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5.3 Threats and Opportunities

So far, we have been telling the story of telecommunications. We started with speech and memory. We use the distance senses of audition (for verbal communication) and vision (for non-verbal communication).52 This is telecommunications - that is, communications at a distance. It's communication at a short distance - we have to be within ear-shot and eye-sight of one another - but communication at a distance nevertheless.

The major opportunity provided by the assimilation of each generation of media is the further conquest of time and space. As argued in Chapter 3, the invention of tools for storing information outside our bodies - the second generation of print and film - increases our range. I can write a book in Montreal and you can read it in San Francisco (well outside the range of my voice). You can take a photograph in New Delhi and I can look at it a decade later in New York (well outside the range of my sight). However, I can look at your photograph far away from where it is taken but not right away. Books and films are physical objects which have to be transported from place to place. The second generation of media is thus limited to the speed of transportation. The message could not travel any faster than the messenger, since the hardware (medium) and the software (message) were not yet separate [LEVINSON 1997, Page 192].

The speed of transportation has only recently exceeded the speed of sound. Thus, unless you are sending a message from New York to Paris on the Concorde jet or have persuaded an astronaut to deliver a letter to the moon, your conquest of space and time is limited to the relatively slow pace of transportation - that is, below the speed of sound. Thus, the invention of tools for transmitting information outside our bodies - the third generation of telephone and television - further increases our range. We are now able to communicate at essentially the speed of light (the qualifier is added to allow for the friction as our message moves through air and along wires). For the first time in history, the message can travel faster than the messenger. Your voice on the telephone can be heard almost instantaneously at the other side of the planet; a television transmission can be received around the world at essentially the same time. I can speak into a telephone in Montreal and you can hear me in San Francisco right away. You can appear in a television studio in New Delhi and I can see you in New York right away.

As argued in Chapter 3, the institution that resisted the second generation of media was the Church. Resistance comes from the conservatives - that is, those who have something to conserve tend to see innovation as a threat. Priests wanted to preserve their power as interpreters of the Bible for their illiterate congregations. The institution which resists the third generation is the Academy. As we assimilated the second generation of media, power had passed from priests to professors, who wanted to preserve their power as the official producers and distributors of knowledge.

The university system, founded in the Middle Ages, welcomed print, the new media of the time. However, the Academy refused to cross the digital divide with the other institutions in our society. It still focuses on the first two generations of media - Talk and Chalk. The telephone has played no role at all and television only a minor role. When a teacher uses television in class, it is assumed that he/she is filling in time because they have not prepared a lecture and is not taken seriously by the students. Scholars tend to look down on television as a plebeian medium of popular culture for entertaining the masses. This third generation of media introduces a class distinction between those who get their information through print and those who get their information through television, between high and low culture, between lives devoted largely to enlightenment and lives devoted largely to entertainment.

There is, however, nothing about television as a medium which pre-disposes it towards entertainment rather than enlightenment. This emphasis is due to historical accident. There was much discussion in the early days of television about how it would be financed. In Great Britain, it was decided to finance it publicly by selling licenses to the owners of television sets; in the United States, it was decided to finance it privately by selling screen time to corporations for advertising. In the latter case, it therefore became a tool for delivering audiences to corporations. Since entertainment is more popular than enlightenment, then the emphasis was placed on entertainment.53 If the television corporations could lure large audiences for their corporate clients with talking-head discussions of post-modern theory, then we would be inundated with talking-head discussions of post-modern theory. It is the responsibility of the educational system to raise public enthusiasm for enlightenment (or rather not to dampen the intrinsic interest in enlightenment).

One of the few scholars who advocates the use of video in the classroom is Camille Paglia. An enterprising (and brave) editor at Harper's Magazine arranged a lunch meeting between Camille Paglia and Neil Postman who favors print over video. Their debate was a very articulate, and surprisingly polite, discussion of the usual issues [HARPER'S].

I personally find a combination of both media ideal. Figure 5-4 lists a number of books which accompany various television series. My strategy is to read a chapter before viewing the corresponding episode. This reassures me as a compulsive academic that I have the names and the references and all the scholarly apparatus available. The video complements the text. There are many cases in which it is better to show than to tell. This permits me to fire on both my cylinders - the right and the left hemispheres.

Because of its resistance to the third and fourth generations of media, the educational system has become a gigantic qwerty phenomenon. Just as the typewriter keyboard was designed for another time but persists into the present because so many people have been trained on it, so the educational system was designed for the agricultural society but persists into the present because teachers continue to teach the way they were taught.54

When information was largely in the heads of teachers, it made sense to sit people in rows and tell them things. When only teachers had access to books, it made sense for teachers to read those books and for students to write theirs. Those talk-and-chalk methods no longer make sense. If we continue with those traditional methods, the university will become increasingly peripheralized and irrelevant. In her autobiography, Margaret Mead states that My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school. Marshall McLuhan expressed a similar sentiment: The information level outside of school is so much higher than inside the school, that one interrupts one's education by going to school. Those statements were made many decades ago. In the interval, the information level outside school (that is, in the Media) has increased dramatically, whereas the information level inside school (that is, in the Academy) has shown little change. Those statements were startling then. However, they are so obviously true now, that they have become clichÈs.

