The Message is Information
by Barry McKinnon
of Mc2Systems Design Group
Many people will say that, as we rocket towards the end of the millennia, we live in the time of prophecy. That certainly is true of the prophecies of one of our more notable 20th century prophets, Marshall McLuhan. One of the better known, but little understood futurists, McLuhan predicted, three decades ago, a world where electric information technology would become the basis of our economy. He also predicted a number of related social and political effects of the Electric Information Age. These are the relevant issues to those of us in the system design and contracting fields, because our industry is in the business of moving information around.
I recently read McLuhan's "Understanding Media" to get a view of the history of the media technology we are dealing with today. Somehow it seems odd to find that a book written in 1964 about the impact of information technology on our world would have any relevance today. Any Popular Science magazine of the era had us flying around in jet cars and living on Mars by the end of the century. McLuhan's book is able to demonstrate how our current Western economy grew from the steam age, through the automobile to the first steps of the commercial computer age. It accurately predicts the internet, telecommuting, and information based economies, even though it did predict that these would have happened by the 1980's. From that book came the phrase that most people would associate with McLuhan;"The medium is the message." This is a pretty cryptic phrase that really doesn't mean much to most people. For those of us inside the systems contracting industries, it has a great deal of impact, as it makes us the messengers.
"The medium is the message", in the simplest sense, means that the system that delivers the message is a message in itself. For instance, no matter what the content of a TV broadcast may be, we have already been affected by the very existence of the TV sitting in the corner of our living room, sucking an average of 3 hours a day out of our available time. In a similar sense, no matter what the content may be of the messages we send over a Fax, a pocket pager, cell phone or E-mail, our personal and business lives have already been altered by the very presence of the technologies. Because every new twist or wrinkle in the technology has a kind of "bootstrap" effect on the direction that the society and economy is headed, it gets more difficult to predict what the effect of the introduction of the next technology innovation may actually be.
Each new process or technique that makes transmission of higher densities of information faster or cheaper, changes the weighting on what may be the best way to move some particular piece of information. That has practical consequences for those people in the business of distributing information and marketing information delivery systems. What may have been a cost effective system with adequate information bandwidth one day could be supplanted the next day by a better approach. The end users, or consumers of the message systems, be they voice or data based, will always move to the lowest cost system that can deliver the service required, limiting their commitment to proprietary hardware. Like the computer industry it parallels, information delivery systems are seeing faster and faster turnover in hardware and infrastructure. As more systems become digital data-based (phone, pager, voice and e-mail message delivery), the requirement for higher delivery rates to maintain the increasingly high data density will drive the market. There was a time not long ago when a 2400 baud modem was considered quick, now a 28.8Kbaud modem barely serves the average net surfer. When wider bandwidth digital images become more common, the delivery systems will need to be bumped another notch or two in speed.
Conventional audio and video delivery is gradually being replaced by digital data streams, and the systems that deliver data are increasingly in the hands of the phone companies and computer industry. The hardware at each end is becoming cheaper and more disposable, so there is less reluctance to move on to the newest widget. The owners of the infrastructure are faced with the unending responsibility of ensuring the information pipelines are always upgraded to make room for this convergence.
We are seeing a simultaneous convergence and fragmentation of messaging technologies in the digital information world. We are seeing a diversification of message types, and message technologies. Just because we can have a two-way wireless data link such as RadioMail on the Ardis network, covering 90% of US business locations, it does not mean that a ceiling speaker paging system still won't be needed in the local school or Safeway. Or, just because a school may have a video paging system combined with a video based media retrieval system does not mean that they won't develop a need for data based linkage on a schoolwide basis. One could easily see the video based media retrieval systems running out of the information bandwidth and access speed needed to allow them to be effective in a higher density information age. As high speed information processors become more ubiquitous in the form of laptops and notebooks, the students will eventually each need to access what they need directly instead of being bottlenecked by a communal TV based link with a tedious linear information delivery system (VCR).
The messaging market is not so much moving in a new direction, but is, more accurately, expanding along a very large technological front. This of course makes it more difficult to see what is happening at all locations along the front at the same time. From any single technological vantage point some of the front is over the event horizon, that is, happening in a technology sufficiently different from your own field of knowledge to be invisible. There will always be technological development beyond your own event horizon, it is an irony of "technological convergence" that the best answer to a specific problem of message delivery may lie entirely outside of the "most obvious" technology.
This is something I discovered while working on a voice warning system project for an oil company several years ago. I was approached by the field exploration people who were drilling test wells in a hydrogen sulphide gas rich area in Northern Alberta. For those of you who aren't tuned in to the oil industry, hydrogen sulphide gas is extremely explosive and poisonous, as it turns to sulphuric acid in the lungs. All "sour gas" well sites need to have some sort of warning system in the event of a blowout as sour gas is heavier than air and travels along the ground for quite a distance before thinning enough to be harmless. They needed to be able to warn animal trappers in the area in the event of a blowout, so we were looking at the feasibility of a voice warning system with a 2 to 3 mile radius of coverage. After some trial measurements of a prototype system on a hilltop well site, it became obvious that a) the written material describing attenuation of sound by trees was woefully short of the actual reflection and attenuation, and b) it would have cost as much to install a voice warning system as it would have to hire a helicopter on standby to find the trappers working in the area. After investigating a variety of alternatives such as motor driven air raid sirens, it turned out that the phone company could provide a pocket pager service for the trappers and other personnel in the area for about $1,500 per person. This meant an expense of less than $10,000 instead of $100,000+ (even the siren was $40,000). At the time, pocket pagers were over the event horizon until we were forced to search along the technological front and find something different.
