From telephone to telesphere

We have used such terms as "multi-channel" and "multi-directional." It is important to be clear about the meaning of these and other related expressions before proceeding. To do so, consider briefly the following diagram, which happens to be a standard representation of telephone exchanges in a town, excluding toll trunks and private branch exchanges. (The inclusion of toll trunks gives a quite different picture, as we discuss in the section on Decentralized Communication Systems in chapter 5).

Diagram of
 telephone exchanges in a town

The same diagram can also represent the organization chart of a company, or the distribution lines of a cable television operation. But it is important to note the very differing ways in which these operate, or can operate.

In terms of physical appearance, the diagram as telephone exchange system strikes us as centralized. A call from subscriber B1 must go through B if it is to reach B7, and through A if it is to reach N7. But A (tandem office) and B (local central office) are merely switching centres. They do not veto or amend calls. With sufficient multiplicity of channels between exchanges all calls are connected between any two subscribers and conference calls can be arranged between more than two (all within limitations of statistical usage; and for conference calls, the problem of orderly communication between a larger number of participants). In terms of social effect, our telephone (like the postal service) can facilitate lateral or "decentralized" communication. In another sense, however, the telephone can be used as a tool of centralization within an organization; as when a foreman might complain that in the old days the boss would be seen rarely, and workers would get on with their work largely without him, whereas today he may call for frequent intervention and perhaps even watch the process through closed-circuit TV.

Regarded as an organization chart, our diagram smacks of hierarchy. Information internal to the organization is reported upwards from the ranks to section heads (B) and, vetoed or amended, from section head to manager (A). Instructions move down to the ranks, some originating with the manager, others from the section heads within parameters decided by the manager. The extreme of hierarchy and centralization is found when B1 may not communicate with B7, except through B; or B with N except through A. In reality, such an extreme of hierarchy and centralization is too rigid and blocked to function effectively, save in such artificial environments as a Trappist monastery. In reality, there is considerable lateral communication, official or unofficial, which can either assist or subvert organizational goals (22). The project task force, temporarily assembled across normal organizational divisions, is a lateralizing, decentralizing, forum of communication. To some extent, it counters hierarchy. It is a mistake to say it abolishes centralization and hierarchy, however. Within an organization it is subject to the restraints of management. Between differing organizations, each participant is subject to the restraints of his normal employer (22b). Electronic technology can facilitate centralization or decentralization (23), hierarchy or participatory democracy, over greater distances and between a larger number of participants than was possible in the pre-electronic age.

As a diagram of a cable TV system, operating in the early Seventies, A represents the community cable carrying a limited number of program offerings; B represents the individual television dial; and by turning that dial we make a choice between (in this case, seven) programs. The viewer in such a system is relatively passive. He can decide to receive, or reject. He cannot use such a system to project himself to another subscriber. He cannot dial programs outside what is carried on his cable. Unlike the telephone, or the Bell picturephone, the early cable TV system is not switched (except at the cable-head, where the system operator is able to decide which offerings will be put on the cable). The cable system, in its early stages, is uni-directional. Information flows in one direction. To this extent, it is centralizing and hierarchic, as compared with systems permitting lateral communication and the opportunity to dial-up offerings from other points of origination. When cable systems permit a subscriber to put his videotape recorder on-line as an originating contributor, and permit other subscribers to dial-up such a contribution, or a specific program in another country, we will then say that cable is multidirectional, multi-channel, and lateralizing. But note the relativity of this terminology: international communications of this sort would have a decentralizing impact on the nation-state, but in another sense a potentially homogenizing impact on mankind as a whole (24). Whether a phenomena is considered centralizing or decentralizing depends upon the position of the observer. Whether he likes it or dislikes it depends upon his value system.

In the Seventies, we see the introduction of both videophone and a significant increase in the number of channels carried by cable. With a continued expansion of channels, and switching, the subscriber could have access to centralized network contributions, special or minority audience transmissions, the ability to dial distant systems, and to make limited inputs. Inputs could be directed towards special or minority audiences, offered to larger audiences on a random-acceptance basis (like dialing a radio hot-line program), offered to edited systems (like a letter in the correspondence columns of a newspaper), or accepted through a priority system. The instant electronic referendum or opinion poll is possible, even if of questionable desirability in the case of the former.

