This talk was originally presented at a conference of Engineering Managers, all of whom worked for firms involved in the general area of communications. It was early in 1981; later that year IBM would introduce its first personal computer. The internet was unknown outside of scientific circles. The web was many years down the road.
There is a process going on today, this moment, which is of far greater significance than any political activity, yet it never captures the headlines. We are in the midst of an event that future historians will regard as a revolutionary redirection of the entire course of life on the planet; yet it is only vaguely grasped -- even by those of us who should be in a position to see it. Our daily work involves many aspects of communication, and it is communication which is happening to the world in a big way. In order to see this, however, it is necessary to find a perspective from which we can view the phenomenon in the broadest possible terms. Every day we all scurry about, busily working on one tree or another. For once we must raise our sights beyond the immediate. We must seek the long view. We must try to see the forest.
To begin at the beginning: our general thesis is that the entire history of life on the planet can be viewed as a series of advances in communication. To establish a foundation, we first must look at the way in which the existence of life itself is due to a communication breakthrough. From that point we will move forward in time, examining the key role that communication has played in all the successive phases of life. The ideas that are presented here, taken separately, do not represent anything new. But perhaps the overall pattern which emerges may help to bring into focus the true significance of communication in a way which hitherto has not been apparent. With Eliot, we can say:
"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
from Four Quartets
DNA -- LIFE
Once upon a time, perhaps four or five billion years ago, there lived no one at all. In fact, there lived no thing at all. This was the time of the primordial soup. Strange rains fell from strange skies. Heavy electrical and chemical interactions boiled and sizzled in those fuming seas. Long, complex molecules were blasted helter-skelter into existence. But long molecules do not, in themselves, constitute life. Implicit in the idea of life is the requirement that there be a life form which has continuity with time.
In due course it turned out that certain molecules did indeed emerge which possessed this key characteristic. They were constructed in a way that enabled them to extract the needed constituents from the surrounding medium and bring into existence exact duplicates of themselves. That is, they were able to store a pattern and then cause that pattern to be communicated to another location. Look at it this way: at one moment the pattern existed at one location; then at a later time a copy of the pattern existed at a different location. It had been communicated.
The molecule which managed to develop this special talent is now known as the DNA molecule. In our terminology we might say that the first ROM had arrived on the scene; and it arrived full blown. These first versions of the DNA molecule provided storage for roughly one million bits of information. This is the amount of information which must be stored in order to specify completely the simplest life form: something on the order of a virus or proto-bacterium.
The latest and most complex version of DNA is the one which specifies humans. This remarkable molecule, which exists in every cell in every body, contains roughly ten billion bits of information. If it could be uncoiled, it would be about fifty inches long. That translates to about 200 megabits per inch. Compare this with 6.25 kilobits per inch for mag tape. The format of the stored information is two bits per byte, and several hundred to several thousand bytes per gene. This implies that the human form is specified by roughly five million genes.
When a human cell divides, all ten billion bits is replicated. If we assume that a cell division can go to completion in one day, then the DNA replication rate is roughly 100 kilobits per second. Compare this with 800 kilobits per second for mag tape. It is interesting to note that recent speculation regarding DNA replication mechanisms uses concepts that sound remarkably similar to tape reeling past a recording head.
So, with the appearance of DNA, the simplest form of single-cell life became possible. But the single "general-purpose" type of cell cannot do everything. What came next was differentiation of function and its concomitant: nerve cells; but that is the subject of the next section. Before we leave DNA there is a perplexing mystery to be pondered.
It is just this: in all the billions of years that the opportunity existed for life to arise, and that opportunity presumably still exists today, the magic event happened only once. We now know that the same basic DNA structure lies at the heart of every living thing on earth -- including all plant as well as all animal life. It is really quite correct to say that there is only ONE type of life on earth: DNA life. And that is a great puzzle. Why did it happen just once? Does this imply that there is only one possible way that life can arise? Or perhaps one should conclude that the earth came perilously close to having no life at all -- after all, one is as close to zero as you can get.
As we mentioned above, a creature made up of just one type of cell was severly limited. The next evolutionary stage involved creatures which were made up of a variety of different types of cells, each type having a specialized function. In order for this strategy to work it was obviously necessary for information to be exchanged among the various types of cells. The right hand must know what the left hand doeth.
Clearly, a nerve cell is a communication channel. And an entire nervous system is a communication network; in fact, it is an electrical communication network; further, it is a digital network which uses pulse rate modulation! And it was this advance in communication technology that made complex life possible. No, that is misleading. It is more correct to say that the combination of specialized cells connected via nerve cells actually constituted a new, complex life form.