We are very familiar with descriptions of generations in terms of demographics - e.g. the bloomer generation born after the Second World War - or in terms of decades - e.g. the 60s generation. However, a more meaningful distinction between generations is in terms of the media with which they grew up. I don't remember watching television or using a telephone before I left Scotland at 20. My friend and neighbor, Trisha Santa, who is forty years younger than me, wipes me out at the computer game, You Don't Know Jack, not just because it is based on movies and television she grew up with, but because she is so much more at home with keyboard and mouse and screen. (She bought her first computer at 20, I bought my first computer at 50.) On the other hand, I always (so far) beat her at Scrabble, since print was the medium I grew up with. Hard on her heels is the Net Generation, even more at home with the fourth generation of media they have grown up with.

In her book Culture and Commitment: The New Relationships Between the Generations in the 1970s, Margaret Mead makes the distinction between postfigurative cultures, when the future repeats the past, cofigurative cultures, in which the present is the guide to future expectations, and prefigurative cultures, for the kind of culture in which the elders have to learn from the children about experiences which they have never had. "We are now entering a period, new in history, in which the young are taking on new authority in their prefigurate apprehension of the still unknown future." [MEAD, Page 13].

This new type of culture she saw emerging with the 70s generation is now fully here with the 90s generation. Don Tapscott, in his book Growing up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation describes the generation born in the 1980s (and thus about to arrive at our universities soon) as one which has grown up with computers and thus is totally at home with them [TAPSCOTT].55 A university designed for postfigurative cultures, in which the old pass on their wisdom to the young because they have experience of the life which the young will live in the future, is no longer appropriate. When this net generation arrives at the university and finds me standing in front of a blackboard with a piece of chalk, the excrement is really going to impinge on the ventilation device!

I'm not advocating a university in which the young are the professors and the old are the students. Nor would I look forward to a day in which the arrogance of youth is no longer balanced by the arrogance of experience. The old still have much to offer the young - the really important lessons of life are the same in whatever culture - be it prefigurate, cofigurate, or postfigurate. Those who have been on our planet longer are more at home on it, if they have been paying attention, than those who have just arrived. However, we are all "immigrants in time" (to use the delightful phrase of Margaret Mead). We all suffer future shock, as Alvin Toffler tells us, - that is, culture shock in our own culture because it is changing so rapidly [TOFFLER 1971]. The Net Generation suffers less from future shock because they have grown up with computer-based media and can help the old feel at home in this alien (and potentially alienating) culture.

The university of the future I am proposing is a community of scholars, young and old, where we all teach one another, regardless of age. Ageism is as offensive as sexism and racism and is equally offensive when it is directed by the old against the young as when it is directed by the young against the old.56 The young have a conspiracy against the old - they are planning to outlive us. It is essential then that we perform the basic function of parents and teachers - to plan our own obsolescence.

Immigration in time is even more threatening than immigration in space. You can't just "stay home" in the present. There is no alternative to moving into the future. The old can help the young move confidently into the future (in which they have a greater investment and, therefore, presumably interest) and the young can help the old feel more at home in a present (in which they are often bewitched, bothered, and bewildered).

52   There is communication also using the close senses of touch, smell and taste. Helen Keller, being blind and deaf had no access to the distance senses, yet lived a full life, graduating from university, writing books, using only those close senses. However, this is a whole other story. Though I've neglected it here, you may want to explore it on your own - in private.

53   I explore this at length in another book - Turning Teaching Inside-Out [GARDINER 2002]. However, you need only imagine a television program entitled "Enlightenment Tonight " surviving for 20 years on prime-time television or two billion people watching a televised version of the presentation of the Nobel Prizes, the enlightenment analog of the Oscars, to realize that entertainment is indeed more popular than enlightenment.

54   A small example may help illustrate this. The long Summer vacation was originally designed to enable students to help with the harvest. I asked one class how many of them needed the Summer vacation to help with the harvest. Only one of them raised his hand, explaining that he was from Saskatchewan, but later he told me he was putting me on. Our schools and universities are thus sitting essentially vacant for a third of the year. If we had a trimester system in which teachers and students chose two out of three terms, we could make better use of our facilities, and some of us could get out of here during the Canadian Winter. Alas, we've got to tote those bales!

55   After an interview with Pamela Wallin, he describes the reaction of his 12-year-old son Alex to his statement that he is teaching people how to surf the net. "Why not give them a course on using the telephone when you are at it?" His 13-year-old daughter Nikki chimes in "Yeah, Dad, how about another course on using the refrigerator?" [TAPSCOTT, pages 39-40].

56   One interesting difference between ageism and the more familiar prejudices of sexism and racism is that you eventually become a member of the group you demean. Imagine Archie Bunker becoming a black woman.