A Post by Michael B. Spring

(A list of all posts by M.B. Spring)

Communications Eras (September 30, 2007)

I like to think about the future, and to do so by thinking about the past. Here is one tiny tid bit to start of a discussion here.

There is evidence that “humans” have been around for a million years or so. It is difficult to pinpoint when spoken language developed as a critical means of communication. Ong holds that social interaction has been occurring for the last 30,000 to 50,000 years. Although it is impossible to date the origin of spoken language, it was clearly millennia before written language. Many scholars refer to this period as the period of the oral tradition.

The oldest deciphered written documents are about 6000 years old. Scholars have identified the development of writing as beginning the literary tradition. The oral tradition, from an information theoretic perspective allowed information to be codified by means of language and memory and passed on from generation to generation. However, the oral tradition was subject to information loss in the reproduction process, and the capacity of human memory was a limiting factor in the amount of information that could be passed on. Further, the transfer required that sender and receiver be collocated in time and space. The literary tradition eliminated the need for collocation, vastly expanded the amount of information, and made a significant improvement in transmission errors, although it left coding and decoding errors.

So what then is immediacy? Keep in mind, the word “immediacy” is suggested merely as a placeholder. Time may well produce a better or more appropriate term, but the concepts that might be associated with “immediacy” are clear, especially those that provide a contrast to prior traditions. There are five ways in which the new form of communication is more immediate than the oral and literary tradition.

First, in the long tradition of communication via the spoken and written word, the communication of information is via an intermediate party. The information gained in not immediate. The information passed from generation to generation via the oral tradition was rich and structured by the orator or storyteller. The tradition and the techniques are fascinating and well beyond the scope of what can be covered here. For our purposes, the key is that story that was passed on was about events as interpreted by the storyteller. The literary tradition has the similar characteristic – it is an interpretation of events presented in a symbolic form. Contrast these presentations of information with the broadcasts of the Hindenberg disaster, the Kennedy inauguration speech, the O.J. Simpson car chase, etc. All of these events are presented without intermediation – they are immediate. Of course, it may be argued that there are interpretations provided by how the video or film was shot, or by how the microphones were placed, or in the case of the network news, how the video is edited or what context it is put in. None-the-less, there is a qualitative difference with which we may be exposed to information. Take the growing presence of webcam on the Internet for viewing public places or traffic flows as other examples of immediacy in the communication of information. I don’t need to be told, or to read, that it is raining in Pittsburgh, I can simply look at the screen and see the rain. Indeed, it is possible to learn that it was raining yesterday or now by connecting the live webcam or its archives from anywhere in the world. This aspect of immediacy relates to our presence to the event.

The second aspect of immediacy relates to the speed with which the information may be disseminated. We now have information floats of seconds where historically the lag between the event and the information about the event was in terms of days or weeks. War and space coverage are examples of this. In the 2003 Iraq war, viewers were able to get a picture of an advancing tank column as it occurred. Indeed, two of the events burned into the memory of 50 year olds in the year 2000 are the funeral of JFK and the landing of a man on the moon. Both of these events received wide and immediate coverage, accepting that there was a 1.32 second delay in the transmission from the moon to earth! This sense of immediacy refers to the temporal nature of the communication.

A third aspect of immediacy has to do with the immediacy of a vast information store to the creator of a message. Many of us are familiar with the process of dragging and dropping information from one place to another on our electronic desktop. Many of the sections of this book have been created by dragging and dropping parts of lecture notes and slide presentations created over the last two decades of teaching and researching in this area. While I grow increasingly concerned about the loss of information created on very early systems or using now defunct information formats, this is, I believe, a temporary phenomenon. With time, we will have immediate access to all of our own information and research so as to more effectively access and convert it into messages. The day is not far away when lectures might be captured as a matter of course. A little, but not much further away, is the time when I will be able to say “That was a great instantiation of the ideas I meant to convey, convert it to written form, insert my diagrams, show the steps I suggested for processes, and animate the two critical development sequences. This is immediacy in information creation.

A fourth aspect of immediacy relates to the receiver’s access to the message as an evolutionary whole. This concept is a little harder to describe than the others because, while important, it is not one that we have seen in practice very much as yet. Historians have a fascination with drafts of important speeches. An edited copy of an inaugural speech or a speech like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address provides an opportunity to try to interpret the thought process that underlies the communication. Historically, the process of depicting the evolution of a communication has been very hard. For years now, we have had the capability of easily capturing the version tree of a document in process. With time, it will be more common to have access to the complete record of the development of a message. When that occurs, recipients of a communication over space and time will have the ability to “see” a communication evolve in the mind of the sender in ways that we can barely imagine today. The ultimate implication of this aspect of immediacy is likely to be living documents that capture the creator’s efforts and allow the receiver to query not only the document but to speculate with more data about the thought process behind the words.

A fifth aspect of immediacy has to do with the digital nature of the message. That is to say that this communication can be repaired on the fly. Errors normal in the transmission can be detected and corrected immediately. The communication has developed a degree of immunity to the noise in the communications channel. Thus, we can now here a pin drop in a conversation with an individual on the other side of the world. This in not because there is no noise in the communication channel, but because the information in the message can have additional data added that provides a mechanism for correcting the impact of noise. This same digital quality allows the message to be replicated in its bit form at a fraction of the cost of traditional replication. The message can also be encrypted insuring an appropriate level of privacy and security in the communication.