[May 16, 1961] The Fourth Revolution (the next step in communication)

Why read science fiction?  To act as your headlights as you hurtle faster and faster down the but dimly visible road to the future.  Reading through this month’s Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy (June 1961), I found Dr. Isaac Asimov’s article particularly thought-provoking.  I’d like to get your thoughts.

It’s called Four Steps to Salvation.  The Good Doctor attributes the success of our species to a series of revolutions in communication.  They are:

1) Speech.  Some tens of thousands of years ago, humans developed the ability to communicate via verbal language.  Before that, conveyance of art and technology was limited to imitation — monkey see, monkey do.  The creation of sophisticated tools, the taming of fire, the evolution of artistic technique was impossible before we could talk to each other.  After all, how sophisticated can a skill get when it must be reinvented from scratch every generation?

2) Writing.  Per Asimov, oral tradition only has a lifetime of about four generations (the longevity of Homer’s epics notwithstanding).  Written language was the revolution that made civilization, literally the creation of cities, possible.  So goes his contention, anyway.  I’m not convinced that civilization sprang from writing; rather, I think writing was a technology made necessary by civilization.  Nevertheless, there is no denying the wonders a set of representative squiggles called the alphabet allowed.  Knowledge could now be stored indefinitely to the advantage and delight of engineers, musicians, and countless bureaucrats.

3) Printing.  Everyone is familiar with the tragedy of the Alexandrian Library’s burning.  That was just one event of many — in fact, a comparative handful of classical works made it out of late antiquity owing to the paucity of books and the indifference toward their storage.  When composing a codex involves weeks of painstaking work, particularly when literacy is at a premium, the distribution of written works is necessarily quite limited.  This makes any single work vulnerable.

Gutenberg changed all that.  Suddenly, books became commodities, available to everyone.  Ideas could no longer be suppressed,.  The ability to read spread and flourished.  Scientific growth exploded now that everyone had access to everyone else’s works.  It is no exaggeration to say that books powered the Renaissance.

Fast-forward to today: 1961.  I’ve heard that there is more information generated by our species in a single decade than was created in all the years of history prior.  Not only is impossible for one person to know everything there is to know (the last time for that was around Dante’s time in the early 14th Century), but in fact, it is impossible to know everything about just one discipline of science. 

This is Asimov’s concern: the current methods of communication are simply too slow and restricted to facilitate dissemination of all of humanity’s knowledge.  The whole system of science will eventually, he asserts, collapse under its own weight of data.  Here we are on the verge of a whole new age of invention and we are in risk of losing it all for our inability to build upon it.  What’s required is a new, fourth revolution in communication.

And he doesn’t know what it is.

‘Is telepathy the answer?’ Asimov wonders aloud (knowing full-well that there’s no such thing, at least not naturally).  He suggests microfilm and punch cards but then quickly dismisses them as insufficient solutions.  He then, almost plaintively, turns the question over to his readers.  That’s how I got involved.

I’m an optimist.  I believe the human race will always fox its way out of a pickle no matter how daunting.  As for this puzzle, I can’t say I have a concrete answer either, although the very phrase “fast-forward,,” a newish term referring to the practice of speeding ahead on a magnetic tape medium, suggests a potential course. 

These days, it is true that computers get much of their input from punch cards, little pieces of cardstock with holes in them that represent the digital alphabet understood by machines.  But they also can read tape now, dramatically increasing their storage capacity.  One wonders if there might be some kind of ultimate computer some day, an OMNIVAC with terminals in every home, such that we can all access the sum of human knowledge, stored on tape, with the press of a few keys?  Throw in those visiphones that have been a staple of science fiction since Dick Tracy, a few of those Arthur C. Clarke communications satellites to facilitate cross-ocean broadcast, and WHAMMO!  You’ve got yourself a global knowledge network, up to the task of keeping all of humanity in touch and up to date.

That’s just one solution, of course, and the fact that no one seems to be talking about it suggests it’s unfeasible.  On the other hand, they say that technological advance is the result of taking tools that already exist and putting them together in a new way.  One way or another, I think we’re on the verge of that fourth revolution. 

What do you think?