Notice what happened there. A communication network arrived on the scene and the purpose that it served was to coordinate the activities of various disparate elements. This was a distinct "phase change." A meta-creature had come into existence.
And this new entity proved to be a winner. These little beasties which were blessed with the magic of communication were markedly successful. Therefore they became dominant. The blueprint stored in the DNA molecule gradually specified more and more nerve cells and the resultant life forms became progressively more complex.
So far we have mentioned only the dynamic (information moving) aspect of nerve cells. But there is a static aspect as well. The juncture between nerve cells is not a simple conductive path. The synapse, as it is named, can be viewed as a storage point; and it is field programmable. The synapse "learns" as a result of experience and gradually "preferred paths" are established. We develop habits.
The entire nervous system, then, makes up a rather extensive memory. It is important to note that this is a programmable memory as opposed to DNA memory which is fixed a the time the creature comes into existence. So DNA establishes the structure of the entity -- including the fact that it has a nervous system. Subsequently, learned behavior patterns are stored in the nervous system memory.
In more advanced creatures the bulk of the nervous system is all in one lump called the brain. In man the brain contains roughly 70% of the nerve cells in the entire body. As the number of nerve cells increases, the total storage capacity increases. And as the amount of information stored in the nervous system approaches the information content of the DNA molecule, the resultant creature is seen to rely more heavily on learned behavior as opposed to instinctive (DNA) behavior for survival. Somewhere around one hundred million years ago a crossover point was reached and creatures emerged with nervous systems which could store more information than the DNA molecule. This represented a major transition in the nature of life, as we will discuss in the next section. One last comment here, though.
It turns out that there is a practical limit to the maximum amount of information which can be stored in a DNA molecule. The number is around ten billion bits, and the limitation has to do with an engineering problem we now call "soft errors." The earth environment is naturally mutagenic in a low-key sort of way -- otherwise new creatures would not emerge at all. A primary cause of mutations is the constant (though thinly spread) rain of high-energy particles from space.
As the DNA blueprint became more complex, the potential for (literally) fatal errors also increased. Ultimately a point was reached at which "soft-error system-crashes" blocked further DNA development. It is no coincidence that the upper limit of ten billion bits is the same as the number of information bits in the human DNA molecule. Further advances can only be achieved through increases in the storage capacity of the nervous system.
Now let us look at the significance of the crossover point mentioned above. In our jargon we might say that the capacity of PROM and RAM now exceeded the capacity of ROM.
From a zoological viewpoint there was a clear development which marked this transition. Before the the transition, the most advanced life forms were reptiles; they were born complete and ready to operate. Behavior patterns were basically instinctive, with little change resulting from learning in the course of their lives. After the transition, mammals became the dominant life form; infants were born helpless, and could not operate successfully until a great deal of effort had been put into programming their nervous systems. Adaptive behavior (as opposed to instinctive behavior) became essential to survival.
The new model turned out to be a big success. Encouraged, DNA proceeded to specify larger and larger brains. The resultant creatures gained a certain freedom of action. Learned behavior patterns could adjust to changing conditions very rapidly compared to the sedate pace of evolutionary changes in the fixed (DNA) program. This process continued to unfold until eventually primates arrived on the scene. Still "going with a winner," DNA called for still larger brains.
Then, suddenly, in the course of one short eon about a million years ago, the brains of certain primates bulged out into a dramatically larger form. The entire forebrain popped into existence. And this event marked the transition to the next, and by far the most successful, terrestrial life form.
SPEECH -- MAN
Referring to the brain of man, the American anatomist J. Hudson Herrick commented, "Its explosive growth is one of the most dramatic cases of evolutionary transformation known to comparative anatomy." We all still bear the marks of the strain that this change placed on the system. Some are quite obvious. For instance, brain size increased disproportionately relative to the size of the female pelvis. Painful childbirth is the result.
It is interesting to see that this connection has been part of the racial awareness for thousands of years. An ancient text discusses this transition and comments, "In pain shall you bring forth children" (Genesis 3:16). In a sense, it is correct to say that the design has become pelvis-limited. Larger brains are no longer an option. The significance of this will be expanded upon later.
Another mark we bear is the fact that our skull bones are not large enough to enclose the brain properly. There is an open gap at birth which takes many years to close -- and in many people it never closes completely.
But the really big change which took place at that time was in the realm of communication. Speech came into existence. This was the beginning of "our" story. This marked the entry of humans into this world's life-game.
