8.2 Media as Extensions

The principle contribution of the Toronto School presented in this book is the consideration of media as extensions of the person. Its founder, Harold Innis, considered the case in which we extend ourselves by storing information outside our bodies; Marshall McLuhan, the most famous member of the school, considered the case in which we extend ourselves by transmitting information outside our bodies; various young scholars, touted by their supporters as the new McLuhan, are considering the case in which we extend ourselves by both storing and transmitting information outside our bodies.

We have noted a number of times in telling the story of media that our inventions are often found, in retrospect, to be plagiarisms of nature. Making paper out of trees was inspired by watching a wasp eating wood and secreting paper to build its nest [AUF DER MAUR, Page 123].81 Radar simulates the echolocation systems of bats and whales. The history of film is the story of the gradual movement towards the mind movie the nervous system is making throughout our life-time. I look forward to the day when some inventor designs a vehicle which can travel on land, in water, and through the air, only to realize that s/he has re-invented the lowly duck. Much of this plagiarism is unconscious. However, recently, many scholars are consciously exploring the copying of nature in a process called biomimicry [BENYUS].

In graduate school, I remember the eye being compared unfavorably with the camera - the film is in backwards, there is a hole in it, the camera wobbles up and down, and so on. Subsequently we find that all those features are functional. Physiological nystagmus, the wobbling up and down, is necessary to refresh the neurons firing for the stimulus. When it is eliminated, the image fades [PRITCHARD ET AL]. The eye is thus able to take millions of sharp snapshots throughout a lifetime without changing the film and with only a little help late in life in adjusting the focal length. Rather than arrogantly dismissing nature's inventions as inadequate versions of our own, we should look to nature for inspiration. The Leica is a lousy eye.

The plagiarism of nature continues in the fourth generation of media. The first generation of memory and speech (nature's invention) integrates storage and transmission of information within the same system. The fourth generation of multimedia and internet imitates this first generation by integrating storage (multimedia) and transmission (internet) within the same system. The fourth generation is more like the first generation than either is like the second and third generations. Whereas the second generation separates text (print) from image (film) and the third generation separates the ear (telephone) from the eye (television), the fourth generation re-integrates them. The computer could be considered as the corpus callosum, the structure joining the left hemisphere (text) and the right hemisphere (image), since it can deal equally well with both. Since it can also simulate audio and video, as patterns of 0s and 1s over space and time, it re-integrates the ear with the eye. Like the nervous system, it is a analog-to-digital convertor as it converts the various analog signals from the visual and auditory receptors into a common digital language.

Phylogenetic development (that is, from animal to human) and ontogenetic development (that is, from child to adult) could be best described (if one must describe it in a sentence) as the progressive emancipation of the organism from the tyranny of the environment. The first generation of media (memory and speech) begins this story and the subsequent generations of media, in which we extend the nervous system using extrasomatic tools, merely continue it.

In escaping the constraints of time and space and personality, the informatics infrastructure is once again emulating the nervous system. We have always been able to collapse time and space into the present as we contain the past in memory and the future in imagination. We are the time-binding and space-binding animal. Our imagination has always allowed us to be other people in other places at other times. The past, present, and future of the objective world is all potentially present in the subjective map. The past is history, the future is mystery, but the present is a gift. That's why it's called the present. When we unwrap our conception-day present, we find that it contains the past in the form of memories and the future in the form of hopes and fears.

Now that each of us has potentially at our fingertips the computing power that was available only to multi-corporations for millions of dollars only a few decades ago, we have to ask how we may best use it. Most of us use it as a typewriter. It is a very good typewriter. However, we may want to consider going beyond this limited use. Idea-processing allows us to go beyond word-processing, by focusing on the hierarchical structure of thought underlying the sequential presentation of language. Examples of idea-processors are Think Tank (later called More when more was added to it) for the Macintosh and Framework for the IBM and its clones. Those programs enable you to write stream-of-consciously every topic you can think off within the domain of a paper or speech you are writing. You can move topics up and down the list as the best order emerges and left and right in the list as topics are recognized as subtopics of other topics. Gradually an outline emerges. Content can be placed appropriately within the outline by opening a window within each topic.

