My main theme is the extension of the nervous system in the electric age and, thus, the complete break with five thousand years of mechanical technology. This I state over and over again. I do not say whether it is a good or bad thing. To do so would be meaningless and arrogant.

Letter from Marshall McLuhan to Robert Fulford in 1964, BENEDETTI & DEHART, Page 147

5.1 Which Shift is Most Important?

We tend to think of the third shift - the assimilation of the fourth generation of media (Multimedia and Internet) - as the most important. However, this may simply be because we are going through it right now. I suggested above (see Section 3.1) that the first shift - the assimilation of the second generation of media (Print and Film) - was perhaps more significant. It was the beginning of the use of extrasomatic tools which mediated between us and thus ended an era in which all our communication was directly between people face-to-face. Since history is defined as that which is recorded, it begins with the second generation of media. Since I'm arguing here that this history is best understood when seen in the context of pre-history, the most dramatic distinction is between the first generation of media (pre-history) and the second, third, and fourth generations (history).

Critics of television and computers refuse to concede that the rot may have set in with their beloved print. Neil Postman, for example, extols print as he questions video-based media [POSTMAN 1986] and computer-based media [POSTMAN 1993]. However, as soon as we developed extrasomatic tools for the storage and transmission of information, the extragenetic tools for storing (memory) and transmitting information (speech) are threatened. That is, in our terms, the important shift is between the first and the second generations of media rather than between the second and third generations.

Let us consider two events which suggest that the second shift - the assimilation of the third generation of media (Telephone and Television) - may be the most dramatic of all.

American troops, led by General Andrew Jackson, routed British troops at the Battle of New Orleans on 8 January 1815. Two thousand men died. None of the combatants knew that the war had ended two weeks earlier with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent [BRYSON, Page 156]. In our world of instant communication, we find it difficult to imagine how a battle could be fought in a war that was over. However, news of the treaty signed in Europe could only have reached New Orleans by ship which took weeks (and sometimes even months, when winds were unfavorable) to cross the Atlantic.

Fast forward half a century to 27 July 1866. On that date, we were finally able to lay the first trans-Atlantic cable to carry telegraph messages from Europe to North America. Arthur C. Clarke describes this Herculean task in his book How the World Was One. He reports that Cyrus W. Field, who had masterminded the project, send the following message from Newfoundland to New York in 1866: Heart's Content, July 27. We arrived here at 9 o'clock this morning. All well. Thank God, the cable is laid and in perfect working order. [CLARKE, Page 78]. On that day, the time to send a message across the Atlantic Ocean shrunk from weeks to seconds.

Whereas this shift is defined in terms of the shift from the storage of information to the transmission of information outside our bodies, it may also be considered as the shift from mechanical energy (first and second generations) to electrical energy (third and fourth generations). That is, from a world in which the infrastructure is transportation to a world in which the infrastructure is telecommunications, from a world of energy to a world of information, or, to use the terms of Nicholas Negroponte, from a world of atoms to a world of bits [NEGROPONTE].49

The second shift to electronic media based on electricity was a response to the challenge posed by the globalization of trade (in goods and ideas) and thus the need for instantaneous communication around the globe. As we moved into an industrial society, it was necessary to have more instantaneous communication on a global scale as raw materials were collected from around the globe and finished products distributed around the globe. Telegraphy and its descendants in the third generation of media were developed as a response to this challenge.

This second shift could thus be described as crossing the "digital divide". This term has been used to distinguish the have and the have-nots in our society (that is, those who have access to computers and those who do not have access to computers). It is argued that the haves will become the knows and the have-nots will become the know-nots in an information society. At a loftier sociological level, it can be used to distinguish between societies which have a telecommunications infrastructure and societies which do not have a telecommunications infrastructure. Whole pre-industrial societies - rather than simply individuals within industrialized societies - will be at a disadvantage.

I have argued before for a leap-frog strategy for developing countries, in which they leap-frog from a pre- to a post-industrial society [GARDINER 1987]. However, I now realize that the "frog" is much bigger than I thought. The infrastructure of the third generation of media must be in place before the fourth generation of media can be accessed. Few people will be able to benefit from a computer in a society in which 90% of the population has never used a telephone.

Perhaps, then, the question Which shift is most important? is like asking which leg of a three-legged stool is most important. The three shifts are integral parts of the same process. As we go back to pre-history to answer Wallace's question: How can an organism which evolved for a hunter-gatherer society manage the transition to an agricultural, industrial, and now information society?, we find that the assimilation of the second, third and fourth generations of media are stages in a larger process - the co-evolution of the person and media as extensions. The assimilation of the fourth generation, which seems so dramatic to us as we are now experiencing it, is perhaps the least dramatic of the three shifts. Once we had invented a means of transmitting information electronically, the next inevitable step is the invention of the means of storing information electronically. What we are "hearing" now is simply the dropping of the other shoe.

49   The shift into the latter world involves a transportation-telecommunications trade-off. I made the trade a decade ago - I sold my car and bought a computer. Now, instead of using a 2000-pound car to drive a 200-pound man to pick up a 2-pound book, I sit in the Smart Room of my Electronic Cottage and pull in the information over the Internet.