7.3 Threats and Opportunities

When we analyze Toynbee's Challenge into Threats and Opportunities, we find that our long look at the first and second transitions help us better understand our current third transition. It is essentially a continuation of the first two, but with its own uniqueness.

The major opportunity in our story of tele-communications so far is the increase in human freedom by the progressive conquest of time and space. In Chapter 3, we learned that the invention of tools for storing information outside our bodies - the second generation of print and film - increases the range of our distance senses - vision and audition. In Chapter 5, we learned that 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) rather than under the speed of sound.

The invention of tools for both storing and transmitting information outside our bodies - the fourth generation of multimedia and internet - can not continue this conquest of space and time. There is no place on our planet which is not potentially accessible to print and film, telephone and television. Nothing moves faster than the speed of light.69 Some have argued that it permits us to escape the constraints - not of time and space - but of our identity [STONE, TURKLE 1995]. Surfing around on the internet without our bodies on, we can try on other personalities. No one knows what sex we are, what color we are, how old we are - that is, there is no basis for prejudice (sexism, racism, ageism, respectively). We can not be pre-judged.

Logan Pearsall Smith pinpoints one aspect of the human predicament when he says: What a bore it is, waking up in the morning, always the same person. We are condemned to be one person in one place at one time. Media permits us to be, at least vicariously, other people in other places at other times. This is part of the explanation why there is such a huge appetite for stories. The life we lead is only one of millions of possible lives we could have led. Each decision we make cuts out many possible lives.70 Of course, if you feel that the one life you happen to have led was a misspent life, then you are even more attracted to living your missed lives vicariously. That is perhaps why dedicated devotees of Star Wars and Star Trek movies are often advised to get a life.

As always, there is resistance to this new generation of media from those who perceive it as a threat. However, this time the resistance is not from the immediately previous generation of media, as in the first and second transitions. As we saw above, the telephone and television industries are welcoming this new generation with open antennae. Far from resisting, both industries are vying to incorporate fourth generation digital features. The reason is clear. Once you have a means of transmitting information electronically, it would be useful also to have a means of storing it electronically.

Resistance comes from the second generation of media - lovers of books and film argue against the storage and transmission of information by digital means. This next step was inevitable. We should perhaps have been waiting apprehensively for the other shoe to drop, but we certainly should not have been startled when it did. Resistance is from the second generation because this fourth generation offers an alternative means of storing information. What makes it even more threatening is that it is more compatible with the third generation. The fourth generation is an opportunity for the third generation of Telephone and Television but a threat for the second generation of Print and Film.

Otherwise very intelligent people - Robertson Davies, E. Annie Proulx, Gore Vidal, etc. - boast about their resistance to the word-processor. At the mere mention of an electronic book, one of my students invariably argues that you can't take it to bed with you, that they like the feel and smell of books.71 Publishers have been very slow to recognize that they are in the information business and that the book is just one of the ways to package it.72 For some purposes, you may want to package it physically in a book, for other purposes, you may want to package it electronically on a CD-ROM or on a web site, and for yet other purposes, you may want to consider a combination of physical and electronic storage - a book with a companion CD-ROM inserted in the back cover or a CD-ROM in a box with a book enclosed.73

The film-is-dead issue is not as familiar as the book-is-dead issue. However, many film-lovers are appropriately apprehensive about the fourth generation of media which has invaded the production of films. Computers play a huge role in all stages of film making - pre-production, production, and post-production. It is now moving beyond production into distribution. The digital versatile disk (DVD) holds 14 times as much information as the CD-ROM.74 The difference is however not merely quantitative. Since it is now possible to store a full-length movie electronically, the videocassettes in your local video store will gradually be replaced by DVDs. Since the video and audio quality of a DVD approaches that of film, movies can be distributed and projected electronically. My local bar has a DVD theater which could be distinguished from a traditional movie theater only by the most discriminating connoisseurs of film.