7 thoughts on “[May 16, 1961] The Fourth Revolution (the next step in communication)”

  1. Fascinating speculations.

    The success of the Echo and Courier satellites prove that transmitting information at the speed of light around the world is possible.  The recent use of transistors to replace vacuum tubes in some radios shows that communication devices can be smaller than they are now.  So, what’s ahead in the future?  Maybe computers the size of a television set, with some kind of keyboard and/or microphone for entering questions and information.  These could communicate with some central “brain” which could then send it along to another user.

    This all sounds pretty wild, but Murray Leinster imagined it way back in 1946 in “A Logic Named Joe.”


    1. I was pretty sure someone might have described something similar in a recent story.

      I also recently read (in Aviation Weekly?) that you could fit billions of tube-equivalents in a shoebox now.  That was most bewildering!

      (I just did a double-take over your post — you mean a computer that looks like one of IBM’s new Selectrics… but smart?  Good gravy!  Sign me up for five of those! (at $10,000,000 a pop…) )

  2. I agree with you that, while it’s something of a chicken and egg situation, it was probably living in cities that made writing necessary rather than writing that made living in cities possible.

    I also agree that we’re on the verge of the next stage in information. A lot of science fiction writers have played with the idea, at least, of having information in some sort of electronic format, like a wire recording. Great for saving space and weight aboard your rocket. Leinster’s probably the only one who has gone as far as he did in “A Logic Named Joe”, but it’s something to think about.

    That said, I don’t think print is going anywhere any time soon. Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but what happens when the power goes out — or, God forbid, we have to rebuild civilization — and everything is electronic? People will be trying to tease meaning out of shopping lists, like in A Canticle for Leibowitz.

    On the other hand, imagine being able to access that information with a pocket phone like Heinlein described in one of his juveniles. You know what that would be? The Junior Woodchuck Handbook.

    1. I, for one, would love a Junior Woodchuck Handbook.

      The whole idea of applying communication to what would be essentially Isaac Asimov’s Multivac really intrigues me. The wire services have been using advanced communications devices for ages, of course, but – I wonder how it would work in homes? Perhaps little sets of tape or wire, recorded electronically by the computer while you’re out or busy, waiting for you to pop them in to some sort of reader and dictate your answer and send that out by… the same machine, perhaps, just like a tape recorder.

      Or perhaps it would be all on paper, like a teletype, or better the Radiofax devices that are used to transmit still images over the air. And a camera, I suppose, for pictures somehow. Perhaps some sort of Land camera.

      Or some combination of all of the above?

      And as an aside, I wonder, would this communications Multivac want to get involved? Would it start dropping in whenever someone was missing a piece of knowledge?

      For that matter, would it start to question us? Would it start figuring out what questions to ask itself?

      Or would it just want to join in conversations? What would a conversation be like, with a giant electronic brain?

      1. That’s if you think computers will ever become sentient.  It’s a cute thought, but I have my doubts.

        I think the biggest bottleneck will be bandwidth.  With thousands (millions?) of people taxing OMNIVAC’s brain, it’ll need the biggest switchboard in history to regulate. 

        I can just imagine this giant building, half the size of North Dakota, with countless telephone cables leading to it.  Or a giant farm of satellite antennas.

        It’s a project that will rival the Great Wall.

  3. “This is Asimov’s concern: the current methods of communication are simply too slow and restricted to facilitate dissemination of all of humanity’s knowledge.  The whole system of science will eventually, he asserts, collapse under its own weight of data. ”

    Call me a cynic, but don’t all these speculative solutions to the first of these problems simply exacerbate the 2nd? When all humanity’s knowledge is available at the touch of a button, how do we keep science–and every other system–from collapsing under the weight of trying to correlate all that data?  Asimov’s Foundation suggests that science will be able to get sense out of it all. I’m not convinced. Sure, OMNIVAC may be able to run any equation at whatever speed you please, but you have to know the right equations to enter.

    We may be a technological jump or two away from *accessing* all humanity’s knowledge–how many advances do we need to *use* it?

    1. Cynic!

      You make a valid point, but I think the fourth revolution will not be unlike the third.  More knowledge, but nicely compartmentalized on neatly indexed tapes.  Maybe the computer could even sort them for us.  This science fiction, after all.  Dream big!

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