CHAPTER 7: SHIFT 3 - ASSIMILATING THE FOURTH GENERATIONAway back in Chapter 1, I argued that we can't get a clear look at this third shift, as we assimilate the fourth generation of media (Multimedia and Internet), because it is happening now. We are still in the turbulent throes of this third transition. It's happening all around us. We are too immersed in it to see it clearly. The ubiquitous is paradoxically elusive. The fish will be last to discover water. I suggested back then that we may be able to see more clearly by going far back into our past and taking a long look at our present. Is it clearer now? I think so. It's clearer to me after writing this history, and I hope it's clearer to you after reading it. This fish, at least, is beginning to get to know the water.
What a bore it is, waking up in the morning, always the same person.
Logan Pearsall Smith
Within the long perspective, we can see that the turbulent transition of the present is a logical continuation of a long process. It is the latest (and, I'll argue later, last) chapter in what I call the Big Story of historical time - the co-evolution of the person and media as extensions. That process is the adaptation of our social system and media system over historical time to the challenges of the environment. We shifted to an agricultural society and acquired media to store information outside our bodies; we shifted to an industrial society and acquired media to transmit information outside our bodies; we are now shifting to an information society and acquiring media to both store and transmit information outside our bodies.
Those shifts may perhaps best be understood within the challenge-and-response model of history proposed by Arnold Toynbee [TOYNBEE]. As we moved from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural to an industrial to an information society, the response to the challenge of such dramatic shifts in society was the development of the second, third, and fourth generations of media, respectively. We are now in the throes of the third shift and may perhaps get some insight into the current turbulent transition by looking at the previous two shifts.
As we moved into an agricultural society, nature was not able to keep up with this social evolution and we had to invent our own media system in response to this challenge. We settled down but goods moved around and we needed tools to record goods we have stored and shipped to others. As Schmandt-Besserat has demonstrated (see Section 4.3), this need to keep records of excess food stored and traded in the emerging agricultural society evolved into writing [SCHMANDT-BESSERAT]. Tokens representing various goods were wrapped in clay envelopes with symbols etched on them to represent the contents. Those symbols evolved into writing.
The second shift to electronic media based on electricity was a response to the challenge posed by the globalization of trade (in goods and ideas) and thus the need for instantaneous communication around the globe. As we moved into an industrial society, it was necessary to have more instantaneous communication on a global scale as raw materials were collected from around the globe and finished products distributed around the globe. Telegraphy and its descendants in the third generation of media were developed as a response to this challenge.
As this globalization shrunk the planet into a Global Village, there was a need for an infrastructure for communication within this village. Needs generate markets. Entrepreneurs take over from innovators to develop the satisfiers of those needs to generate wealth for themselves and for others. As we now move into an information society, information must be integrated and distributed around the globe so that we can interact with it wherever we are. As we have come to realize that information is itself an important resource, we need means of packaging and distributing it around the globe. Just as we needed to store food to use later and to trade, as we moved into the agricultural society, so we need to store information to use later and to trade, as we move into the information society. The fourth generation of multimedia and internet is the response to those challenges.
Which is cause and which is effect? Those who say technology is the cause are dismissed as technological determinists and those who say society is the cause are dismissed as cultural determinists. This process, of which our current turbulent transition is a part, is a process of continuous discontinuity, like the process of phylogenetic development, as described by Charles Darwin, and the process of ontogenetic development, as described by Jean Piaget. As in those cases, the continuity is function, in this case communication, and the discontinuity is structure, in this case, different media emerged to deal with different challenges. To ask which is more important is like asking which of the three legs of a three-legged stool is most important. The three shifts are different stages in the process by which our species has extended our nervous systems through our co-evolution with media This is what I call the Big Story of historical time.
Now that the similarities in our three transitions are stated, the differences become clear. This third transition is, as argued in Section 5.1, no more important than the other two. Indeed, it could be best viewed simply as the dropping of the other shoe. Once a means of transmitting information electronically was available, it was only a matter of time and technology before the means of storing information electronically was devised. The third transition differs from the first and second, because it shifts us into an information society, in which media is central. The information society is defined in terms of media. It is no longer simply a means to an end but an end in itself. Power has shifted from violence (in an agricultural society) to money (in an industrial society) to knowledge (in an information society) [TOFFLER 1990].
