Raymond Rodgers' Man in the Telesphere

Raymond Spencer Rodgers' 1971 book Man in the Telesphere foresaw a number of elements of the World Wide Web as it has developed over the last thirty years. Looking at the social, intellectual and technological scene of his time, he foresaw the development of a worldwide electronic communication network and its potential decentralizing tendencies. In spite of its relative primitiveness, he saw that the computer technology of his time provided the potential for a new way for humans to interact. Rodgers may have been the first to call this network a "Web." Unfortunately, the book did not have the influence it deserved at the time, probably because it focused on the social, not technological, aspects of computing. Man in the Telesphere is really a work of philosophy as well as sociology and futurism, since it discusses the ethical issues in human communication. In particular, the book has a great deal to say about nationalism.

Here is how Rodgers describes his work's uniqueness:

Born in 1935 in Britain, Rogers was adopted during World War II by his American step-father. A short biographical sketch of 1997 says that he has spent most of his lifetime in Canada but identifies more with America than with Canada and Britain. He got a Ph.D in Political Science from Columbia and taught in the 1960's at a couple of universities in the southern United States. While teaching in Louisiana, he became very prominent in a movement for the revival of Cajun culture, a culture with French, Canadian, and American connections. This contributed to one of his most central themes, the proper place of minorities in relation to "majority" cultures. The Cajuns form a Francophone minority in the US and are related to a Francophone minority in Canada (the Acadians). Rodgers' political research focused a great deal on the question of how to balance the diversity of human cultures with the need for greater world unity and integration in the age of the Cold War. From his youth he saw the potential of computers, foreseeing as early as 1951 that computers would "shrink, and link, and help us think" (in letters to Popular Science and Popular Mechanics). On the one hand, they would create new forms of connection between people and ideas; on the other, they might allow for a decentralization that would allow minorities and individuals the autonomy needed for full self-realization. Rodgers saw nationalism and internationalism as complementary: it was only after self-realization that people could move on to wider forms of integration. In a series of appendices to the book, he concentrates on Canada's need to find a unique identity, distinct from the United States. At the time he wrote Man in the Telesphere, he appears to have identified with Canada more than the US. He has lived in the Vancouver, British Columbia, area (including a time across the border at Point Roberts, Washington) since 1970.

The book was never published, circulating in photocopies at some universities and "think tanks." The original text has been reproduced on the Web, the only change being a few places where items that were particularly prophetic, such as use of the word "web," are put in boldface.

Michael Hauben's History of ARPANET shows the "democratizing" trend of ARPANET, which was beginning to link computers through the telnet and ftp protocols right about the time Rodgers composed his work. Hauben expresses particular surprise that an organization with strong military ties should help promote a new openness:

Apparently, a desire for greater openness and participation was in the air in the late 60's and early 70's. From their different angles, both Rodgers and the creators of ARPANET recognized that computers, often imaged as instruments of Orwellian manipulation, could open up new channels of communication and participation. Rodgers:

Rodgers divined this potential from several aspects of computers. First, he recognized that when linked up they could allow for a "multi-channel, multi-directional communication system" (ibid.). In this sense they were more like telephones than television sets: the computer user did not have to be a passive receiver of information, but could choose with whom and on what he wanted to communicate. The telephone system also provided the potential for an interconnection of computers on a global basis. The airline reservation system, referenced above, provided an early model of some of the envisioned system's qualities, minus its democratic openness. He also saw computers' potential for translating signals from one medium to another (e.g., visual to electronic).

Rodgers doubted that a World Wide Web, for which he coined the name "Telesphere," could be acceptable when he was writing. It would probably be seen as "communications colonialism," given the current dominance of the United States and other industrialized nations in computer development and data banks (ibid.). He thought this sort of political barrier was good since it allowed people time to find ways of making computers more "democratic." Perhaps the development of the desktop computer and silicon chip, both nonexistent in 1971, has made this possible. By reducing the dependence of computer users all over the world on a limited number of central "data banks," the desktop computer has made them more equal. It provides both the multi-directionality of the telephone and the informational richness of the television set.

In the final chapter, Rodgers relates the Telesphere to the "Noosphere" envisioned by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard had said that mankind is "evolution becoming conscious of itself," and Rodgers suggests that the potential of the Telesphere should make us consider new ways of living. For one thing, it should reduce the need for censorship. In a passage relevant to current discussions among librarians, he says:

In the context of the Cold War, Rodgers thought the Telesphere gave hope for new forms of world integration, reducing the threat of nuclear annihilation, while allowing for local and cultural autonomy. It might be possible for the sorts of threats posed by the Cold War to be resolved and a more just world realized without stifling localized initiatives. He thought the architecture of the Web might lead human relations in new directions, just as the physical layout of the British House of Commons, originally designed for another use, had influenced British government practice.

Like Teilhard, he envisions a SuperMan who has achieved a higher level of self-consciousness and ethics than we enjoy at present. He worries about a potential of the Web, information overload:

It is interesting to reflect that Rodgers' Telesphere has come into existence without all the ethical and political effects he hoped for. The Cold War has ended by the collapse of Communist power, not by a new world federalism and ethics. We have gained the ability to communicate over computers through seemingly limitless pathways on seemingly limitless subjects. While the Internet has given us more freedom, it has not spawned a new ethics, at least not a widely accepted one. But with the continuing problems of overpopulation and threats to our environment, Rodgers' vision of world federalism may still offer a useful model for the future; increasing freedom calls for a greater sense of responsibility for our world. No one can foresee the future completely, but Rodgers' book is striking in its prescience of late-twentieth-century developments.

Mr. Gemberling can be reached at [email protected]

URL: http://libweb.ablah.twsu.edu/ ~tgemberl/telesphere.html