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CHAPTER 9: SHIFT 4 - BACK TO FIRST GENERATION?

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Little Gidding


9.1 Technosphere

The most Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) by my students, when presented with the four generations of media and the three shifts as the second, third, and fourth generations are assimilated, is "What is the fourth shift?". My first answer is that there is no fourth shift because there is no fifth generation to shift to. This - they are quick to point out - is obviously due to the limitations of my taxonomy. There is no place for a fifth generation of media within a taxonomy in which media are defined in terms of the storage and transmission of information outside the body. My taxonomy is too tight. I've got to think outside my little 2x2 box (see Figure 1-3). They are perhaps more interested in the future than I because they have more of it. Let's look at their arguments and my counter-arguments.

One vision of the future involves communication devices implanted directly into the nervous system. Chips have already been created which are designed to be implanted [STREITFELD]. However, though such devices - argued by many cyberpunk novelists in fiction and by more and more people in fact - are not strictly extrasomatic, they are not part of the equipment we are born with (the conception-day gift) but added from the outside in. I prefer to keep my siliclone outside my body though easily accessible. I don't even want to wear it (far less implant it) as has recently been advocated [MANN & NIEDZVIECKI]. This may be the squeamishness of my generation. My inability to see the case for a further generation of media may be as much a failure of courage as a failure of imagination. I plan to leave the planet with the same number of holes in my body as I had when I arrived here. The bodies of many of my students are tattooed and pierced. They are thus more open to implanted intelligence to augment their nervous systems. However, it is still artificial intelligence designed to augment the nervous system to store and transmit information.

There is much speculation about the next stage in evolution. This 'post-human' person is viewed as a superhero by the technophiles and a monster by the technophobes. Such projections into our future are fun. I've indulged in it myself in presenting a paper to the International Cybernetics Association entitled "What kind of cyborg do you plan to be?" [GARDINER 1997]. However, it is futile to argue that such post-human people are the next stage in evolution. This is simply tinkering from the outside in. One advantage of the approach taken in this book is that evolutionary psychology has a down-to-earthing effect. Evolution is a slow, dignified unfolding of potential from the inside out. The Toronto School of Media Studies keeps the things down to earth by arguing that, no matter how esoteric our media gets, it is still best considered as extensions of our bodies. We still have to deal with human nature which has not changed in essence over historical time.

Perhaps, there is, however, a fourth shift which does not involve a fifth generation. Rather than moving into some fifth generation of media, we are shifting back to the first generation. We have in a sense come full circle or, better, we have moved all the way round a Mobius Strip.84 The fourth generation of media - Multimedia and Internet - is closer to the first generation of media - Memory and Speech - than either is to the two intervening generations - Print and Film, and Telephone and Television. In the fourth generation, storage and transmission is integrated within a single system, as it is in the first generation of media. Both the fourth and first generations of media use the binary code. The fourth generation of media is based on the conversion of analog signals to digital messages, as is the first generation of media. This trip taken by our species so far through historical time could be represented best perhaps not by a circle or even by a Mobius Strip but by an upward spiral. Our nervous system has created an extrasomatic mirror of itself - the ultimate plagiarism.

Another frequently asked question is What about telepathy? If there is any merit to including telepathy along with telephone, television, and telecommunication in the history of media, then it should be included within the first generation of media. All four generations of media involve tele-communications - that is, communication at a distance. Even the first generation - Memory and Speech - involves the distance senses of vision and audition. All this tele-communication rests on a foundation of communion. We all received essentially the same conception-day gift. Since we all share millions of years of the experience of our species, we are in communion with one another. This evolutionary perspective lends support to something like telepathy - communication without the various tools of tele-communication described in this book.

At a conference in Baden Baden in 1993, I argued that psychology lost consciousness in the 1920s and didn't regain consciousness until the 1960s [GARDINER 1993]. What I didn't point out was that we did not return to the introspection tradition of Wilhelm Wundt, which characterized psychology before its behavioristic interlude, but turned to evolutionary psychology.

Owen Flanagan explains why we have turned to Charles Darwin rather than returned to Wilhelm Wundt. Introspection, the methodology of the pre-behavioristic approach to consciousness, is increasingly suspect. It reveals only the tip of the iceberg. (Of course, our consciousness assures us that this is the most important part because that is all our consciousness knows.) Introspection is, at most, a methodological check-and-balance system whose authority can be - and often is - vetoed. [FLANAGAN 1991, Page 26].