This lends support to the argument that the Big Story of historical time is the co-evolution of the person and media as extensions. Life is led forward but understood backward. Now that we can see history as culminating in an information society, then it is imperative that we revision history in terms of communication rather than in terms of conflict. Conflict is a footnote to communication - case studies of failures of communication.
Another common theme in the three transitions is the piggy-backing of each generation on the previous ones. As argued in Chapter 3, the second generation of writing piggy-backs on the first generation of speech by using a foundation of graphemes which correspond (roughly) to phonemes. As argued in Chapter 5, telegraph, the prototype for the third generation, piggy-backs in turn on the second generation by using a code of dots and dashes corresponding to each grapheme. The fourth generation of multimedia and internet picky-backs in turn on the third generation by using a code of 0s and 1s to correspond not only to graphemes but to numbers and images and sounds. Each generation of tele-communications thus capitalizes on the power of the first generation, which is the invention of nature.
Once again, as the similarities are described, the differences become clear. Since this same code is used for the storage and transmission of information in the fourth generation, it integrates storage and information within the same system. Thus the plagiarism of nature continues in the fourth generation in a more dramatic way. This fourth generation brings us back, in a sense, to the first generation, in which storage (memory) and transmission (speech) are integrated within the human brain. The extrasomatic transmission of the third generation is integrated with extrasomatic storage in the fourth generation. Which leads to a whole other story.
Another story was continuing in parallel to our story of tele-communications - the story of artificial intelligence. Until very recently, they were separate stories. The third shift into the fourth generation of media is due largely to the convergence of computer and tele-communication technologies. Those two stories now merge into one story. We should perhaps have predicted this merger. Tele-communications is the story of the technological extension of language; artificial intelligence is the story of the technological extension of thought. Their convergence was inevitable.67 Few futurists predicted it. Perhaps if we had been thinking in terms of evolutionary psychology, we would have.
As the histories of computers and of tele-communications converged, the extrasomatic tool for storing information (the computer) and the extrasomatic tool for transmitting information (tele-communications) merged into the same system. Let us call this system informatics (Figure 7-1).
During the early 1980s, I kept a record of the processes which had been converted to this informatics system (Figure 7-2). I had to abandon this project because of the exponential growth of this conversion process. The penetration of informatics into industrialized society has been so dramatic that it has produced a paradigmatic shift to a post-industrial society (Figure 7-3). Thus this third shift is not simply a continuation of the conquest of space and time as in the first and second shifts but a qualitative change in the whole society. We are in the midst of a paradigmatic shift from an industrial society, based on energy, to a post-industrial society, based on information. Thus we are in the midst of a turbulent transition into a society, which is not just influenced by media but defined in terms of media. The basic function of an information society is the storage and transmission of information.
Informatics is the infrastructure of this information society. The anti-trust case brought against the Microsoft Corporation is based on the principle that no individual or institution should own the infrastructure. The infrastructure of the industrial society is the transportation system. Imagine the confusion and corruption if the highways were owned by a corporation (or perhaps, even worse, by many corporations, as they were essentially in the early days of transportation). You wouldn't be able to travel if you couldn't afford to pay the tolls. Even if you could pay, your trip would be constantly interrupted as you stopped to pay at the toll-booths set up by each corporation. If you had a feud with someone who owned a particular road, you could be banned from traveling on it, no matter how much you paid and how willing you were to wait. Informatics was once described as the "electronic superhighway". This much-maligned term has gone out of favor.68 However, it is an important reminder that informatics is the infrastructure. Since we all share the infrastructure, we should all own it. The supremacy of a democratic system over an autocratic system is most evident in the case of the infrastructure.
67 This story parallels the twice-upon-a-time structure of many Hollywood movies. We are introduced to him, we are introduced to her, then we see their lives converge . The convergence of computer and tele-communication technologies was, in hindsight, just as predictable. The question now is will they live happily ever after?" This is just as predictable. They will indeed live happily together or die unhappily together. Every time there is a downturn in the New Tech industry, some people speculate that the informatics infrastructure and the new economy based on it was just a fad. However, it is here to stay. It is the culmination of a long historical process representing the unfolding of the human potential.
68 Some people protested that they were bored with the term - electroniic superhighway. This is another symptom of our emphasis on entertainment over enlightenment. This is like dismissing the equation - E = M.C2 - because it is boring. Both the term and the equation are designed to enlighten us - not to entertain us. Electronic superhighway served the purpose of reminding us that the infrastructure of the information society is tele-communications by emphasizing the parallel with the infrastructure of the industrial society - transportation.