The telephone system can carry uni-directional messages, available to a fairly large number of simultaneous recipients -- as when a specific number gives callers the same message, namely, the time of day. The telephone is particularly important to us, however, as a means of lateral communication. The features of the various systems -- telephone, picturephone, cablevision, etc. -- could to some considerable extent be combined; so that we move towards a multi-channel, multi-mode, multi-directional system, linking men and computers in a sphere of communication. The Telesphere, then, is the electronic equivalent of Teilhard's Noosphere (about which we will have more to say in the final chapter).

In the Telesphere, dialing becomes a question of subscriber code, bandwidth code, central office code, area code, language code, country and continent code; of statistical loading, transmission priorities, reception priorities, and complex indicators. These very words imply criteria and decision-making, behind which must lie human values. In a very real sense, it is futile to posit abstract goals of decentralization, the end of bureaucracy, or liberation from organizational structure. In the dialectic of a complex society, some kinds of centralization are essential, some kinds of organizational structure are indispensible, and standards must be established. With electronic technology, however, centralization need no longer be so rigidly expressed in terms of a physical place, nor decision-making the prerogative of those places.

The dialectic answer to the debates of centralization/decentralization (23), hierarchy/participation, structure/fluidity is that we will have all of these phenomena in the future system, just as they are characteristic of the capabilities of our emerging electronic technology. As noted in our previous mention of computerized systems, the system design may incorporate features which are humanely paternalistic, yet at the same time procrustean and reflective of the norms of a managerial priesthood. Participation in the basic decision-making process is essential if the liberating capabilities of electronic technology are to match its bureaucratizing potential.

The systems approach: a note on "noise"

We have used the term "system" so far primarily in the context of communications and computer systems. A system is a collection of component parts existing in some relationship to each other, and within an environment. It is often difficult to define the boundaries of a system, and the term is relative. A computer is a system, consisting of such components as its console, control unit, memory unit, etc. As a tool of organizational accounting, however, that system is part of a broader system, which includes the clerical receipt of invoices and dispatch of others. The accounting system is, in turn, part of yet another system, and so on. Despite the problem of differentiating between system and environment, the systems approach is a valuable tool of analysis enabling us to look carefully at the relationship between structure and function of machines and organisms.

A cybernetic system is a self-steering system. At the risk of over-simplification, we can say the essential difference between a cybernetic machine, and a living organism, as cybernetic system, is that the machine operates within relatively fixed parameters, whereas the living organism is more open-ended as to its goals -- particularly in the case of organisms, such as man, with a high degree of consciousness. A cybernetic system receives information, reacts, measures its reaction, and continues towards its goal. The thermostat measures a drop in temperature, turns up the heat, measures the result as surpassing a certain level, and turns off the heat; it aims at a steady state. The goals of individuals and societies are more complex. A nation may aspire to the satisfactory management of its traditional territory, or it may covet the territory or economic profits of its neighbours, etc (25).

Two ships approaching each other, warned by their radar, take corrective action. But unless they follow the rules of navigation, one turning to one side and the other another side, they will crash or find themselves about face. Ships return to course, but in the life of men and societies there is rarely a return to the same course. Human societies are also particularly prone to error in the feedback circuit -- making a mistake, they "try harder", and aggrevate matters -- and to gaps in the rules of navigation. The arms race is an example of feedback amplification (26).

When buffeted by strong contradictory messages (amplifying and negative feedback) alternating at a rapid rate, a system will suffer "nervous breakdown." (27) Filters are needed, enabling the system to sort out the various messages, consolidate them in digestible packages, measure them, and make balanced decisions. Filters are necessary to exclude noise, that is, useless or detracting "blah." Noise is a problem in both electronic transmission systems (radio transmissions, for example) and in human communications, the communications of a society. A problem of the first magnitude in human society is to decide what is noise or distraction. Opinions will differ. Consider a simplified (25) diagram of a federal system:

 showing information flow and decision-making in a federal system

A = the central government, B = laws, taxation, etc., C = state or provincial governments, and E = the aggregate behaviour of individuals and organizations. For Canada, given its particular relationship with the United States, D is extensively a question of American influence. For the United States, D is more the world at large. To the Canadian who would like to see his country develop its own economic and cultural resources, much of D is "noise"(28). To the Canadian who favours continental integration, D is a source of beneficient input. The continentalist is happy with the formula, D = American influence. The (misnamed) Canadian "nationalist" would prefer the formula, D = the world at large.

