Make your own free website on


3.3 Threats and Opportunities

GAMMA, the think-tank to which I belonged, submitted the ETA Report to their clients. This report, emerged from our Environmental Tracking Analysis (ETA) procedure, provided them with a sort of state-of-the-universe message. It described the major processes of change currently taking place in their environment - whether ecosphere, sociosphere, or technosphere. Some of our clients asked us to go beyond describing the changes in their environment to describing the implications of those changes for their organization. Thus, to the ETA Report, which answered the question What's happening?, we added the TAO Report, which answered the question So what?.

TAO, the Chinese symbol for challenge, is a combination of the symbols for threat and for opportunity. It is often represented by the image depicted in Figure 3-3. The black and white parts of the circle indicate that a challenge can be considered as both a threat and an opportunity. The white circle within the black part and the black circle within the white part indicate that there is opportunity within threat and there is threat within opportunity. The Threats And Opportunities (TAO) Report thus described the threats to and the opportunities for our clients presented by the changes described in the ETA Report. It also described the opportunities within the threats and the threats within the opportunities.

Let us consider the person in the center of the Triad Model (see Figure 3-2) as our client. What are the threats and opportunities to the person as the second generation of Print and Film is assimilated?

The work of Harold Innis described above captures the major opportunity. This second generation contributes to our conquest of time and space. The process of development, whether from animal to human or from child to adult, was described above as the progressive emancipation of the organism from the tyranny of the environment. This emancipation process continues as we assimilate the second generation of Print and Film. Apart from some ingenious line-of-sight communication systems - smoke signals, semaphore, etc. - the first generation of media was constrained by the limitations of the human voice. To communicate, we had to be within eye-sight and ear-shot of one another. Print and film enable us to transcend this limitation. I wrote a book thirty years ago that you can read now. You can take a photograph in London and I can look at it here in Montreal. With the second generation of media, we can further escape the tyranny of the environment. We don't have to live in the here and now.

Socrates pointed out the threat-within-opportunity. He viewed writing as a threat because extrasomatic storage will replace extragenetic storage. That is, we will lose our memories:

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]

He was right. Few people today could memorize The Iliad and The Odyssey as could many of his contemporaries.

Plato defied his teacher by writing down the lecture notes he had taken as The Dialogues. He wrote them as dialogues to preserve the flavor of the oral tradition. However, the damage was done. The live words from the mouth of Socrates were captured as dead words on a page. Those of us for whom Socrates is a hero are pleased that his memory has been preserved for us by this defiant act of Plato. Since Socrates, true to his principles, never wrote anything himself, we would not even have known of his existence and would not have been able to benefit from his wisdom.

Most great teachers, like Socrates, did not write. Jesus, Confucius, Mohammed, Buddha were all in the oral tradition. They spoke. But they had disciples, students who wrote down what they said. Every Johnson has his Boswell, who believes their mentor has something important to say and records it. Otherwise their wisdom would be lost to us. Perhaps it is still lost. Perhaps you had to be there.

The Galilean Quartet (like the Alexandrian Quartet, the same story is told from four different points of view) was written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John many years after the events in the life of Jesus which they recorded. The disciples were eye-witnesses. However, eye-witnesses get it wrong sometimes, especially when they write some time later. Every media innovation involves a trade-off. The second generation of print preserves the wisdom of the great thinkers who used the first generation of media. However, something is inevitably lost in translation. Words lined up on a page can not fully capture the liveliness of listening to a charismatic speaker.

Some argue that there are certain skills, which can not be passed on from generation to generation using our extrasomatic tools. Craft literacy, for example, can only be learned by each individual from the inside out. It's like riding a bicycle - one can not learn it by reading a book. The following parable makes this point:34

Duke Huan of Ch'i was reading a book at the upper end of the Hall; the wheelwright was making a wheel at the lower end. Putting aside his mallet and chisel, he called to the duke and asked him what book he was reading.
"One that records the words of the sages", answered the Duke.
"Are those sages alive?" asked the wheelwright.
"Oh, no", said the Duke, "they are dead."
"In that case"
said the wheelwright, "what you are reading can be nothing but the lees and scum of bygone men."
"How dare you, a wheelwright, find fault with the book I am reading? If you can explain your statement, I'll let it pass. If not, you shall die."

"Speaking as a wheelwright," he replied, "I look at the matter in this way; when I am making a wheel, if my stroke is too slow, then it bites deep but is not steady; if my stroke is too fast, then it is steady, but does not go deep. The right pace, neither slow nor fast, cannot get into the hand unless it comes from the heart. It is a thing that cannot be put into words; there is an art in it that I cannot explain to my son. This is why it is impossible for me to let him take over my work, and here I am at the age of seventy, still making wheels. In my opinion it must be the same with the men of old. All that was worth handing on, died with them; the rest, they put into their books. That is why I said that what you are reading was the lees and scum of bygone men."
Attributed to Chuang Tzu [WALEY]

The major threat, as we assimilated the second generation of media, is to democracy. The first generation of media is essentially democratic. All members of our species are issued with essentially the same equipment for Speech and Memory. Natural selection has built the capacity to speak and listen into our genetic program, though it leaves a large gap in the program to be filled in by the environment, since there is no survival value to acquiring a language which is not spoken by the language community in which a child is immersed. As we learned above, there is no such thing as a primitive language. Every language had equivalents for every logical operator and thus the basis of logic and thus, in turn, of mathematics (see Section 2.1). Every member of our species receives the same conception-day gift.

