9.2 Sociosphere

All the frequently asked questions discussed above fall within the technosphere, as does most of this book. Back in Section 3.2, I suggested that The Four Generations of Media model (see Figure 1-2) could be considered as an inset within the technosphere in the Triad model (see Figure 3-2), and that, although we will focus on the worm's-eye view of the former, we should consider also the bird's eye view of the latter. Let's shift to the bird's-eye view now.

The book has strayed into the sociosphere a couple of times. In Section 7.1, I suggested that Arnold Toynbee's challenge-and-response model of history could perhaps be useful in understanding how the second, third, and fourth generations of media could be seen as a response to the challenge of moving into an agricultural society, an industrial society, and an information society, respectively. Yet, in Figure 7-1, innovations in computer technology, innovations in telecommunications technology, their convergence into informatics, and the penetration of informatics are seen as shifting us from an industrial to an information society. The first would suggest a sociosphere-as-cause scenario; the second would suggest a technosphere-as-cause scenario (as originally advocated in Section 3.1 with the assimilation-accommodation model of Jean Piaget). The first would imply cultural determinism: the second would imply technological determinism.

It is tempting to identify the four generations of media, respectively, with the four generations of society which characterize human history - hunter-gatherer, agricultural, industrial, and information societies. Let us succumb to this temptation. In doing so, we are committed only to the argument that there is a correlation between each generation of media and the corresponding generation of society. Correlation does not necessarily imply cause. Thus, we are committed neither to cultural determinism - media is a response to the challenge of a shift in society, nor to technological determinism - shifts in media push us into a qualitatively different society. Two variables can be correlated because they are both effects of a third causal variable.90

The shifts in media and in society are both effects of human nature. It is the person in the center who is behind the changes in both the sociosphere and the technosphere. We will pursue this person-as-cause scenario in the next chapter.

In the meantime, let us look at one example of an issue within the sociosphere - structural unemployment due to automation - to illustrate how the focus of the Toronto School of Media Studies on media as extensions of the person gives us an alternative perspective on social issues. Most discussion of the impact of informatics technology on employment revolves around the "chip" and the "dole". It is almost automatically assumed that electronic technology will contribute to structural unemployment. The verdict on this issue is not yet in. There is much to be said on both sides (and much has indeed been said on both sides) and further research is necessary.

Even if the chip does indeed lead to the dole, there is a positive side to this bleak picture. The job is a relatively recent and local invention as a means of distributing wealth. Throughout most of our human history and, even today, throughout most of our planet, there have been many other means. The job is a means to the end of distributing wealth - it is not an end in itself. Public officials busy "creating" jobs often fail to take this into consideration. If the job does not contribute to the generation of wealth, it serves no useful function except perhaps a comforting illusion that one is not getting something for nothing. In a sane world, anyone who could be replaced by a machine should be replaced by a machine. People should ideally not be doing mechanical things.

A more constructive approach to the chip and work is in terms of augmentation rather than automation. Many of us can afford to have the computing power at our fingertips available only to huge corporations thirty years ago for millions of dollars. We can create siliclones and work in synergy with them to greatly multiply or productivity and greatly enhance our creativity. It is a tremendous intelligence amplifier. However, to qualify for this incredible boost in our personal power, we must have something to amplify and we must also know how to amplify it. The second condition for multiplying our personal productivity is to know how to multiply. That is, we must learn how to use those new tools. This is becoming easier and easier as they become friendlier and friendlier. We can establish a symbiotic relationship between our natural intelligence and the artificial intelligence of the machine. We need all the intelligence we can get.

At the beginning of this book, I promised that, though beginning with fear, I will end with hope. The hope is that this technology will not be yet another means of oppression as institutions seize its power and use this power to exert authority over individuals. Perhaps, this is finally the Frankenstein technology, which the people will use as a means of liberation.

The fourth generation of media promises to continue our conquest of time and space. Part of the reason the GAMMA Group shifted from its Conserver Society Project to its Information Society Project was because the shift into an information society was viewed as ecologically benign. As we traded our cars in for computers - the transportation-telecommunications trade-off (TTT) - we would no longer need to use that 2000-pound car to take a 200-pound man to pick up a 2-pound book but would simply stay home and download it over the internet.91

This is now obvious. Every organization which has anything to do with either transportation or telecommunications has commissioned a study on TTT - the former seeing it as a threat and the latter seeing it as an opportunity. More and more people are trading their cars in for computers. They are tele-commuting - letting their fingers do the commuting. We all know some people who are doing at least some of their work at home, because they now have the means of performing some of their functions without going to an office.