When one wants to tape record a live concert, all other sounds are noise. The passing jet is purposeful to its passengers. Somebody in the audience may really need to sneeze. But for the concert recording, these activities are noise. Noise detracts from what a system believes it needs to hear. Too much noise may overload the capacity of a circuit and swamp its preferred signals. (There are also limitations on the capacity of a system to process desired information, which is why overprotected Victorian heroines would faint at a proposal of marriage). Notice that the question of what a system "needs" to hear is predicated on the goals of the system, within an intrusive environment, and therefore on value-judgements. To the contemplative person, mass media entertainment is noise detracting from the search for inner understanding. To another person, the same entertainment is exhilerator or stupefyant, making daily life bearable.

In a social setting such as the cocktail party, one talks to a neighbour, notices others moving around, is vaguely aware of the background music, and may focus all attention on the host when the guest of honour is announced to the gathering. The jet pilot is faced with a more urgent and complex panel of potential messages. But he does not try to watch all panel indicators at once. He has a system of warning indicators and an automatic pilot mechanism. These together constitute a system of priorities and filters which enable him to concentrate on the most significant signals affecting his task. The significance of this is readily apparent when we think of the tremendous flood of messages which evolving electronic technology is capable of facilitating.

A host of messages, presently coming to us in the form of letters, laws, and the like, require us to do routine things which may not really require specifically human attention. For example, a circular notifying us of a change in catalogue price, or of an amendment in the process of a punched-tape governed machine, or of a credit to account. Such messages can be processed directly by computer. The messages requiring human attention are those requiring us to make choices (and when the computer has processed the former type of message, we may still be faced with the need to react). Should I accept this information and respond? Should I obey this instruction, or suffer the consequences of not doing so?

When we visualize a multi-directional global communication system we face the really tremendous problems of filtering, priorities, and the like. The greater the number of systems interfaces, the number of involved participants, the more difficult it is to establish the equities of compliance and group participation. The problem is human capacity to respond to the flood of inputs made possible by computerized technology, and to the hastened pace of contact between groups throughout the world. A vital question in all this is whether, in a shrinking world, we can categorize all nationalism as noise -- as many commentators are inclined to do. We shall return to this question in the following chapter, and later 28b.

Certainly one possible type of nationalism -- an assertion of global hegemony on the part of one state, with an attempt at implementation through the use of nuclear weapons -- would face us with the biggest bang of human history, threatening the entire species of mankind. When a highly self-conscious organism becomes aware of self-destructive behaviour, and yet persists, we wonder about its suicidal motive. It is the suicidal nature of present nuclear warfare technology which ultimately prevents self-preserving superpowers from making use of it. If one superpower should find a means of preserving its own territory from the effects of an opponent's weapons, we would all be at its mercy. The evolution of an ethic eschewing any desire for global hegemony, on the part of any state, would be a surer defence of mankind in a world of superpowers.

Timetables and technological determinants (66)

An ever-present difficulty in discussing the impact of technology on society is that one may draw conclusions from the state of technology at a given point in time, yet that state may be quite transient. In the early days of network television we were faced with a highly centralized or uniform type of broadcasting. The intrusion of such English-language broadcasting directly into the homes of Louisiana Acadians dealt the final death-blow to their oral French-language culture (29). Electronic technology, at that stage of development, was a homogenizing influence in the direction of Americanization. Today, electronic technology more readily lends itself to communication links between such fragmented cultures as the francophones of the Americas (30). The possibilities of the Seventies differ from the realities of the Sixties.

The wired city is a reality. The wired world is not, as yet. A switched system is much cheaper when the terminals are in close geographic proximity. A cable system is relatively inexpensive in a city. This is one factor in the widely-held conviction that we are headed for more of the megalopolis rather than less. Yet these channels may one day be available not through a fixed cable but rather by wireless transmission, in an as yet unforeseen extension of the transmission spectrum.

The practising engineer shudders at the problems involved in utilizing electronic technology as visualized by the futurologist. The social scientist shudders when one talks about the emergence of world society. The engineering and social problems inherant in the topics discussed in this book are inmense in their complexity and gravity. Technological change, and societal change, are erratic. For decades, a potential development is held back due to lack of progress in one aspect of a structure or potential mechanism (31, 51). Costs and custom have a lot to say as to when something will happen, if at all. No firm timetable can be offered as to when virgin fields of technological and social development will be truly entered. Cultural lag is often more obtuse than the seemingly most unsurmountable technical barriers. (In the age of the pill, prophylactic, and supposed liberation from the guilt of the flesh, even agnostic parents continue to fuss about the virginity of their adolescents.) No assumption is made that we accurately predict the future. We merely discuss possible futures.

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