Darwin helps pin consciousness down in terms of its evolutionary function. In a hunter-gatherer society, we moved a lot to follow scarce food. We had to be quick students of new niches. Consciousness is that function which gives organisms that possess it the ability to adapt quickly to novel states of affairs {FLANAGAN 1991, Page 35]. Flanagan distinguishes between informational sensitivity and experiential sensitivity and argues that the former far exceeds the latter. He describes a long series of empirical studies, in which subjects are influenced by information of which they are not aware. A sample of those studies is included among the References [LACKNER & GARRETT, NISBETT & WILSON, SHEPARD & METZLER, STERNBERG].

Daniel C. Dennett also points to the limited role of consciousness within an evolutionary framework [DENNETT 1991]. In his controversial claim to explain consciousness, he makes the distinction between autophenomenology (the inside subjective point of view) and heterophenomenology (the outside objective point of view). The former is unproductive as a means of self-understanding; whereas the latter is productive but no different from the means available to other people.85 That is, we do not have a privileged information about our own behavior but learn about our own behavior by the same means as other people learn about our behavior. I don't know what I think until I hear what I say or read what I write.86

Tor Norretranders makes the same argument in his book The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size [NORRETRANDERS]. He bases his case not on either of the above related but "distinct" distinctions, but on an analogy. Before I noticed the subtitle, I assumed this book was about the user illusion created by programmers for users of computers. That is, the illusion that, as I work on my Macintosh computer, I am moving documents in and out of files sitting on a desktop and occasionally dropping them into a trash can (which, in an illustration of how analogies sometimes break down, is on my desktop!). Norretranders however is arguing that consciousness is my user interface with the "bio-computer" of my brain. This, like the other, is a useful illusion, but an illusion nevertheless. Underlying what enters my consciousness there is a much vaster domain of which I am not aware.

All three authors point to the implication of this emerging view of consciousness for subliminal perception.87 Indeed, the literature on subliminal perception indicates that for each sensory modality there is a level of stimulation below which experience fails to occur but in which information about stimuli is received and processed. For example, emotionally threatening words presented below the experiential visual threshold cause changes in auditory sensitivity and vice versa. [DIXON 1987, quote from FLANAGAN 1999, Page 331]. Not only are minds accessible to outsiders; some mental activities are more accessible to outsiders than to the very 'owners' of those minds [DENNETT 1987, Page 162]. Norretranders quotes Dennett and adds Which is disturbing in general and is particularly so in a society where many people's jobs consist of enticing the rest of us to do things we cannot afford to do [NORRETRANDERS, Page 165].

Much debate about communication, both inside and outside my class, is about the relative merits of the four generations of media (Figure 9-1). This debate is about as futile as arguments about the relative merits of four generations of transportation. I walk to the village to get my mail, I cycle to the Willow Inn for a drink, I take the train to Montreal to teach my classes, and I fly to Scotland to see my family. No generation is any better than any other. You use whatever is appropriate in the circumstances. As many communication tools and skills as possible should be acquired to be prepared for the various situations we find ourselves in. Each tool could be considered like a club in our golf-bag. You would not argue that your putter is better than your driver, nor would you throw away your driver on acquiring a putter.

Each generation of media brings out different aspects of the human potential. We should acquire as many of the communication tools and skills as possible to bring out more and more of our human potential. Or, shifting from opportunities to threats, we should acquire all generations of media because each generation is vulnerable.

Speech is gone as soon as it is uttered, though it can be preserved in the memory of other people who hear it. However, memory is notoriously unreliable, as anyone who has playing the Telephone Game will attest. A message passed from person to person by whispering in the ear undergoes surprising transformations. Even if memory were perfect, it can not transcend death. People die and their memories die with them. Each of us can plan our own obsolescence by writing down our words in print or recording our images on film.

The second generation of Print and Film can be viewed as a solution to the problem of vulnerability of the first Generation of Speech and Memory. However, Print and Film are also vulnerable. They both burn. Much of the wisdom accumulated up to the time was lost when the Library at Alexandria was burned. Many early photographs and films have been lost or allowed to disintegrate by neglect. Errors in transmission of messages occur in the second generation as in the first generation. We are plagued by what Jon Kalina calls the Tyranny of the Typo. The Dead Sea Scrolls reveal that "young girl" was mistranslated as "virgin " and thus precipitated the myth of the immaculate conception of Jesus Christ. "Wooden" was mistranslated as "glass" in a children's story and thus condemned Cinderella to uncomfortable glass slippers ever since.

