The Psychology of Communication


13.3 From Operating Manual To Conception-Day Gift

Chapter 9 (Simulation and AI) and Chapter 10 (Mediation and IA) contrast the two strategies of using mechanisms to simulate natural intelligence and to augment natural intelligence. The best contribution of the former is to simulate environments so that students can learn in a situation where errors are not dangerous or costly, and where a simulated world is closer to the real world. The best contribution of the latter is that it suggests a curriculum for an alternative educational system.

In 1980, I published a book entitled The Psychology of Teaching [GARDINER 1980]. In that book, I described my Operating Manual for Species Homo Sapiens. Here was the argument. When I got my car, I got an operating manual; when I got my computer, I got an operating manual; when I got my brain (the most complex and mysterious system in the universe), there was no manual. I kept waiting for it - thinking it had been issued by another department and got lost by British Post. Halfway through my life, I realized that it was a do-it-yourself job. When all else fails, write the manual. So I wrote my own operating manual.

If you are reading this book, then you are no doubt a member of species homo sapiens You and I are members of the same species on the same planet in essentially the same predicament with basically the same equipment. A brain is a brain is a brain. Thus, my operating manual is your operating manual. The difference between Margaret Mead and Albert Einstein (or whoever you think has most fully realized the human potential) and you and I is that they acquired a better operating manual. Education can best be considered as acquiring the Operating Manual for Species Homo Sapiens.

The operating manual for species homo sapiens that I wrote then was essentially an operating manual for the nervous system (the only subsystem which can be "operated" directly). It contained sections on biofeedback to enhance the signal from the autonomic nervous system and on meditation to reduce the noise from the central nervous system so that I could listen to the very local news from my body. In the interval, after over 20 years in communication studies, I have realized that such "intrapersonal communication" is an important but minor aspect of communication.1 This focus on the single brain assumes that the mind is not only empty (tabula rasa) but isolated (tabula isola).

My emphasis has shifted to interpersonal communication. All members of our species acquired a means of storing information (memory) and a means of transmitting information (speech) as part of the conception-day gift. As argued in Chapter 10, this first generation of media (Memory and Speech) has been supplemented over historical time by a second generation in which information is stored outside the body (Print and Film), a third generation in which information is transmitted outside the body (Telephone and Television), and a fourth generation in which information is both stored and transmitted outside the body (Multimedia and Internet). Much of the operating manual should be about acquiring the tools and skills of those four generations of media.

Education could be considered as a recapitulation of the history of our species. Thus, in this high-speed re-run, the student would acquire the skills and tools of those four generations of media. Those could be classified as the explaining skills when the student is source and the understanding skills when the student is destination. The explaining skills would include certain techniques for organizing information at the source for effective transmission (let us call them heuristics) and the understanding skills would include certain techniques for organizing information at the destination for effective reception (let us call them mnemonics).2 This "curriculum" is summarized in Figure 13-2.

In Chapter 1, I described the empirical experiment I conducted on myself recording the time spent communicating. After 15 years of keeping such records, the most startling finding is the sheer amount of time spent communicating - typically over 70 hours a week, that is over 10 hours a day. Since most of my waking life involves the use of those four generations, that is what I should get good at. The only other activities which came close are the mundane maintenance matters of sleeping and eating. Those I have pretty well mastered.

The second most startling finding of this experiment is that I have never been tempted to assign any half-hour period (my basic unit of analysis) to thinking. Rather than "think" of myself as a scholar who never thinks, I prefer to believe that I am thinking all the time but there is always some correlated communication process accompanying "thinking". The isolated brain is quite inept. I can multiply two one-digit numbers "in my head" only because I have memorized the multiplication tables. When I have to multiply two two-digit numbers, I reach for pencil and paper.

Science fiction has been a useful complement to science fact in considering the future. Unlike scholars, scifi writers are not reluctant to speculate about the future. They provide a "preview of coming attractions". Donald Kingsbury, who resigned from the Mathematics Department at McGill University to write science fiction, provides a vision of the cyborg of the far future, which goes way beyond the current visions presented in a previous chapter, in his scifi novel, The Psychohistorical Crisis [KINGSBURY].

The novel has an unhappy beginning. The hero - Eron Osa - is executed. It turns out however that being "executed" in this far-in-the-future universe means having one's "fam" (an electronic extension of one's self) detached and destroyed. Life in this future has become so complex that "famlessness" is death. There is no way that one can survive as one travels between planets, without this device which enables one to quickly acquire the diverse languages and cultures of each planet. We have evolved to be quick studies of novel environments. However, our environments in this future have become so novel and so numerous that biological evolution must be supplemented by technological innovation. The rest of the novel is about how our famless hero manages nevertheless to survive and even thrive. He survives because he re-discovers the long-lost qualities of the "naked brain" and he thrives because he thus has a firmer foundation for his new fam than his opponents who have lost touch with their un-augmented brain.