As argued above, the fourth generation of media continues the piggy-back strategy of the second and the third. It uses a code in which each letter of the alphabet is translated into a series of 0s and 1s. Thus, A is 0110001 and Z is 0011001. We saw in Chapter 2, how the number system emerged out of logic - the rules for combining sentences to create meaningful discourses. The fourth generation also piggy-backs on the number system, by using a code in which each number is a sequence of 0s and 1s. Thus, 1 is 0001 and 9 is 1001. Images can be represented as a pattern of 0s and 1s (Figure 7-4). Video and audio can be represented as sequences of 0s and 1s. By reducing everything to a lowest common denominator of 0s and 1s, the fourth generation can represent each of the previous three generations.

In this way, the piggy-back strategy evolves into a leap-frog strategy. The first three generations of media are integrated within the fourth generation. Thus, print can be created using desktop production (DTP) and video can be created using desktop video production (DTVP) or, in its more recent guise, digital video (DV). Every previous media can be simulated by this new media. They are all "solvable problems" which can be solved by the Turing Machine, which we will meet in Chapter 8. DTP and DV enable the integration of the print and image industries respectively into the computer-telecommunications industry. as Nicholas Negroponte predicted (Figure 7-5). The print and image industries are not merging quietly. Some are arguing that the creation of print and film digitally does not necessarily mean that they must also be distributed digitally. Hence the book-is-dead and film-is-dead controversies. Perhaps we are seeing another example of the sailboat effect, as the book and film industries are enjoying a surge of energy in defiance of this digital challenge.

The current rash of mergers are a result of corporations combining into mega-corporations jostling to position themselves within the mega-industry represented by the triple overlap of those three industries. Some of those mergers would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. Corporations within industries which, until recently, were not in the same industry are merging so that the resultant mega-corporation has the facilities to compete within this emerging multimedia mega-industry. The unprecedented cases of companies yet to make a profit gaining billion dollar value on the market makes sense because they have positioned themselves strategically within that market. Although amazon.com, for example, has yet to make a profit, the value of its shares has multiplied hundreds of times in the few years they have been available on the market [BAYERS]. In staking out its territory, it has made billionaires not only of Jeff Bezos, who founded the company, but of his parents and friends who lent him the few thousands dollars to get started. Ironically, he got started by selling books (that obsolete technology) through the Internet.

Another threat is the threat to democracy. We have found that, whereas the first generation of media is essentially democratic, the second and third generations have democratic and autocratic options. That is, the second generation has the post office (democratic) and the newspaper (autocratic); the third generation has the telephone (democratic) and the television (autocratic). What about the fourth generation? Since it piggy-backs on the telephone system, it is initially democratic. Anyone who can afford a computer and an Internet Service Provider (hence not fully democratic) can be source as well as destination of e-mail (the most popular function of internet). In Section 4.3, the unsung heroes who created the democratic Post Office were listed. The fourth generation of media has also been built by such unsung heroes (see Figure 7-6).

However, there is some pressure towards making the Internet more like television. Many corporations are trying to create WebTV in which the internet simply supplies additional channels to an essentially passive audience. Without naming names, those organizations aspire to set up Gates on the internet and Bill us for going through them. In his book The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Howard Rheingold describes the early days of the internet as parallel to the early days of the settlement of the American West [RHEINGOLD 1993]. They were days of anarchy but also of neighborliness. However, he sensed even then the electronic analogs of the Railway and Cattle Barons on the horizon. They are now very much with us, as cable television companies mock people with only telephone access and offer the higher channel capacity of their fiber-optic cables. Alas, traffic on those cables is largely one-way as they download movies-on-demand to us. Such systems are interactive in the limited sense that we can choose the movie or the camera angle we prefer on watching a hockey game. Just as a consumer society is democratic in the limited sense that we can choose between different brands of soap flakes and breakfast cereals.

The corporate culture, which embodies this pseudo-democracy of person as consumer rather than person as citizen, has recently dramatically increased its presence on the Internet.75 The great hack attack closed down many of their commercial sites. The hackers were vilified in the press as "terrorists" or "vandals" or at least "pranksters". When it was revealed that the great hack attacks were perpetuated by young hackers to impress their friends with their competence, no one in the media pointed out that this was better than trying to impress them with the brand names of their clothes. Better they demonstrate what they have in their heads than the brand name of the cap on their heads.