The best choice of information delivery technology for any application may in effect become less obvious as we are given more technical capacity. McLuhan described media as an extension of our senses, and that, depending on which media were being considered, our senses of sight, hearing, touch or presence, were extended in different ratios. Radio, TV, print, film, and the telephone, all had a different sense ratio that meant they affected us differently. The telephone, for instance, requires a high level of aural participation due to the limited bandwidth, and at the same time prevents us from visualizing the person we were talking to. This is not something you would generally think about when dealing with the technological issues of communications between two people, but now you can buy a home computer that gives you two-way low resolution video phone capability for a small premium in price. We are likely to find that choices that are made regarding the use of newly available technologies for the delivery of information between people will deliver its own message. The introduction of new delivery systems and new communication methods will change the people that are doing the communicating.
This is not just esoteric or academic philosophy we are talking about now, this is the discussion of the effect of technology on the people who make up the marketplace. New technologies are changing our sense ratios. The effect of convergence of technologies is to shorten the feedback path (be it negative or positive feedback) so that the changes in the marketplace happen much sooner after the introduction of new technology. This change in time constant means that we, as a systems contracting industry, have less time to respond to the changes, and less time to plot the direction it is headed. Not only are there changes in our sense ratios with the new technologies, but there are new senses being introduced.
Imagine being blind all your life, building a world model in your mind that had no visual component, but was entirely based on sound, smell and touch. Imagine suddenly waking up with sight in a world that had all these new visual images that did not correspond to any past experience. Imagine the changes you would have to make in your world model as you attach new visual images to old concepts that were based on touch or sound. Now add a few new senses to the mix just to make things interesting, and you may start to get a feel for what this whole business of messaging technologies is becoming. We are just opening our eyes to one new sense (like a real picture phone on a desktop computer) while there are even newer modes of information being added.
The ceiling paging system extended our legs and voice, eliminating the need to wander around trying to locate someone, or increasing the number of people we could reach with our voice. The telephone extended our voice, the cell phone added legs to our voice. The Fax extended our ability to write but added wings to our words when compared to the postal system. Now we are expanding the type of messaging as well. Where a paging system is generally a monologue, and a telephone is a dialogue, the Internet is providing multilogue, and allowing it to be asynchronous. Asynchronous multilogue is not entirely new, but it can now happen at a fast enough speed to make it interactive, instead of merely a document trail. McLuhan's Global Village took 30 years to arrive, but it is here, and we are designing and installing information delivery systems in it.
The distribution of information (messages are just one kind of information) takes many forms. Messages can be intended as one to one, one to many, many to one, or many to many. Sometimes all of these types of messages can coexist in one structure. For many years we have tried to serve a number of functions with combinations of system types or approaches. In airports for instance, the paging system may make general announcements for all people in the facility, it may try to reach specific groups of people within the facility, or it may try to reach specific individuals within the facility. If those individuals need to respond, they are directed to the white courtesy phone for more private one to one communication. In an airport, there are additional parallel systems such as radio and telephones. The radios allow more directed general communications amongst subgroups such as maintenance or police and security personnel. The telephones provide very directed one to one communication where the two parties know exactly who they need to communicate with (and with micro-cellular phone systems it does not matter if they are not at a specific location anymore). Any information delivery system has to deal with signal to noise ratio to maintain adequate information transfer. Of the systems described above the general paging system is the one most prone to noise contamination. For the other systems, the paging system is most likely to be seen as a source of noise. If we were to look at an entire airport from a systems approach, rather than looking at an airport sound system from a systems approach, would we find a different methodology or a different infrastructure that would be more effective? Will the answer to that question be the same in five years? As technology allows more information to be moved in new ways, we have to be prepared for a complete change in the way message delivery systems are implemented.
What if air travellers had something like a personal digital assistant/cell phone widget that contained the ticket and boarding pass information for all their flights. What if the communication technology allowed the airline's computer to interrogate and reply to the PDA at the gate when boarding at the jetway. What if the PDA could receive the pre-boarding and boarding announcements directly so that only the people getting on that flight would have to hear the announcements for that flight, and they would receive them anywhere in the airport. What if they actually made electronic devices you could use in an airplane. All of this may sound like science fiction now, but the fact is all of this could be possible, available and affordable, and if it is, it will be used.
The future of messaging systems may be more amazing than most of us can imagine. McLuhan quotes Wyndham Lewis as saying;"The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person who is aware of the present." It could be that the future of information technology is already being spelled out in the cyberpunk sci-fi books of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The near future certainly will require a mix of our conventional system technologies with the increasing use of new technology until the new systems become affordable and available enough to supplant the current systems. The systems contracting industry is going to start to look more like the computer industry in that the successful contractors will need to be rapidly adaptive to new products, and able to shift to the latest models and operating approaches with the least amount of baggage carried over. Rather than trying to make use of older products or methods to fit new situations, it will become a survival trait to be able to abandon both technological and even business methodology in favor of those demanded by the current market. The phone companies actually provide a good model for how you can continually adapt what you do to new methods and technologies while maintaining general market growth along familiar lines.
If you are looking for a specific direction for market growth, look forward, and increase your view to the horizons. Count on one constant, and that is change. Thirty years ago McLuhan made the observation that new speed and power are never compatible with existing spatial and social arrangements. That certainly extends to the economic impact as well. One last McLuhanism to close; "To the blind all events are surprises."
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