1987 - ON MEDIA

Media and My Karass

      ALL members of my karass, rich and poor, lack full access to the extensions of the third and fourth generations. The other members of my karass are, as far as I can see, as inept as I with computer-based media. I had to use an anecdote from my own life to open this chapter because I could not find any anecdote about computers from the biographies of my cohorts. No doubt the various writers are using computers as typewriters, though E. Annie Proulx was, in the early days, claiming proudly that she didn't use one. Many of my cohorts will no doubt be using e-mail to keep in touch with their children and grand-children and using Google to do research. However, I see no evidence of going beyond the superficial use of video-based and computer-based tools.

      The big story, as told above, is the story of the cyborgization of our species as we extended our nervous systems by means of media to deal with the increasing complexity of society as we moved from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural to an industrial and now to an information society. My cohorts and I are stuck in the second generation, since we are not comfortable with the third and fourth generations of media. We can no longer tell young people, with a straight face, that they should take our advice since we have been where they are going.

      Fortunately, we have mastered the second generation of print and film, in which we store information outside our bodies. Little can be done without those extensions. I can multiply two one-digit numbers "in my head" only because I have memorized the multiplication tables. For two two-digit numbers, I reach for pencil and paper. Albert Einstein said that his pencil is smarter than he is. One important principle of the operating manual is the process of fishing in the stream of consciousness. When an interesting idea floats by, catch it in a note. As those notes accumulate, you will find that books are growing like a baby from the inside out.

      All the writers in my karass seem to be compulsive note-takers. Even the stand-up comedians and the song-writers take notes. Eric Lax, biographer of Woody Allen, points out that his material is constructed from ideas and lines he jotted down on napkins, bits of paper, and backs of matchbox covers as they came to him and are tossed into a drawer. When he worked on the act, he laid the litter out on the floor of his apartment and walked around in it like a gardener in his vegetable patch picking what was ripe. [LAX PAGE 128]. As Loretta Lynn says in her autobiography: When I got a good first line, I'll scribble it down on a piece of paper, hotel stationery, paper bag, or whatever, and slip it into my purse. [LYNN & VECSEY, Page 117].

      Much is made of generational differences. There is the Lost Generation, since so many members were lost in World War I and the Boomer Generation, that huge bulge in demographics when soldiers long deprived of their women returned from World War II. The Lost Generation (small) and the Boomer Generation (big) are quantitatively difference. This is of interest to demographers and sociologists. However, generational differences in terms of the media the generation grew up with is probably more meaningful. They are qualitatively different. This is of interest to psychologists.

      The three categories, described by Douglas Adams in the opening quotation, suggest that we are dealing with a unique situation in human history. The ratio of those three categories has changed dramatically throughout history. For most of our history, people could go through life with everything in category 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). That is, no new technology was introduced during their lifetime. Recently, discovery and invention has been speeding up and more and more things are in categories 2 and 3.

      Category 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) for us born in 1935 is anything that is invented between 1950 and 1970. This period involved little change in technology. There were changes in transportation. It took me days to sail to Canada from Scotland in 1955 but only hours to fly back in 1965. However, means of transportation just extend our legs - they take us from A to B faster but we still arrive largely unchanged. There was little change in media. Telephone and television had penetrated to a limit of over 90% in industrialised countries and much fuss was made over shift from rotary to push-button dialling and from black and white to colour screens. There was indeed considerable social change but who can have a career out of being a beatnik or a hippie? The only careers involved writing about them - Tom Wolfe - or entertaining them with concerts - Bill Graham - or selling them drugs. Two members of my karass - Ken Kesey and Richard Brautigan - have each been touted as the link between the beatnik and the hippie.

      Category 3 (Anything invented after you are thirty-five is against the natural order of things) for my generation, born in 1935 and thus 35 in 1970, is huge. In 1970, only large organisations owned computers which were housed in huge air-conditioned rooms and administered by techies in white lab coats. Since then a fourth generation of media - Multimedia and Internet - has emerged. Media changes us - since they are, as argued above, extensions of our nervous systems. Indeed, some have argued that the generation raised on computers is qualitatively different from the generations that have gone before.

      During the long period of infant dependency, our prefrontal cortex is moulded by the media available to us. Our minds are not hunter-gatherer minds in new technological clothing, but are primed to merge with whatever media they find and whatever media they themselves create. Paradoxically, the destiny of our species is to become a cyborg - we are Natural-Born Cyborgs [CLARK]. Media do not simply extend minds but they change minds.

      William Calvin wondered why brain damage affected the reading ability of his father. Surely reading, unlike speaking, is acquired culturally rather than biologically, and thus could not be affected by damage to a particular area of the brain? He concluded that "-- reading abilities are wired up on the fly during childhood -- as we say, they are 'soft-wired' during development rather than hard-wired in the manner of instincts" [CALVIN, Page 141]. Perhaps the various extrasomatic tools we have acquired over historical time have been so "soft-wired" into our nervous systems as extragenetic tools. They thus become part of the processing system rather than just part of the content which is processed. We learn to read and then we read to learn.

      Clark proceeds to document some interesting features of the latest element in this integrated person-media cognitive system - what I have presented as the fourth generation of media, Multimedia and Internet. The internet is traditionally viewed as an anarchist system which works amazingly well despite the fact that there is no central control. Clark points out that it works well BECAUSE there is no central control and thus it is "free" to organise itself. It thus joins the self-organizing systems designed by Mother Nature rather than by our limited selves. Google works better than the search engines which preceded it because it is based on this self-organization rather than by our clumsy key-word system superimposed on it. It is based on the trails left by the millions of surfers on the internet. Thus it takes you to where the best information on your topic is located, based on the fact that other people interested in this topic voted with their fingers for the best websites.

      A case could be made that the generations raised with third- and fourth-generation tools are not only different, but intellectually superior to my generation. My generation are the members of the multinational corporations that have been losing billions of dollars trying to moving into the internet. Meanwhile a young nerd decides to sell books on the internet and ends up with amazon.com, and another young nerd decides to sell some trinkets acquired by his girl-friend and ends up with eBay.com. Granted they are not new. Amazon is now the Walmart of the internet and eBay is a gigantic, global garage sale. However, those who aspire to fame and fortune can perhaps see now why I regretted in a previous chapter that we were too late to become nerds. Two other young nerds are doing something new. The Google guys are forcing the corporate culture to finance Google without exerting any control over the content of the internet. People are now paying for television and radio because the corporate culture reduced traditional television and radio to rubbish.

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