HOME | ABOUT | SEARCH | TALKS | COURSES | BOOKS | CHAPTERS | ARTICLES | REVIEWS

1.3 The Big Story

An empirical study of my personal use of media helped convince me of the importance of this topic. In order to establish a baseline for assessing the impact of the fourth generation of media on my communication patterns, I kept a record of the hours I spent using the first three generations of media. The records for the first six months of 1990 are presented in Figure 1-4. The results were so illuminating that I have continued the process since.

The most impressive finding was the sheer amount of time spent communicating - consistently over 70 hours a week, that is, over 10 hours a day. I'm spending more time communicating than on any other activity, including the mundane maintenance matters of eating and sleeping. Being a professor, the time I spend communicating is more than average. However, as we move deeper into a post-industrial, information-based society, more and more of us will be spending more and more of our time communicating. If this is how we spend our time, then this is what we should get good at. We should focus on acquiring the tools and skills of those four generations of media (most of us have pretty well mastered the mundane maintenance matters of eating and sleeping). A major theme of this book will be to pass on this very important part of the operating manual for our species.

A second finding was that there was never a half-hour period (my basic unit of analysis), which I was tempted to classify as thinking. Being a scholar, rather than thinking (whatever that means!) that I don't think at all, I would like to think that I am thinking all the time but as background activity to some aspect of communicating. Ren» Descartes set the stage for most subsequent philosophy by considering body and mind as separate entities which interacted at the pineal gland.5 Evolutionary psychologists would argue that the important dichotomy is not between body and mind but between mechanism and organism. The error of Descartes is that he put "des cartes" (mechanism) before the "horse" (organism). In dealing with the person as an organism rather than a mechanism, there is no need for a separate entity called "mind", "spirit", "soul" or whatever is necessary to distinguish the person from a mere mechanism. Since the organism has evolved over the millions of years of our phylogenetic history and unfolds from the inside out during the decades of our ontogenetic history, it is sufficiently complex and sophisticated to deal with all the phenomena which "mind", "thought", and their various synonyms are designed to explain.

A third finding is that the amount of time spent communicating drops when I am traveling. The dip in the chart in Figure 1-4 corresponds to a trip to Europe. While traveling, the amount of time spent on mundane maintenance matters increases - one has to find new places to eat and to sleep from day to day and simple matters like making a phone call or mailing a letter are time-consuming in an unfamiliar setting. Another major theme of this book will be the argument that the consumer values of a corporate culture have to do only with reducing the time spent on mundane maintenance matters so that more time is available for communication to enable each of us to add our footnote to the wisdom we all were given as we opened our conception-day gift.

A fourth finding is that, whereas it is necessary to distinguish between the active and the passive aspects of communicating in the first and second generations of media (that is, between speaking and listening and between writing and reading, respectively), it is not necessary to do so in the third and fourth generations of media. This is because my use of the third generation - watching television - is only passive, whereas my use of the fourth generation - creating multimedia and exploring the internet - is only active. This insight has made me skeptical of critics who lump video-based and computer-based media together for the superficial reason that they both involve screens.

History is usually the story of conflict as told by the winners.6 During a war between two groups in Egypt, the Library of Alexandria was destroyed; because of the outcome of a war in Turkey, scholars were forced to flee to Europe and thus trigger the Renaissance. Those two events are presented in traditional history as incidental by-products of the wars. In the history presented here, those events are viewed as the important events.

Who remembers or cares that this gang of thugs captured that piece of land? The important effect on civilization was that a certain subset of the knowledge of the Greeks was preserved, which determined our view of them and the subsequent history based on their wisdom. The important issue between those two events is not which gangs gained which territories but who preserved this wisdom during the interval and how it was stored and transmitted to future generations.7 Cleopatra had lent many volumes of the books in the Alexandria Library to her lover, Mark Anthony, who had them copied and preserved in the Pergamon Library in Turkey. (That's partly why the scholars were there.) Such little-recorded facts are much more important than the well-documented wars that bracketed the destruction of the library in Alexandria and the flight of scholars from Istanbul.

Much current conflict is a continuation of ancient battles. The Battle of the Boyne on 12 July 1690 continues in Ireland today. Growing up in Scotland, I knew many people who continued to rerun in their minds the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 (the last major battle we won) or the Battle of Culloden in 1745 (the last battle we lost, if we don't include a certain recent soccer match at Wembley Stadium). Here in Quebec, we're still fighting a short skirmish on the Plains of Abraham on 13 September 1759.8

The newspaper, being the first draft of history, is also the story of conflict told by the winners. Thus the front page news is about wars or politics (war by other means) or economics (what they are squabbling about).

During the 1970s, I stopped reading the morning newspaper. It occurred to me that I was reading it simply to get the latest installment on various current soap operas - for example, the Patty Hearst story in which the newspaper heiress was kidnapped and subsequently re-emerged as Tanya aiding her kidnappers in a bank robbery was unfolding in my San Francisco Chronicle. The Vietnam War (1965-1975) story, the current installment in the saga of the Third World War (the War in the Third World), was also being told.9 It was instant history in serial form with my instant coffee and cereals. I decided not to waste prime time - the first hour of the day when my mind was fresh - on such trivia. I shifted to reading Newsweek, which filled me in on the news weekly rather than daily, and then to reading the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year, which filled me in on the news yearly.