In order to see speech clearly, let us first examine the situation as it was before the advent of speech. Without speech, each brain was (to a very great extent) isolated from every other brain. The amount that a person could know was limited to that person's individual experiences. What another person knew could be acquired only very crudely (if at all) through demonstration and gesture. The working of each nervous system was an independent electrical universe.
The various muscular structures which are attached to the nervous system can be thought of as electromechanical transducers. Among these structures are certain organs which are capable of producing modulated sound waves in air. Another set of organs does the inverse of this, producing electrical signals in the nervous system in response to sound vibrations in the air.
The language/speech communication breakthrough (or breakout) involved establishing a code for this channel such that a mechanical link could connect two nervous systems. This was a profound development which totally and forever set man apart from all other living creatures. An entirely new level of coordination became possible. Finally the content of another person's nervous system became accessible. One's knowledge could expand to include the knowledge and experiences of others. For the first time, what the old had acquired through experience could be passed on to the young, thus improving their survival chances. Again, through communication, a new degree of interconnectedness had been established, resulting in a far more successful life structure.
In order to grasp the impact of what is being discussed here it is important to try to maintain the view that the whole new structure -- entities-in-communication -- constitutes a new life form. This is, in fact, quite true. It is easy enough for us to recognize that the structure which comprises a nervous system interconnecting a variety of muscles and other organs is a single living thing. Analogously, it is certainly valid to regard the structure which is the next level up in an interconnected hierarchy as a new entity in its own right. It has meta-characteristics which make it a distinctly new phenomenon on the life scene. It is a new invention entirely; and it works.
So now we find that language brought about a phase change in the nature of life. We entered the age of the story-teller. Each person now possessed all the knowledge resulting from his own experiences, plus all that he had been told; which included a large share of what his informant had been told by still others, etc., back, back as far as they collectively could remember. Ah, but therein lies the rub. For human memory is a notoriously volatile storage medium.
The problem can best be visualized by thinking of memory as reaching back in time through a sort of fog. The further one tries to see, the more dim is the picture -- until a point is reached beyond which the scene is entirely obscured. At any one time there is a finite number of people alive, and the amount of information which can be stored in any one brain clearly has some limit. This, coupled with the fog factor, places an absolute limit on the total knowledge which can be available to this new entity "man-in-touch."
Inevitably, this situation must lead to a developmental plateau. Speech, beyond any doubt, made us human. But speech has a fundamental limitation: it disappears when one stops speaking. One must be in the presence of the speaker.
Now matters had reached a serious impasse indeed. The information capacity of the DNA molecule itself could not be increased because of the intractable soft-error barrier discussed above. Further, brain size could not be increased because this would create a foetus which would be destroyed (along with its mother) at birth. What to do?
And so the situation rested until the next epochal communication breakthrough -- roughly five thousand years ago.
WRITING -- CIVILIZATION
Now we arrive at the last (excluding the current) fundamental change in the nature of life on the planet. Writing appeared. And it is important to think of the "appearance" of writing as opposed to the "invention" of writing. Writing emerged naturally from the overall context in the same way that a crystal emerges from a saturated solution. Writing was no more invented than the DNA molecule was invented. With the advent of writing it became possible to store information by impressing it on solid matter (as opposed to gray matter). Writing was speech made permanent. The keys to the kingdom had been handed to us.
Writing conquered time; it overcame the fog factor. Suddenly the lid was off and the maximum amount of knowledge available was no longer limited. From this point onward there would be a cumulative buildup of information -- a pyramiding of knowledge. This event marked the dividing line between pre-history and history. With writing the emergence of technology became a foregone conclusion.
Speech gave us our humanity.
Writing gave us civilization.
Under the general heading of writing we are including all means of recording information. The most advanced form of writing at the present time is the optical disk. This technology provides a storage density which is astonishing. On one side of one twelve inch disk it is possible to store roughly 1 x 10e10 bits of information. Let's examine what that means.
1 Book = 400 Pages
x 40 Lines/Page = 1.6 x 10e4 Lines
x 10 Words/Line = 1.6 x 10e5 Words
x 5 Letters/Word = 8.0 x 10e5 Letters
x 8 Bits/Letter = 6.4 x 10e6 Bits
That means that the printed contents of 1500 books can be stored on one side of one disk. On 333 disks we could store 1 million books -- the entire San Francisco public library.
