1987 - ON MEDIA

I've come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in your world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works,
2. Anything that's invented between when you were fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it,
3. Anything invented after you are thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time, Page 95

Media and Me

      On 11 August, 1987, the Apple Corporation released a program called HyperCard for their Macintosh computer. That was one of the days the universe changed. In 1984, I had bought my first computer - the first Macintosh. I used it as a typewriter. Since I had taught classes of 700 for two hours, I had learned to emphasise the hierarchical structure of thought underlying the sequential presentation of language. That is, instead of trying to memorise thousands of words in order, I memorised the few dichotomies underlying this stream of words. Thus, for a lecture on conditioning, I would remember to talk first about classical condition and then instrumental conditioning. Under classical conditioning, I would talk about the pioneer, Ivan Pavlov, and then the modern exponent, J. B. Watson; under instrumental conditioning, I would talk about the pioneer, E. B. Thorndike, and then the modern exponent, B. F. Skinner. Under Pavlov, I would talk about the man and then his work. I was thus primed to go beyond word-processing to idea-processing. Think Tank (later called More) enabled me to create this underlying hierarchy of thought.

      When I got HyperCard in 1987, I could finally use my computer as a computer. The limitation of idea-processing is that moving from node to node within the hierarchy requires that you climb the tree and descend the appropriate branch. Authoring programs permit you to link any node in a network directly with any other node. HyperCard was the first generally available such authoring program.1 More sophisticated programs have since emerged, but still largely devoted to doing things we could do before but more efficiently - making slide shows (PowerPoint), making movies (Premiere), and so on.

      HyperCard enables you to build a stack of cards. Each card can contain text or images or a combination of text and images, and buttons linking to any other card. It sounds simple. However, it has enormous reverberations. Whereas word-processing is one-dimensional, idea-processing is two-dimensional, authoring is three-dimensional (see Figure 1). That is, any node in the network (card) can be linked to any other node. At any node, one can go deeper and deeper into a third dimension by linking it to cards containing footnotes and footnotes to footnotes. We now have a three-dimensional media mediating between our three-dimensional brain and our three-dimensional world. It enables us to map that world in our mind. The nodes and links are isomorphic with the structure of the internet with its computer nodes and its telecommunication links and with the structure of the mind with its concept nodes and its relationship links (see Figure 2).

      The computer, loaded with HyperCard, could be considered as the corpus callosum, the tissue linking the two hemispheres. Each card can contain words and/or images. Thus HyperCard serves as an integrative device. The corpus callosum is an even more apt metaphor because it links the cortex (responsible for thought) to the rest of the nervous system (responsible for action). Each card also contains buttons, which allows the user to interact with the computer. Thus HyperCard serves as an interactive device. Computer-based education can then provide the whole operating manual - for the left hemisphere, for the right hemisphere, and for the corpus callosum, which links the two hemispheres to one another and to the rest of the body. We finally have a positive prosthetic which is a perfect fit. Many more sophisticated authoring programs have emerged since HyperCard. However, they are all based on the same principles. You will note that the Internet is a huge set of interlinked stacks.

      The operating manual for our species is, more precisely, an operating manual for the nervous system of our species. This is the only one of our subsystems which can be "operated" directly. The two major categories of media - print and video - could be identified with the left and right hemispheres of the brain, responsible respectively for creating a conceptual and a perceptual map of the objective world (see Figure 3). Schools and universities traditionally emphasise the function of the left hemisphere. That is, they teach us how to build a conceptual map of the world and they focus on print media. Little effort is concentrated on the function of the right hemisphere. That is, we do not learn how to use image-based media to build a perceptual map of the world. Indeed, television (the most ubiquitous image-based medium) is often condemned as harmful to education.

      Thus began my short career as Superman. After seeing Superman III in Glasgow, I went into a phone booth to find the address of The Ubiquitous Chip, a restaurant so-named because in Scottish cuisine everything comes with chips. Since I was not able to read the small print, I motioned to a man passing by to read it for me. He was about the same age as me and, therefore, had degenerated to about the same extent - he couldn't read it either. Suddenly, simultaneously, we smiled. We had both just attended a movie in which the hero goes into a phone booth and can subsequently do incredible things. We go into a phone booth and can't even read the damn phone book.

      One morning a couple of years later, I went over to the Gym Tech Health Club in the Four Seasons Hotel across the street. People were all a-twitter because Superman was using the gym. Christopher Reeve was in town making the movie Street Smart and was living in the Four Seasons hotel. I happened to have my Macintosh Plus with me in its Mac Pac, since I was heading for the Queen Elizabeth Hotel to give a talk about it. As I passed the Canadian Pacific station, I was reminded of my first steady job in Canada after I got off the boat thirty years before as a clerk in CP's Auditor of Disbursements Department. There was great excitement about the first computer in the company. It filled a huge air-conditioned room, cost millions of dollars, had a score of high priests attending to it, and all we clerks were terrified that it was going to replace us. Subsequently, I found out from someone still working there that this computer had a memory of 64K. That much memory is now available in children's toys or in the heel of your running shoe to measure how far you have jogged.

      Slung over my shoulder, I had 1024K - that is, sixteen times the memory available thirty years ago only to huge corporations for millions of dollars. It was soon augmented by a 20 megabyte hard disk - that is, 320 times the memory of that first CP computer. Superman has nothing on me. He has a few cheap physical tricks like flying and X-ray vision - I have incredible psychological power. Whereas a few years before, I had skulked off to The Ubiquitous Chip feeling very unsuper, now I waltzed along to The Queen Elizabeth feeling very powerful.

      However, sitting here pecking away on my word-processor, I realise that I still use my computer largely as a typewriter. I'm Clark Kent; my typical student, raised with video- and computer-based media, is Superman/Superwoman. I don't remember using the telephone or watching television before I left Scotland. I left Scotland at 20. I was almost 50 when I got my first computer. Thus, I am not competent, or even comfortable, with the third and fourth generations of media. Most children born today have access to a computer, if not their own, before they are 10 years old. Most children born today will have access to the telephone and the television before they go to school. Since I did not grow up with television and computer-based media, I am very different from children born today. When they reach university, and find me with my talk and chalk, the excrement is going to impinge on the ventilation device!

Return to the Table of Contents       Continue to Chapter 7.2

1   Bill Atkinson, who wrote the program, insisted that it be given away with every Macintosh computer sold. For a while then people were using a computer as a computer. However, Bill Atkinson left the company and Apple returned to bundling a word-processing program instead and people tended to revert to use the computer as a typewriter (MacWrite) and an easel (MacPaint). However, in my case, the genie could not be stuffed back into the bottle.