The limitation of idea-processing is that moving from node to node within the hierarchy requires that you climb the tree and descend the appropriate branch. Authoring programs permit you to link any node in a network directly with any other node. The first generally available such authoring program was HyperCard. One of the days the universe changed was 11 August 1987 when the Apple Corporation launched HyperCard. Bill Atkinson, who wrote the program, insisted that it be given away with every Macintosh computer sold. For a while then people were using a computer as a computer. However, Bill Atkinson left the company and Apple returned to bundling a word-processing program instead and people tended to revert to use the computer as a typewriter (MacWrite) and an easel (MacPaint). More sophisticated programs have since emerged, but still largely devoted to doing things we could do before but more efficiently - making slide shows (Powerpoint), making movies (Premiere), and so on.

HyperCard enables you to build a stack of cards. Each card can contain text or images or a combination of text and images, and buttons linking to any other card. It sounds simple. However, it has enormous reverberations. Whereas word-processing is one-dimensional, idea-processing is two-dimensional, authoring is three-dimensional (Figure 8-2). That is, any node in the network (card) can be linked to any other node. At any node, one can go deeper and deeper into a third dimension by linking it to cards containing footnotes and footnotes to footnotes. We now have a three-dimensional media mediating between our three-dimensional brain and our three-dimensional world. It enables us to map that world in our mind. The nodes and links are isomorphic with the structure of the internet with its computer nodes and its telecommunication links and with the structure of the mind with its concept nodes and its relationship links (Figure 8-3). We finally have a positive prosthetic which is a perfect fit. Many more sophisticated authoring programs have emerged since HyperCard. However, they are all based on the same principles. You will note that the Internet is a huge set of interlinked stacks.

Now that we finally have a positive prosthetic that fits, the user interface is thus very important. The excitement generated by the introduction of the Apple Macintosh in 1984 had nothing to do with the computer per se but with the interface between the computer and the person. The WIMP interface was much easier to use than the previous MACHO interface (see Figure 8-1). This allowed us to get rid of the middle (muddle?) men who mediated between us and our media extensions. It is hard to imagine an easier interface after using it over the intervening years. Jef Raskin, who headed the creative team which developed this WIMP interface for the Macintosh, has just published a book, The Humane Interface, in which he argues that we need an even simpler interface [RASKIN]. The metaphor is indeed very mixed (Figure 8-4) and a coherent metaphor would make the computer even more user-friendly.

The concept of media as extensions of the person, as articulated by the Toronto School, has a valuable down-to-earthing effect. The appendix is not meaningful without the book. Media have meaning only as they extend the person. Mind is meaningless without body. It can not be uploaded into a computer and downloaded into another body, as if it was a mere container. After wandering around without their bodies on, some people, however, get carried away. They begin to claim that the body is obsolete. A usually intelligent magazine ran a cover story under the title Is the body obsolete? If you are shocked that the question is asked, you will be even more shocked that half of the respondents answered yes . This is the most recent among the many ingenious devices we have created to deny death. Many of them are cataloged by Ernest Becker in his brilliant Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death [BECKER].

The fourth generation of media - this informatics infrastructure of computers interlinked by telecommunications - is, in a sense, a solution in search of a problem. It's almost as if someone had invented the can-opener before someone else had invented the can. Huge corporations are merging into even larger mega-corporations and maneuvering themselves into this domain formed by the merging of the computer-telecommunications industry, image industry (television, photography, film), and print industry (newspapers, magazines, books), without any clear idea of what they are going to sell us to recover their billion-dollar investments.

Various problems, to which informatics is the solution, are proposed as killer applications. Some recent candidates are e-mail [CROSARIOL], video telephony [BROCKMAN], video-on-demand [PILLER], group scheduling software [KANE] and even Wired Magazine [WHITE].82 Each of those are useful functions. However, they simply enable us to better do things which we could do before, and they certainly won't sustain a billion-dollar industry. I appreciate my word-processor, my spreadsheet, my database manager, my graphics program, my e-mail, my browser. They certainly have been "killer" enough to keep me and others buying computers and opening ISP accounts. Bill Gates characteristically defines killer applications as applications which sell a lot of computers [GATES, Pages 74-76]. The Apple Corporation has been saved from bankruptcy by simulating the second generation electronically - desktop production (DTP) - and now by simulating the third generation - desktop video production (DTVP) or digital video (DV).

