The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls. You will give your disciples not truth but the semblance of truth: they will be heroes of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing.

Plato, Phaedrus

3.1 What is a Structural Shift?

The four generations of media are defined formally in terms of the storage and transmission of information using extragenetic and extrasomatic tools (see Figure 1-3). They are presented respectively in Chapters 2, 4, 6, and 8. Between each of those chapters, there are chapters describing the shift resulting from the introduction of each new generation of media. Thus, Chapters 3, 5, and 7 describe the effect of the assimilation of the second, third, and fourth generations of media, respectively.

The introduction of the second generation did not simply mean that we now had first generation (memory and speech) plus second generation (print and film). They are no more additive than the properties of water are the sum of the properties of hydrogen and the properties of oxygen. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Each shift is like a vigorous shake of a kaleidoscope yielding a completely different pattern. Since this shift is structural rather than simply sectoral, it is necessary to have a broad model to understand it. That is, it is necessary to have a model of the whole society rather than simply separate models of the various sectors of which it is composed.

The need for a broad model is reflected also in the work we did at GAMMA, the inter-disciplinary, future-studies "think tank" to which I belonged from 1970 till 1985. We were approached by a variety of organizations seeking help in managing the structural shift as the media system accommodates to the assimilation of the fourth generation of media. They find that the sectoral models they have used to date no longer apply in those turbulent, transitional times.

Working at GAMMA, you sometimes feel like a sort of intellectual James Bond in thought-filled adventures - Mr. Think-Think, Write-Write rather than Mr. Kiss-Kiss, Bang-Bang, or like a futuristic Sherlock Holmes, dealing not with mere murders in the past but with the larger mysteries of the future. As in most James Bond and Sherlock Holmes cases, the story opens with someone with a problem. Let me describe, by way of example, the case of the missing predictions.

It all began with a call from the Ministry of Transportation and Communications of the Ontario Provincial Government. They had a problem. They had a nice neat little demographic model from which they predicted the distribution of households in Ontario and, hence, the flow of traffic, and, hence, the focus of road-building and maintenance. The model, which had worked reasonably well for many years was no longer working. They got zapped by the energy crisis. They got zapped by the OPEC decision. All sorts of such surprises from outside upset their model. Planners don't like surprises - at least, not when they are the surprisees.

They had to expand their model. The world was becoming interconnected. How much did they need to expand? The surprises were coming from - everywhere. In a very bold move, they decided to expand to include - everything! They set up a group called Futures Outlook and asked them to study the future. After some moments of consternation (Study the future? But we've never been there! Nor has anyone else so you can't be contradicted), they set to work. They invited a number of consulting companies to

  • Select seminal sources on the future
  • Distribute them among themselves
  • Squeeze out predictions from each of those sources, and their implications for the future of Ontario, within six categories - Demographic, Economic, Socio-cultural, Environmental, Resources, and Technology.

We dutifully did as we were told. So they ended up with piles of predictions and implications. Another call from the Ministry. Help! What do we do with this pile of information. Will you synthesize it for us? (About half the time our clients were seeking synthesis because they have too much information and half the time they were seeking analysis because they have too little information.) It happened that, when this call came in, I had just returned from Europe and Kimon Valaskakis, the President of GAMMA, was just leaving for Europe.

The following conversation ensued during the day we overlapped in Montreal:

He: You want to take this case on?
Me: Synthesis? I never learned synthesis in school. Analysis, yes but synthesis no. We learned how to take the universe apart but not how to put it together again.
He: You publish textbooks in psychology, don't you? That is synthesis. You must have learned it somewhere.
Me: I guess so, now that you mention it. I must have learned it after school by accident. Okay.

Thus began the Summer of the Synthesis. My first attempt at climbing this mountain of data was to develop a cross-impact matrix which listed the predicted impacts of variables within each of the six categories on variables within each of the other five. Hence, I spent the first part of the Summer staring my little mind boggling at this six-by-six matrix pasted to my wall.

The second attempt involved collapsing the six categories into three - to be more manageable by my mind. Thus, demographic, economic, and socio-cultural became sociosphere (the social world), environmental, and resources became ecosphere (the natural world), and technology became technosphere (the artificial world). Now I had to deal only with the more manageable three-by-three matrix.

It was still stretching my cognitive capacities. Suddenly something snapped. There was something missing. Surely a psychologist should have noticed sooner that there was no person in the model. The great spheres were all moving in their interdependent ways as if there was no person present. Where was the person? The person, it seemed, should be in all three spheres - the person is the most complex system in the natural world, the person is the element of the social world, and the person is the source of the artificial world. Then it clicked. The model should not be a square three-by-three matrix but three overlapping circles, with the person in the center. This progression from a six-by-six matrix to a three-by-three matrix to three overlapping circles is illustrated in Figure 3-1.

The model can be called, somewhat whimsically, The Three Interfaces of Adam, because it can be described in terms of the Christian cosmology.25 Imagine Adam all alone on our planet before it got so complicated. He had to deal only with the natural world - let us call it the ecosphere. Along came Eve and they prospered and multiplied, introducing another great sphere to Adam's environment, consisting of other people - let us call it the sociosphere. As Adam and Eve and their progeny made discoveries about and inventions from their environment, they built up a third great sphere, consisting of person-made things - let us call it the technosphere.

So here we have Adam or Eve, or you or me, in an environment represented by three spheres (Figure 3-2). The person, the only system within the universe which belongs to all three spheres, is in the center - the triple overlap of the three spheres. Our environment is differentiated into those three spheres because the person has a different logical relationship to each sphere. The ecosphere conforms to the laws of the natural sciences; the sociosphere to the laws of the social sciences; and the technosphere to the laws of what Herbert Simon calls The Sciences of the Artificial [SIMON].