Telephone/television and computers, the tools of the third and fourth generations of media, are dependent on electricity which can fail. Mother Nature provided an object lesson in vulnerability during the great Ice Storm of 1998 when the third and fourth generations of media were wiped out, forced us back on the first two - talking to one another as we huddled around the fireplace and reading books by candlelight. The plug can be pulled.

Another vulnerability shared by the third and fourth generations of media is that they require technology to be used. Our collections of vinyl records and Sony videocassettes are useless if the machines which play them become obsolescent and can't be bought or repaired. The same vulnerability applies to the fourth generation.88 Videodisk technology has been challenged by CD-ROM and now DVD technology. Owners of videodisk collections may find themselves unable to use them, since players may no longer be available. There's still a thriving industry in punch-card readers, since many companies still have important information stored in holes on punch cards [DYSON].

Another vulnerability is peculiar to the fourth generation. To save memory space, in a time when it was scarce, programmers used only two digits to designate the year. Thus 1958 was 58 rather than 1958. When we reached 2000, 99 changed to 00 and the computer may go crazy.89 It is amazing that we futurists took so long to anticipate this Y2K problem. The fact that we would reach the year 2000 is an easy prediction. What is even more amazing is that, in a few decades, we have become so dependent on computers, that this problem caused such widespread panic.

The Internet was originally designed to deal with vulnerability. In the event of a nuclear attack, the Pentagon reasoned it would be useful to have a decentralized system, so that the system can continue to function even if parts of it were destroyed. It was so successful that many military people are apprehensive that it has become a Frankenstein monster. It has become an anarchy with no central control - that is, a very un-military system. Advocates of anarchy argue that it does not need central control, and are cheering for Frank from the sidelines.

Since all generations of media are vulnerable, the best strategy is to once again plagiarize nature. Nature has done a good job over billions of years dealing with vulnerability in developing it's diverse species. It does so by a policy of biological diversity. The more diverse the species, the better the chance that some form of life will survive regardless of the changes in the environment.

Thus, an institution or individual is best advised to use all four generations of media. As we shift into the fourth gear of multimedia and internet prepared to roar along the information superhighway, we should not disable the first three gears. The four generations of media each have an important role to play. No generation of tele-communications obsolesces the previous generation any more than a generation of transportation. The plane does not obsolesce the train, the train the bike, and the bike my legs. All have a role depending on the circumstances. We must each acquire the skills of all four generations of media and the meta-skill of deciding which balance of them is appropriate.



84   You can create a Mobius Strip by twisting a strip of paper through 180 degrees and pasting the ends together. If you trace the surface from this join all the way round, you will find that a Mobius Strip has only one continuous surface. We have twisted our way through four generations of media only to find ourselves back where we started.

85   A foreign-speaking friend once said to me: I can't explain that to myself, when she meant I can't understand that. She was more accurate. Understanding is explaining to oneself and self-understanding is explaining oneself to oneself.

86   Each of us is the world's foremost authority on ourselves. However, this is not because each of us has an exclusive ringside seat "inside" our own consciousness, but because we have observed our own behavior more than anyone else.

87   Subliminal perception can be used for aesthetic as well as commercial purposes. In The Fight Club, subliminal images of Brad Pitt are strategically placed in the film. I was not aware of them the first time I saw the movie. However, when I re-saw the movie with voice-over by the director who alerted me to them, I saw them and found it hard to imagine how I could have missed them first time around. By the way, using the DVD version, I could have seen it three more times - once with the comments of the actors, once with the comments of the writers of the book and the script, and once with the technical people. A film student, who had the patience to see the movie five times would really learn how a movie is created.

88   I have 10-inch very floppy disks, on which I wrote a book of over 1,000 pages, which I can't read because the AES-90 word-processor on which I wrote them is obsolete. I have 200 Meg Syquest cartridges, which I can no longer read since no one can repair the machine which plays them.

89   Oh! Oh! Are we back to 1900? (Actually, this might be a good idea - let's go back to the beginning and try to make a better job of this century the next time around!)