The second generation of media - since it is designed by people rather than by nature - is less democratic. Learning to read and write is a more arduous process than learning to speak and listen. There is no genetic program for learning to write and read as there is for learning to speak and listen. Writing is a human invention, which piggy-backs on the evolutionary invention of speaking. We can all learn to speak, even in poverty-stricken conditions, because the means of doing so are provided by nature. However, we can not all learn to write as easily, because writing is an arbitrary social invention of our species. Children, who do not have access to instruction in reading and the leisure to take advantage of this instruction, will not become literate.

The potential for freedom described above is only realized by those who have the means to take advantage of it. Much of the power of the Roman Catholic Church was based on the fact that priests had the means of becoming literate, whereas most of their parishioners had not. Many priests resented and resisted the democratization of print made possible by the printing press because it reduced their power as middle-men, reading and interpreting the Bible to their illiterate parishioners.35 They could read the Bible themselves. Much of the "protest" of Protestants was about cutting out the middle-man. When Martin Luther tacked his protest on the church door, the medium was at least part of the message.

Victor Hugo had his priest character - Frodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame - say this (a printed pamphlet in his hand) will replace that (Notre Dame Cathedral). It did and it didn't. Last time I looked the Cathedral was still there but its function has changed. The parishioners do not need to depend on the medium of the stained-glass windows and the priest to get the message, but they are attracted to the immersive environment of a mass with ceremony and ceilings, chanting and music creating a sense of awe not possible by reading a book, however holy. The Gestalt principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, described above, mitigates against any simple this-will-replace-that prediction. Old media are not so much replaced by new media as edged into a new niche.

The Roman Catholic Church can claim much credit for the preservation of the wisdom contained in more secular books since monks were responsible for copying the texts of early Greek philosophers. Its initial resistance to the democratization of print, facilitated by the invention of the printing press, was subsequently reduced. The Church welcomed printing with cheap, printed versions of the Holy Bible becoming an important element in the spreading of the Gospel. A faith which seeks converts has a vested interest in media. My own Department of Communication Studies was founded by the Jesuits, the intellectual wing of the Roman Catholic Church.

This resistance to universal literacy persists today. Writing piggy-backed on speaking by creating a set of units (graphemes) corresponding roughly to the set of units in speaking (phonemes). George Bernard Shaw tried to make learning to write easier by designing written language with perfect phoneme-grapheme correspondence. His efforts were strongly resisted. A natural language is difficult by design. One must work hard to pass the initiation rite to join the literate club. If it was made easy, anyone could join. There would therefore be no one left to brand as illiterate and thus condemn to the lower-status and lower-paid jobs.

There is the same resistance to artificial languages like, for example, Esperanto. Some people have recently whimsically argued for Europanto, a common language for the Common Market to match the Euro, their common currency [RICHLER]. Fifteen member countries require 15 x 14 translations of all their "common" documents. Such an incredible expense could be saved by a common language. Ironically some have suggested English as such a common language, even though England has chosen not to use the common currency. My neighbor, Trisha Santa, recommends Latin, the "common language" from which most European languages were derived. The obvious necessity for such a common language encounters the excessive attachment each language group has to its own language. After passing the initiation rite, they are extremely reluctant to give it up.

Individuals, as well as institutions, could gain power by acquiring literacy. Egyptians could avoid back-breaking work by becoming scribes. Scribes had more status. It was a step towards upward mobility. It was the beginning of a meritocracy. However, it confronts us with the issue of elitism versus egalitarianism. Your opinion has more weight because of your expertise. Postmodern thinkers, in arguing that all opinions are equally valid, are attempting to counter this threat to democracy.

34   I'm indebted to my colleague, Dr. Maben Poirier, for drawing my attention to this parable and for lengthy enlightening discussions of its implications. The distinction between craft and traditional literacy was clarified for me by the following experience. During a personal energy crisis, I bought a bike. Though I had not ridden a bike for 20 years, I hopped on it immediately and rode off. Returning from a trip, however, I found I could no longer ride my bike. I had forgotten the combination for its lock. My body had "remembered" how to ride a bike for 20 years but my mind couldn't remember the combination for a few days.

35   They were the conservatives of their time. Conservatives tend to view change as threatening. This is not a surprise. Conservatives are those who have something to conserve. This is why we tend to become more conservative as we get older - we have acquired more vested interest in the status quo.