So why am I back to reading the newspaper every morning? There is something happening now in that important story of the history of media which I will tell in this book. We are in the throes of the assimilation of the fourth generation of media - multimedia and internet - and the accommodation of the media system to its impact. During the 70s, our story was in a latent stage. The telephone and the television set had penetrated to an asymptote of over 90% in industrialized countries. Excitement over the shift from rotary to push-button dialing or from black-and-white to color TV screens during this period demonstrated how little of significance was happening. Now, however, every day, my morning newspaper has information about the profound impact of multimedia and internet. I'm keeping abreast of those day-by-day innovations in the hope of understanding what is going on. Writing this book is an attempt to step back to get the big picture in which those changes are put into a larger perspective.10

Peter Cooney, a neighbor of mine, who is responsible for putting the Montreal Gazette on the internet, views the daily newspaper as the tip of an iceberg. The newspaper is the point of contact between people and information. Each person, depending on time and interest, can use its electronic version to explore the rest of the iceberg. Some people aspire to raise the Titanic. My project here is to raise the iceberg. Underlying the day-by-day snippets of information about multimedia and the internet gleaned from the daily newspaper there is the history of media which will be presented in this book. Those isolated pieces of content make sense only within that context.

For example, one news item tells us that Conrad Black, who has previously built his newspaper empire by buying established newspapers, has created and launched a national newspaper, the National Post. Another news item tells us that the Thomson Corporation, his major competitor, has put all its newspapers on the market except for their national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. Black needed a tip for his iceberg; Thomson realized that an iceberg needs only one tip. The wealth is no longer in the tip but in the rest of the iceberg. At their web site, The Economist gives you free access to the latest copy on the news-stands, but charges you for access to the archives. Their new-found wealth is that huge database of information they have accumulated over their long history. This will no doubt become packaged so that anyone considering investments in a particular company or in a particular industry can quickly access the history of the company or the industry. Scholars, the only people previously interested in the archives, now find that they have to pay for access.

Another newspaper issue of interest to scholars is the fact that news needs to be entertaining as opposed to enlightening to attract audiences. Entertainment requires drama, drama requires conflict. Media may contribute to conflict by highlighting it. They don't just report the news - they create it. And the news is conflict.

When outside Quebec, all the news I get is of conflict. One gets the impression that the two solitudes - French and English - are at loggerheads. Yet when I return to Quebec, I find myself in crowds of thousands in the streets celebrating the Comedy Festival, the Jazz Festival, the International Film Festival, with hardly a policeman in sight and no conflict. Surely, if things were so tense between two warring factions, conflicts would erupt in the street. If conflicts ever do erupt, then they will at least partly be due to the self-fulfilling prophets in the media.

H. G. Wells describes human history as "a race between education and catastrophe" [WELLS]. Traditional history focuses on "catastrophe" with "education" as footnote; this history focuses on "education" with "catastrophe" as footnote. Well's metaphor of the race has been brilliantly rephrased in modern and empirical terms as an "ingenuity gap" between our problems and our capacity to solve them [HOMER-DIXON]. This book is my small contribution to closing that ingenuity gap.

Despite the argument that "the pen is mightier than the sword", history continues to tell the story of the sword. This is the story of the pen, penned in the hope that it will not be used to encourage conflict. It argues that the history of media is the Big Story of historical time.11 It tells how our species has dealt with the dramatic shifts from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural to an industrial to an information society by developing extrasomatic tools to store and transmit information outside our bodies.

Many people, to whom I described my plan to put history within a pre-historical context, recommended I read Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies [DIAMOND]. When I finally read the book, I realized that they were telling me gently that it had already been done! Jared Diamond answered a question posed by his New Guinea friend, Yali: Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own? by going back to pre-history to explore a complex of factors including food production, domestication of large animals, germs acquired from those animals, large population, and central organization. It has indeed been done for traditional history based on conflict. Here it is done again for an alternative history based on communication.



5   It is tempting to think (there's that word again!) that the dualism of Descartes was simply a ruse to ensure that he would not be persecuted by the Church. He could thus argue that he was considering only the body as a mechanism. Soul was something else. The Pineal Gland would perhaps be a good name for a bar (where body and mind get separated) or for an intellectual caf» (where body and mind meet).

6   Mark Russell, the political satirist, covered 1000 years of history in 10 minutes during his millennium presentation. How is this possible? He leaves out the wars.

7   Thomas Cahill has added a fascinating contribution to this discussion in his recent book How the Irish Saved Civilization [CAHILL].

8   Some Scottish soldiers escaped to France with Bonnie Prince Charlie after the Battle of Culloden and signed up as mercenaries with General Montcalm. Some of the few Scottish soldiers who survived the Battle of Culloden signed up as mercenaries with General Wolfe. The Battle of Quebec was fought largely between the French Scots and the English Scots. Since both Montcalm and Wolfe were killed, the treaty was signed by their second-in-commands, who were both Scots. It was written in Gaelic, the common language of both sides. The two Scots happened to be cousins and ancestors of the two Johnsons who subsequently became Premiers of Quebec.

9   Of course, the Vietnam War was very important to those whose lives were disrupted or even terminated by it. However, in the larger scheme of things, one cannot help thinking in retrospect: What was that all about?

10   When I stated above that the fish will be last to discover water, I was tempted to describe this book as an introduction to water for fish. (I usually take the advice of Oscar Wilde that the best way to deal with temptation is to succumb to it.) Let me succumb to this temptation now by extending the metaphor. As a child growing up in a Scottish village, I enjoyed the culinary delight of fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. Perhaps a better metaphor is that this book unwraps the newspaper to introduce the fish to the chips.

11   HISTORY is mostly STORY - the HI is just to get your attention!