You may reasonably say that this model is too broad. Indeed, it is. How broad is it? It is so broad that it contains not only everything I am going to write but everything anyone has ever written in the past or everything anyone will ever write in the future. However, we academics tend to be too narrow. If the person in the center is a natural scientist (physicist, biologist, etc.), s/he tends to look out over the ecosphere; if the person in the center is a social scientist (economist, political scientist, etc.), s/he tends to look out over the sociosphere; if the person in the center is an expert in the sciences of the artificial (architect, engineer, etc.), s/he tends to look out over the technosphere.

They are like the three blind men, touching respectively the trunk, the tusk, and the tail of the elephant, and thus getting a false view of the whole elephant. One encouraging sign of the recent times is that we are beginning to step back and look at more of the elephant. Some people are looking at the overlap of ecosphere and sociosphere - for example, studies of legislation about conservation on our natural environment; some people are looking at the overlap of sociosphere and technosphere - for example, social assessment studies of the human impact of technology; some people are looking at the overlap of the ecosphere and the technosphere - for example, technology assessment studies of the environmental impact of technology. We need to stand even further back and look also at the triple overlap of all three spheres - the person in the center.

You may reasonably say that this model is too simple. Indeed, it is. However, we academics tend to under-simplify things. It is a useful first slice of reality. It is like a first introduction to Montreal. It is an island with a mountain in the middle. Downtown is between the river and the mountain. There are four major East-West streets - Sherbrooke, de Maisonneuve, St. Catherine, and RenÈ LÈsvesque. The other major downtown streets - Atwater, Guy, Peel, University, Park, St. Laurent, St. Denis - cut those four streets at right angles. Within that general framework, the details can be fitted in.

Indeed the model has an optimal level of complexity. It consists of seven categories (represented by the seven different patterns in Figure 3-2). George Miller, in his classical paper The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information argued that we are capable of handling simultaneously only seven categories (give or take a couple, to allow for individual differences) [MILLER]. Being average people, then, seven categories are just about right for us.

Did it work as a synthesis? Indeed, we think, it did. Our future will be determined, as has our past, by the complex interaction among those three vast spheres. Futurists differ, however, in the relative emphasis on those three spheres.

Some argue that the ecosphere will become more important in the future than it has been in the past. Let us call this the ecosphere-as-cause scenario. Within this camp, there are pessimists and optimists. The pessimists - for example, the Club of Rome in their book The Limits to Growth - argue that we are going to destroy our civilization by using up our natural non-renewable resources [MEADOWS ET AL]. The optimists - for example, the GAMMA Group, to which I belonged, in our book The Conserver Society - argue that we can eke out those resources for considerably longer by conservation policies [VALASKAKIS ET AL].

Some argue that the sociosphere will be relatively more important in the future. Let us call this the sociosphere-as-cause scenario. Once again, we have the pessimists and the optimists. The pessimists, all the way from Thomas Malthus to Paul Ehrlich, argue that the primary problem is one of over-population. The optimists are the advocates of capitalism and communism and - a third option for the Third World - the New International Economic Order, who argue that those people can be organized into productive systems which will generate the wealth to sustain them [e.g. BRANDT, GALTUNG].

Some argue that the technosphere will be relatively more important in the future. Let us call this the technosphere-as-cause scenario. Once again, as always, the pessimists and the optimists. The optimists - for example, R. Buckminster Fuller in his book Utopia or Oblivion [FULLER] - argue that, through technology, each of us can live as kings lived in the last century. The pessimists - for example, Jacques Ellul in his book The Technological Society [ELLUL] - argue that technology is not only not a solution but is part of the problem.

Within each pessimist camp, there is, of course, the no-future future. The ecosphere-as-cause doomsday scenario is that we will wipe ourselves out by using up our natural resources; the sociosphere-as-cause scenario is that we will destroy ourselves by over-populating our planet; the technosphere-as-cause scenario is that we will blow our planet up with nuclear weapons. In The Hollow Men, T. S. Eliot predicts

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Doom-sayers offer us a choice between two whimpers and a bang.

Returning to our history of media, the four generations of media represent changes within the technosphere. That's where much of the current action is. Let us for now consider this book as falling within the technosphere-as-cause scenario. Later (Section 9.4) we will take a closer look and even later (Section 10.1) we will take an even closer look at this classification. More precisely, the book falls into the optimistic sub-category of the technosphere-as-cause scenario. You should read the work of the European Schools (Frankfurt School, Sussex School, etc.) to balance this book with those in the pessimistic sub-category.

The structural shifts as we assimilate each generation of media may best be described using the language of Jean Piaget, who does for ontogenetic development (from child to adult) what Charles Darwin does for phylogenetic development (from animal to human). Both describe development as a process of continuous discontinuity. It is continuous with respect to function and discontinuous with respect to structure. The function in both cases is adaptation to the environment. Different organisms developed different structures to adapt to different environments. The child acquires different cognitive structures as s/he develops. Piaget describes the process of adaptation as alternations between the process of assimilation and the process of accommodation. That is, the child assimilates information from the environment and, if necessary, adjusts the cognitive structure to accommodate it [PIAGET]. By analogy, society assimilates each generation of media and adjusts to accommodate it.

25   Feminists in my class complained that I was perpetuating the male bias of the Christian cosmology. I protested feebly that I was simply playing with the analogy with The Three Faces of Eve. However, they are right. So, after exploiting the heuristic value of the analogy, let us call it simply the Triad Model.