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CHAPTER 6: THIRD GENERATION - TELEPHONE AND TELEVISION

When television has fulfilled its ultimate destiny, man's sense of physical limitation will be swept away -- With this may come a new horizon, a new philosophy, a new sense of freedom, and greatest of all, perhaps, a finer and broader understanding between all the peoples of the world.

David Sarnoff, April 1931


6.1 Precursors - Telegraph and Radio

The third generation of media, in which information is transmitted outside the body, is exemplified here by telephone and television, its most salient current examples. In doing so, however, I neglect the historical role of two other media - telegraph, which could be considered as a precursor of telephone, and radio, which could be considered as a precursor of television.

The various exemplars of transmitting information outside the body - that is, the third generation of media - can be considered as more sophisticated versions of two kids communicating with two tin cans joined by a piece of string. Telegraph permits communication by transmitting tappings on one can to be received by the other can. Telephone aspires to improve the tin cans and the string, so that the more sophisticated signal of the human voice can be transmitted. Radio aspires to throw away the string and transmit the message through the air (hence, its original name - wireless). Television aspires to transmitting light waves rather than sound waves through the air.

Indeed, if I were to trace the genesis of this generation to its roots, I would have to tell the stories of Benjamin Franklin and his kite, of Luigi Galvani and his frog, of Thomas Alva Edison and his light bulb, of Nikola Telsa's challenge to Edison in their battle over the relative merits of direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC), of Volta, AmpÈre, Ohm, Joule, and Hertz, whose contributions earned them immortality as measures - that is, the story of the capture and control of the power of electricity. Figure 6-1 lists the many contributors to this story, which is a prequel to the story told here.56

All those media which enabled us to transmit information outside our bodies rest on this foundation of a new form of energy beyond mechanical energy. Let us assume that we have discovered how to pass an electric current along a wire. All we need now is some method of using this device to transmit messages. We are then poised to cross the digital divide from the first and second generations of media, based on mechanical energy, to the third and fourth generations of media, based on electrical energy.

Although many telegraph systems existed before, Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872) gets most of the credit, because he developed the simple code which bears his name. The message was contained in the breaks in the electric current passing along the wire.57 In the Morse code, each letter of the alphabet was represented by a series of such short (dots) and long (dashes) breaks. This code, thus, piggy-backs on the second generation of writing which in turn piggy-backs on the first generation of speaking.

A number of such codes, designed to overcome some limitation, in the transmitter or receiver, use such a piggy-back strategy. Thus semaphore is used to communicate at a distance beyond the range of the human voice by having an arrangement of flags represent each letter of the alphabet. Braille is used to communicate with blind people by having a pattern of raised dots represent each letter of the alphabet. American Sign Language (ASL) is used to communicate with deaf people. It is a full language but an aspect of it - hand-signing - is a code in which a particular hand signal represent each letter of the alphabet.58 Those various codes are presented in Figure 6-2.59



56   It could be argued that Thomas Alva Edison should be included as a major figure in the history of media. His work on electricity laid a foundation for the third generation of media. An enthusiastic advocate of telegraphy, he spelled out his proposal to his future wife on her hand using the Morse Code and he named the subsequent two children Dot and Dash. His light bulb provided better access to the second generation of media. Our planet was dark for, on the average, half the time, until his light bulb enabled us to read when the world was dark.

57   That is, it is the absence of current rather than its presence which contains the message. The fact that this solution is counter-intuitive may explain why it took so long to emerge.

58   I'm indebted to Dr. Edgar Zurif for this distinction. He kindly read the manuscript and made a number of valuable suggestions for its improvement. Hand-signing is equivalent to spelling out words. My neighbor, Dana, used it the other day. She: I'm going for a W A L K. Me: I know how to spell 'walk'. She: But she doesn't (pointing to her dog Soda who had picked up her leash and was barking at the door).

59   The problem with piggy-back bilingualism, as discussed in Section 2.2, is that the second language is more a code than a genuine language.