the person with the humanistic concept of the person, has as its basic distinction that between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. The behaviouristic concept describes the machine and the humanistic concept describes the person.

The close correspondence between the languages to describe the computer and the person permits us to do some creative analogizing from a simple system which we can understand [the machine] to a complex system that we aspire to understand [the person]. However, the clear distinction between the two systems, indicated by the breakdown of the analogy, helps us avoid the twin dangers of anthromorphizing the machine and dehumanizing the person.

8   The above argument may sound like technological determinism. However, it is clear that powerful political-economic actors are involved in "pushing" this technology. They pushed it into motion and, although it has gained some momentum of its own, they are still pushing. The paradigmatic shift into a post-industrial society is, therefore, a result of the same political-economic forces which have been powering industrial society since the beginning.

9   "Friendlier and friendlier" plays a role in the penetration of new technology. The computer may be a productivity multiplier. However, the person who uses it must have something to multiply and be able to multiply. User-friendly machines make it is easy to multiply. We have seen above how the user-friendly telephone wiped out user-hostile telegram. Ithiel de Sola Poole, The Social Impact of the Telephone. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1981.

10   The "relatively" is added since some recent findings have caused some qualification of the argument that the technology is ecologically benign. See Paul Freiberger & Michael Swaine, Fire in the Valley. Berkeley, California: Osborne/McGraw-Hill, 1984.

11   This concept was developed by my colleague Iris Fitzpatrick-Martin as a means of expressing the major process of change as we move into an information society. See her article Social Implications of the Information Society. Montreal: GAMMA, 1979.

12   David Godfrey & Douglas Parkhill (Editors), Gutenberg Two: The New Electronics and Social Change. Toronto: Press Porc»pic, 1980.

13   Claude E. Shannon & Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1949.

14   Barthes, Roland, Mythologies. London: Paladin, 1973.

McLuhan, Marshall & Barrington Nevitt, Meaning medium message. Communication 1 (1974), Pages 27-33.

Percy, Walker, The Message of the Bottle. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982.

Schwartz, Tony, The Responsive Chord. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1973.

15   Philippe Marx, Some psychological aspects of videotex: A review of literature. Montreal: GAMMA, 1984.

16   Dorothy Phillips, Paul J. Hearty et al, Behavioural research in telematics. Canadian Psychologist, 16(3), 1985, Pages 219-230.

17   John Carey & Mark Seigeltuch, Teletext usage in public places. New York: Alternate Media Centre, New York University, November 1982.

18   For example:
Neil Frude, The Intimate Machine. New York: New American Library, 1983.

Gregory R. Loftus & Elizabeth F. Loftus, Mind at Play: The Psychology of Video Games. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: The Computer and the Human Spirit. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.

The special issue of Psychology Today in Volume 17, Number 12, December 1983.

19   Arthur Kroker, Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis, McLuhan, Grant. Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1984.

20   George A. Miller, Eugene Galanter & Karl Pribram. Plans and the Structure of Behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1960.