From another viewpoint, we can say:
1 Picture = 256 LinesTherefore, we can store 10,000 still pictures on one side of one disk. As a practical reality, using a certain amount of data compression, 50,000 frames of color television (30 minutes) can be stored on one side of one disk.
x 512 Pixels/Line = 1.3 x 10e5 Pixels
x 8 Bits/Pixel = 1.0 x 10e6 Bits/Picture
Writing worked a transformation in the basic survival ground rules. From this distant remove it is easy to grasp the abruptness (in evolutionary terms) of this transition. But do you suppose anyone understood what was happening 4900 years ago? Does anyone understand what is happening today -- this very moment?
Writing, for all its enormous impact, suffers from a severe drawback: it lasts forever; but only in one place. Writing is chained and bound by the medium on which it is impressed. If you want the information you must drag the medium around with it. Or, if it is a mountain of information that you want, then you must go to the mountain.
But writing was not the last trick up the sleeve of nature. We have the incredible good fortune to be present to witness life on this planet as it enters yet another phase change. We must all try to become aware of the momentous event which is happening.
The race has started weaving around itself an ever more complex network of electrical conductors. The very fabric of space has begun to hum and vibrate. We are using electronic technology to create extensions of our nervous systems. As a medium this time, we have made use of that ineffable stuff of the universe which once was graced with the name "ether," but which current dogma disavows.
With writing we were able to extend communication indefinitely along the time dimension. With electronics we have extended communication indefinitely along the space dimension. No longer is one's awareness limited to the immediate physical surroundings. We can now transfer our eyes and our ears, instantly, to any point whatsoever. Our sensory reach has transcended a spatial barrier which has been in place from the beginning of time. Information that is available anywhere is now available everywhere.
The implications of this are almost beyond imagining. From our present vantage point, in the midst of the first, faltering beginnings of this sweeping change, it is difficult to achieve the perspective necessary to grasp the ultimate impact. But it is essential that we achieve this perspective. We must bring into our awareness an appreciation of this profound transition which has begun in our time; and which will continue inexorably to its culmination.
It is only through a clear understanding of the overall process that we can hope to make current policy decisions which facilitate this development. We must take upon ourselves at least a share of the responsibility to try to ensure that the electronic media are used in ways that are beneficial to the race in a general, long-term sense. The highest priority must be given to uses that enhance personal communication and provide ready access to information. These are the primary services for which electronic media are ideally suited. (Note that personal communication includes all forms of personal interaction, such as business meetings and game playing, as well as simple two-way conversations.)
There is an unfortunate trend which must be mentioned. It seems that as communication technology becomes progressively more complex the use to which it is put departs further from pure communication. At the present time the telephone system is very well applied. It is widely used for private, direct two-way communication between people.
Radio, on the other hand, has been seriously compromised. Admittedly radio is used in some applications as a private two-way medium; however, the most common use of radio is as a one-way commercial channel for business. And with television the application is almost exclusively commercial. Business interests have completely preempted television. The enormous contribution that television could make as a communication utility has not been realized.
Consider what awaits us:
- Instant, person-to-person contact with anyone,
anywhere on the earth (or beyond the earth, for
- Complete access, in your home, to all the li-
braries of the world.
- The ability to be a direct witness in all the
councils of government.
- Daily access to all the great newspapers.
With electric yarn, we are knitting our disparate selves into one whole self. Mankind is undergoing a transition from a provincial to a planetary consciousness. The race is about to leave the adolescent, tribal warfare stage and emerge into full sentience. The life-stuff on the surface of the planet is weaving itself together into a better coordinated, more stable organism. Life has found the next door and opened it wide. Another epoch has begun.
The advent of electronic communication will be viewed by future historians as marking the point when the race began its final coalescence. The ramifications cannot be overstated.
Speech made us human.CONCLUSION
Writing made us civilized.
Electronic communication can make us one.
"Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we
have extended our central nervous system itself in a global
embrace, abolishing both space and time, as far as this
planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase
of the extensions of man ---"
Marshal McLuhan -- 1964
"As third wave civilization arrives, we shall create not a
utopian man or woman, who towers over the people of the
past, not a superhuman race of Goethes and Aristotles (or
Genghis Khans or Hitlers) but merely, and proudly one
hopes, a race -- and a civilization -- that deserves to be
called fully and radiantly human."
Alvin Toffler -- 1980
And who are we in all of this? Or perhaps, "what are we?" is a better choice of words. Now hear the answer -- and know yourself for the first time.
Through our hands and through our minds evolutionJerry Shifman --February 1981
is making manifest this profound transition.
We are the cutting edge of man's latest becoming.
We are the chosen instrument.
We are destiny's technicians.
We are the wizards of our age.