However, what I am looking forward to is the moment when the computer finds its niche in doing things which could not be done before. My candidate for killer application is thus the siliclone - that is, a silicon clone of oneself [JUSTER]. This is the inevitable culmination of the co-evolution of the person and media as extensions. That is, it is the happy ending to the story being told in this book. The siliclone is the ultimate extension. It aspires to a completely integrated and interactive representation of the information contained in your nervous system.

This is, of course, impossible. The story will always be a to-be-continued story. However, the journey is more important than the destination. The most important aspect of your information is the conception-day gift which can not be cloned. However, it need not be cloned, since you already have it. What can be cloned is the footnote you have added during your life-time. This is your contribution to the wisdom. By building the siliclone, you can leave your contribution behind for your survivors. Our function as teachers and parents is to plan our obsolescence.

We are essentially re-inventing ourselves. That is why it is not unreasonable to consider cloning oneself using the fourth generation of media. This clone is not an example of artificial intelligence (AI) but of intelligence amplification (IA). There is no point in simulating yourself when you already have yourself. However, there is a point in creating an artificial extension of yourself which is able to do well things which you do poorly. For example, memorizing details. My siliclone has all those details at his (sorry, my) fingertips. The aim is to develop the optimal synergy between natural intelligence (Scot) and artificial intelligence (Siliclone). Scot and Siliclone are partners. As in any partnership, we each focus on what we do well. Siliclone is good at memorizing content, whereas Scot is good at putting this content into context. Thus, we can put raw data in context to get information, information in context to get knowledge, knowledge in context to get understanding, and understanding in context to get wisdom. This is how value is added to raw data in the information society.

The first version of the Siliclone contained files in a variety of early programs. HyperCard enabled me to integrate it within a single program (Figure 8-5). The search engine within HyperCard enables Scot and Siliclone to be interactive. That is, I can search Siliclone using key words. The more sophisticated search engines underlying programs like AskJeeves will subsequently enable me to ask it questions.

One fascinating development in the fourth generation is the extension of ourselves into the internet in the form of avatars in virtual worlds [DAMER]. In the early stages, we characteristically dress ourselves as avahunks and flirt with avatarts in virtual bars. However, I can do that in the local bar with potentially more concrete results. In the virtual world, I would like to do things which I can't do in the real world. Now that I have cloned myself, I can go out as myself and hang out with dead people.

My killer application will involve not only people cloning themselves but people cloning others who were born too soon to clone themselves. My siliclone is of no great interest. I propose it only as a model for preserving the wisdom of more illustrious members of our species.

Like, for example, Bertrand Russell. In one of his many essays, Russell described a nightmare in which a librarian holds the last copy of his last remaining book in his hands as he decided whether to toss it into a trolley containing a pile of books to be destroyed or to return it to the shelf. He wakes up, shivering and sweating as the book is poised between those two fates. In a sense, his nightmare has come true. Since his death in the 1970s, I've heard very little of him. No doubt his work is still alive in the minds of some scholars of philosophy. However, Russell worked very hard in a long, productive life to make his work available to a larger audience. It would be sad to lose his wisdom.

Perhaps his footnote to human wisdom could be preserved by a project which we could whimsically call Resurrecting Russell or, for the lay public, Bringing Bertie Back. At first, perhaps, it could consist only of his books now in the public domain. Prolific as he was, they could fit easily on a CD-ROM or in a web site. Philosophers who are expert in his work could subsequently perhaps help integrate his work around answers to questions which can be posed to him. If those mega-corporations seeking killer applications were willing to hire such philosophers to help resurrect Russell, I'd be delighted to pay a fee to hang out with him. On the other hand, I'd not be willing to pay to order a pizza and a movie over the internet. That I can do in the real world already. What I can't do is forget about the movie and hang out with Bert instead.

81   Aware that Nick's stories - like you and I , cheese and wine - tend to improve with age, I hesitated to include this reference in a "scholarly" book. However, I glanced up from reading this story in a local restaurant and saw Don May, who had just received a Nobel Prize for his contribution to the physics of paper production. Don confirmed the story and filled out the details for me.

82   Some have even nominated on-line gambling as the next killer app [MOORE]. Anyone who knows a compulsive gambler well will be horrified at the prospect of a "service" which enables gamblers to indulge their vice without getting out of the house or even out of their pajamas.