Steven Levy subtitles his classical book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution [LEVY]. Why have they suddenly become the villains? Rheingold's subtitle Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier provides a clue. Hackers were the homesteaders who first colonized the new frontier of cyberspace. However, as Rheingold warned, the railroad and cattle barons have moved in. Suddenly the original pioneers who built the internet are the villains. In his Matrix Trilogy, William Gibson gives us a preview of coming distractions [GIBSON W 1984, 1987, 1988]. He depicts a world in which power is in the hands of various multinational corporations. His heroes are console cowboys who are outside the system battling the hired guns for those corporations.

Hackers are not unethical. They just have a different system of ethics. The basic principle of the hacker ethic is that "information wants to be free". They share their information with others and expect others to share with them. We are moving into a psychology of abundance from a psychology of scarcity. You can give information away and still keep it. This hacker ethic is going to have to deal with the fact that people who create information need to have some mechanism of being recompensed for it so that they can look after the mundane maintenance matters. Otherwise they can't continue to create information. But it is better than the corporate ethic that information is merely a commodity to be bought and sold on the market.76

69   Nothing, that is, but in a sense the human mind. Albert Einstein imagined himself traveling faster than the speed of light and created the theory of relativity. The speed of light can not only be exceeded by human imagination, it can be squared! The C in E = M.C2 is, of course, the speed of light. In our enthusiasm for our inventions of extrasomatic tools, we must be careful to recognize that the ultimate invention was nature's invention of the human mind. Our various extrasomatic tools are pale copies plagiarized from nature.

70   On the morning of my twentieth birthday, I woke up discontented that I had not yet traveled much. I leapt out of bed, picked up the Sunday Post which opened at an ad for the Hudson Bay Company: Find fame and fortune in the Canadian North. Six weeks later, I was standing on the docks in Montreal. I had cut out all my lives I would have led had I stayed in Scotland. The Hudson Bay Company had enough recruits by the time they came to Lochwinnoch (they started at the North of Scotland because people were more used to cold climates). Thus I was cut off from all the lives I would have led had I spent the contracted two years in the Arctic. Is it any wonder that I read many stories set in Scotland and in the Arctic?

71   I have very depraved students, who lie in bed fondling and sniffing books.

72   A very useful book called The Originals identifies the real people on whom over 3,000 fictional characters are based [AMOS]. Since I am interested in the psychology of creativity, I used it to explore the process by which authors transmute real people into fictional characters. To facilitate my research, I made an electronic version, which enabled one to search by author and title. I sent my electronic version to the publisher asking if they would be interested in using it as a supplement to the book. Since there was no reply after six months, I went to their office in London to discuss it in person. Being British, they would not talk to me because I didn't have an appointment. I finally persuaded a secretary to accept the floppy disk containing the electronic version. When I got back to Canada, there was a lawyer's letter threatened to sue me. I replied that I would not have flown to London to present them with the evidence if I was planning to rip them off. I may be a scholar but I'm not stupid. Since then, silence. Just noticed at amazon.com that the book is out of print. Perhaps, a decade later, I should try again!

73   This would perhaps help defuse the disappointment one invariably feels when the big box is opened and found to contain a small CD-ROM. It's pointless to point out that a CD-ROM can contain the equivalent of 500 500-page books. It's a small object in a large package and one feels cheated. Even a t-shirt would alleviate this impression. Better would be a book which contains the essence of the contents of the CD-ROM for those occasions in which one happens not to have a cumbersome computer.

74   The cynics who dubbed DVD "doubtful very doubtful" have been silenced.

75   It was inevitable that the meeting-place becomes also the market-place. It's interesting to compare the Internet with the Agora. This was the market-place, which became the meeting-place for Socrates and his philosopher friends.

76   Not being a hacker, I'm not as upset by the invasion of the Internet by the corporate culture. However, I am upset at its invasion of the University, where I've spent most of my life. McGill University next door had to fight hard to prevent Coca-Cola from dictating what drinks were available on the campus. My own university has advertisements in the university washrooms. At this most intimate moment in front of the urinal, one is confronted by ads. It's especially upsetting to be staring at an ad which proclaims "your future is in your hands", reminding me rudely that, in my case, it's my past that is in my hands.