As this trade-off continues, it will produce profound changes in the home. The two major visions of the home of the future can be linked to the two major scenarios of the emerging information society: the telematique, based on television, and the privatique, based on telephone. In the former, a few huge sources beam information at millions of receivers; in the latter, we are all sources and receivers within a complex network of communicating nodes. Those two options are nicely symbolized by the two wires to the telephone receiver and the television set, which link the home to the rest of the world.

The dark vision of those who predict the telematique scenario is that of the home as an enclave where the fortress family shelters from an essentially hostile environment. It is a womb for a few with a view. The view is provided by a video screen - a window into the outside world - which enables information, goods, and services to be delivered through the umbilical cord of the television cable.

Those who argue for the privatique scenario have a more optimistic vision of the home as an electronic cottage, linked to neighbors around a world which has been technology-shrunk to a global village. The possibility of living in an electronic cottage, where learning and playing and working (which had been sub-contracted out to contractual relationships) could once again take place within the home promises a rosy future for the family.

There are, as always, threats bound up with the promises. After millions of years of leaving our caves to hunt and gather in order to earn a living, we suddenly find that we can earn our living without leaving the cave. Such a dramatic transition causes a profound shock to the social system. New rules will have to be established and new roles learned. A friend of mine was trying to work at home during his sabbatical leave. After a few months of interruptions, he had to establish the following ritual with his family. After breakfast, he put on his hat and coat, picked up his briefcase, kissed his wife and children good-bye, and walked out the front door and in the back door to his study. Until he repeated this ritual in reverse in the evening, as far as the family was concerned, Daddy was at the office.

This is a trivial illustration of profound shifts in consciousness which the new styles of working will require. As we swell the ranks of the self-employed, we must learn to be our own employer and our own employee, to make contracts with ourselves and keep them, to confront our self-deceptions and procrastinations. It will not be easy but it will be worthwhile. The information revolution will greatly strengthen the family and enhance intimate relationships.

Advocates of the electronic cottage point to the advantage of saving wear and tear on our internal and external environments. They also point to the fact that it is often paradoxically easier to work at home than to work in the office, ostensibly designed for work. In some offices, the distractions of visitors, in person or by phone, make concentration very difficult. An editor in the publishing company where I was author-in-residence once said to me "I won't be in the office tomorrow - I've got some work to do." A colleague at GAMMA, when asked for his work schedule, said "I work in the morning and come to the office in the afternoon."

The possibility of living in an electronic cottage, where learning and playing and working (which had been sub-contracted out to contractual relationships) could once again take place within the home. In The Three Boxes of Life, Richard Bolles suggests that we typically lead our lives in three boxes - the childhood box, in which we spend most of our time learning; the adult box, in which we spend most of our time working; and the retirement box, in which we spend most of our time playing [BOLLES]. His book is subtitled And How to Get Out of Them, since it is mainly devoted to strategies for acquiring a better balance between learning, working, and playing throughout our lives.

We tend to have three sets of space boxes corresponding to this set of three time boxes. Learning is done in the school box, working in the office and factory boxes, and playing in the home box. Those sharp lines between the activities in the various traditional institutions may become blurred. Perhaps, for example, the home may be a place where one learns and works as well as plays. Perhaps, too, electronic technology may be a means of escape from the three boxes of life - one can attain a better balance of work, play and learning throughout one's life. I can no longer tell whether I am working, playing, or learning. It seems I am working-playing-learning (woplling) most of the time. Keep on woplling!

90   For example, there is a correlation between the salaries of professors and the consumption of alcohol. This correlation does not necessarily (hic! hic!) imply cause. Both variables are effects of an underlying cause - the general increase in wealth.

91   Dr. George Marshall, an associate of GAMMA, visited Marshall McLuhan in 1980 shortly before McLuhan died. Over lunch, while reaching for the salt, McLuhan said: Executives drive to the office to answer the telephone. George brought back this throw-away line and we spent several hours discussing it. We conjured up the now-familiar image of the executive spending an hour driving to work, using up non-renewable resources, polluting the environment, and chewing up his stomach lining with stress, and repeating this ridiculous process in the evening, only to answer the telephone when he had a perfectly good telephone at home. The image is now even more ridiculous since he can use the telephone to talk to well-informed computers as well as to people.