The fam is a tool which is worn rather than carried or implanted. It continues the progression, due to miniaturization, from floor-top to desk-top to lap-top to palm-top to wrist-top to brain-top. Fams combine the functions of various current tools - PVR (which can be set at accelerated assimilation), fax machine, copier, sleeping pill, alarm clock, telescope (eye-fam set at high magnification) - and various people - therapist, tutor, research assistant, Girl Friday and secretary. One very important function is to annotate and edit the environment. To survive and thrive in the complex world of the future, not only must you be augmented but your environment must be annotated. We get an early glimpse of such devices built into the dashboards of cars. Equipped with a global positioning system (GPS), your car knows where it is, where you may want to go (the nearest Holiday Inn, MacDonald's restaurant, etc.,) and how you can get from here to there. The fam is potentially in touch with many external information-processing devices in an information-rich environment. It can of course communicate directly with the fams of other people through "fam-to-fam links". There are also "archival consoles", "map-readers", "weasels" (like the owls in Harry Potter), "fonepads", "sim overlays", "wall emitters", "holo illustrators", and "mnemonifier", all of which can feed the fam.

The necessity which is the mother of the invention of the fam is the management of complexity. Government is by psychohistorians who can predict the future because they (aided by their fams) can manage the complexity generated by the many variables which determine the future. Much apparent complexity is actually just clutter which the fam can filter out to avoid chaos. The fam is also capable of "complexity compression". Since the naked brain is stupefied by complexity, it must subcontract out various functions to the fam.

The organic brain and the fam have a symbiotic relationship, with the fam being subservient to the organic brain. One wonderful metaphor for this relationship is of a legless person in the knapsack on the back of an armless person. Brain and fam can be de-coupled and re-coupled without losing personality but brain is helpless in dealing with the complex environment on its own. The unaugmented organic brain is described as the "naked brain" , capable only of "monkey business". Amazement is expressed at the culture created by the famless Helmerians. The naked brain is however good for one thing - wild, primitive sex. There is some value too in disconnecting the fam from time to time to exercise your naked brain to keep it animal-sharp. Sensory and perceptual experience is richer.

This vision of a far-off future may help us better design our immediate future. Lo-tech and hi-tech futures are not necessarily either-or alternatives at the ends of a lo-to-hi-tech dimension. They may be creatively combined in a hi-tech hi-touch future. Since leaving my village in Scotland, I've gravitated to cities, because I'm an information junkie and cities are where the information is. Or, rather, cities WERE where the information WAS. With the fourth generation of media, I'm as central in the Smart Room of my electronic cottage in the village of Hudson as anyone in New York or London or Cupertino, California. The Global Village of Marshall McLuhan, where the center is everywhere and the periphery is nowhere, is finally here. So I'm back in a village where I know my neighbors rather than in an APARTment in a city. I can now greet every person I pass in the street. (My teeth were freezing during my first Winter in Montreal when I was trying to smile at everyone I passed.) Like the hero in Kingsbury's novel, I am exploring the optimal orchestration of the four generations of media. In our fascination with the plethora of extensions, we should not neglect the foundation on which they are built.

When I, as a teacher, ask myself - What am I doing here?, I used to answer that I am passing on the operating manual for species homo sapiens. After writing this book, I now prefer the less mechanistic metaphor of helping my students unwrap the conception-day gift. The first generation of media - Memory and Speech - is clearly part of the conception-day gift. However, much of the gift comes wrapped with a message "Do not open until ---". the other generations of media piggy-back on this gift. Over historical time, brilliant members of our species have discovered much wisdom that is contained in this gift but must be unpacked. We do not need to re-discover the various wheels that have already been discovered. By passing on this wisdom, I help my students unpack the gift and see what footnote they can add to our accumulating human wisdom.

1   However, let us not be so distracted by those flashy media which bring news from the outer world that we neglect, in practice and in theory, the news from the inner world. Those media use the distance senses of vision and audition, which tend to overshadow the close senses of taste, smell, and touch.

2   Bullshit-detection is one important aspect of mnemonics. Two books focus on this communication skill [FRANKFURT, PENNY].

3   Albert Einstein once said that his pencil was smarter than he was. Andy Clark, author of Natural-Born Cyborgs [CLARK], experienced the loss of his laptop computer as an amputation.