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The Psychology of Communication


13.4 From Periphery To Centre

Media no doubt contributes to this complexity. However, it can also contribute to the management of complexity. The Big Story of the co-evolution of the person and media told here could be considered as the story of how our species extended our nervous systems to manage the increasing complexity as we moved from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural to an industrial and now to an information society. The Toronto School of Media Studies falls within the intelligence amplification (IA) tradition of the history of computing. This whole IA tradition, documented brilliantly by Howard Rheingold, could be considered as the story of the management of complexity [RHEINGOLD]. Thierry Bardini documents the life of Douglas Englebart which has been devoted to the management of complexity [BARDINI]. His strategy is not the traditional one of simulating the organism with a mechanism - artificial intelligence (AI), but the alternative strategy of supplementing the organism with a mechanism - intelligence amplification (IA). The management of complexity requires the optimal orchestration of natural intelligence and artificial intelligence, the partnership of the organism and the mechanism.

The only sub-system which can be "operated" is, of course, the nervous system. That is where you live. That is why people talk to your eyes rather than your ears or your elbows - your pupil is the only place where your nervous system is exposed. Or consider the implications of a brain transplant. Is it the recipient or the donor who survives? Acquiring the manual is largely a matter of learning how to use tools (the word "acquiring" is judiciously chose to stress the fact that it is an inside-out job). As the wonderful genetic potential - given to all members of our species as a conception gift - unfolds, we reach out for tools which help us realize this human potential. There are extragenetic tools (outside the genetic code) and there are extrasomatic tools (outside the body).

The computer is the latest, and most dramatic, extrasomatic tool. It extends the function of the brain as the telescope extends the function of the eye and the car extends the function of the leg. To refuse to use this tool is to try to outsee the telescope and to outrun the car. One very important set of tools is media. Indeed, education could be viewed as the process of using media to expand on our genetic information, or, in more conventional terms, of acquiring certain communication skills. As we have seen, media can be considered as falling within four generations, based on whether the storage and the transmission of information is extragenetic or extrasomatic.

Human progress has been a result of thinking outside the box of the brain using extragenetic and extrasomatic extensions of it. In advocating a curriculum centered on those tools of those four generations of media and the meta-tools of heuristics and mnemonics, I am paradoxically advocating a back-to-the-basics movement. The original basics were the three Rs - Reading, Riting, and Rithmetic (but apparently not spelling!). Those are the communication skills of the second generation of media. Rithmetic represents mathematics which is a language for more precise communication.

We have to add the first generation of media. Though it comes as part of the conception-day gift, it can be considerably refined by practice.4 We must also add the skills of the third and fourth generations - video- and computer-based media. Rather than engage in futile debate about the relative merits of each of those four generations of media, we must aspire to an optimal orchestration of all four generations.

Another implication of this argument is that the discipline of Communication Studies should be more central in the academy. Currently, it tends to be precariously perched on the periphery. Whereas every university has a Department of Physics and a Department of English, only a few universities have a Department of Communication Studies. Even in those campuses, it tends to be low on the academic totem pole (They get degrees for watching movies!). At McGill University, the Department of Communication Studies had to merge with the Department of Art History in order to survive. At the University of Toronto, the Centre for Technology and Culture founded by the world's most famous Communication Studies professor, Marshall McLuhan, is constantly threatened with closure.

Part of the problem is that Communication Studies is a pre-paradigm discipline. That is, there is no broad framework, widely accepted by the scholars in the discipline, within which they work. The emergence of a fourth generation of media (Multimedia and Internet) introduces new issues into the discipline of Communication Studies, which make the old issues, published only a few decades ago, look quite quaint [JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION]. The Ferment in the Field was a Tempest in a Teapot. The central issue could be whimsically reduced to the question of whether communication studies should be a branch of political science (critical studies) or of business administration (administrative studies).

The threat of dissolving into another discipline, which has always haunted the field, is now replaced by the opportunity to be the central discipline in the academy. This book aspires to provide a broad framework by fitting communication studies into perhaps the most widely-accepted paradigm of all - the theory of evolution. The history of media is the sequel to the theory of evolution. It explains how the nervous system has been extended by media to deal with the increasing complexity as we have moved from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural to an industrial to an information society. The discipline of Communication Studies, redefined as Media Studies, is thus nothing less than the study of the unfolding of the human potential.

4   Indeed, any illusion of intelligence created by university-educated people is due to the fact that they have learned to listen well. (Listening is not on the official curriculum but students in the traditional university spend most of their time listening to lectures.) Harry Harlow came to Cornell University while I was a graduate student. In his nervousness about delivering an important series of lectures, he got drunk and missed an appointment to talk to the graduate students in psychology. He came around to our offices to apologize. One of my professors told me he was impressed by my intelligence. While he spoke to me and the three others students who shared my office, I didn't speak once. However, I listened very intently, since I was fascinated by his work and impressed by his apology to mere graduate students. If I had opened my mouth, I would have destroyed my reputation!