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Friday, June 10, 2016

Reading the Third Wave Riding the Flying Scotsman

I was reading about conferences on Futurism and the implications for healthcare and health technology, but this post is about Pastism, and how I discovered that the computer would be the future for me.

I was in London England in the spring of 1981 and the city was awash with people pouring in to watch the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.  There was almost no place to find a room to stand let alone a room to stay. I was caught up in the atmosphere of expectation and exuberant fanfare but at the same was starting to feel closed in by the crowds of people and a city I didn't know that well.

Something possessed me to get out there. The solution: a ticket north on the Flying Scotsman to the land where my family clan and others of their ilk had immigrated from a few generation ago. When I arrived in Edinburgh, on the station platform a train master said something to me in the thickest Scottish brogue I had ever heard - no idea what he said.  It was cold and late at night wandering the streets and I was lucky to find a bread and breakfast to stay at. Arriving up the stairs and sitting at the kitchen table near the hearth, the cordial host said: "Welcome to a Polish house."

I had heard about a 2 week rail pass to explore Scotland. Having survived a two month Eurorail pass tour 6 years previously, that would be a piece of cake. Getting to Scotland on the Scotsman was just the preview. The Flying Scotsman reeked of history but in 1981 I don't think it was a steam locomotive chugging me along to the North. In fact, at that time I was immersed in a book I had picked up at Heathrow Airport- The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler, and almost didn't notice the passing scenery.

Possessing as I did then an Honours degree in cultural anthropology plus some additional courses and fieldwork at the graduate level in the Educational Foundations of the Mayan Indians during a summer school program in Guatemala, I was interested in studying something about the future of cultural evolution. I had read Toffler's Future Shock, and because I had traveled to a Third World country I was familiar with a related concept called "culture shock", something I went through in Central America and then again when returning home. It is difficult to come out of a total cultural immersion.

What I found most interesting about "The Third Wave" was the idea that the developing worlds would by-pass the industrial revolution and go straight into the Information Age.  That was a prescient observation if we look, just as an example, at the fact many African nations today don't have an internet infrastructure but everyone has one or more cell phones.  Without going back to the book, one other thing that stands out for me was the chapter on the "Death of the Secretary". Even before the advent of digital information Toffler foresaw changes in the way office culture/proxemics would evolve because of computer technology. Information flows would break down hierarchical authority structures and there would be no need for a secretary when you had PBX exchanges, etc.  Prophetically as well at around that time I think Intel in the beginning of Silicon Valley had open office spaces and no walls between workers and higher management. (Please read the biography of Gordon Moore, called "Moore's Law"). The book was also a more contemporary read of culture and economics. I had spent four years reading all the old classics in cultural anthropology, from Darwin, Frazier, Morgan, Boas, Malinoski, Mead, Stewart, Levi-Strauss, White, Wolfe, Mead, Evans-Pritchard, Geertz - well, you can imagine people like that.

Somewhere around that time I heard or read that when Anthropology and computers meet the angels will weep. And who could ever forget the mind numbingly brilliant formula of cultural advancement C = E x T: Culture equals Energy times Technology. There will be a quiz at the end of this blog post on who the celebrated anthropologist was, now well lost to posterity and the annals of time, who came up with this formula. Anyway, for me, trying to find employment in cultural anthropology and seeing no prospects, it was a tough transition to move into the computer sphere.  Never did like the idea of studying punch cards in university, but now the momentous time had come.

Days of Futures Passed
The Third Wave influenced my decision to quit pursuing an interest in studying more cultural anthropology and I jumped on the computer band wagon in 1983 by taking a diploma at the community college in Integrated Office Systems. Before then I had also had a few part time jobs where I could use a CRT screen and a ruby wand to scan student  library bar codes into a hidden mainframe somewhere and I thought the technology was kind of cool. At the community college we had a study space with a network of computers and email was so new, it could only be sent from one computer to the computer beside it - a really local LAN. We were learning Visicalc, because Excel didn't exist yet. We learned how to program a graphic of a rocket taking off in BASIC. We studied 'office automation' and a book we read told us how the Japanese wanted to automate anything that could be automated. We had a tour of a financial office in downtown Toronto that was "paperless". They challenged us to find any paper anywhere in the office. They had mostly CRT screens networked to hidden mainframes. I did see some sticky notes.  From 1984 I still have a copy of MacWorld magazine with a picture of Steve Jobs on the cover and the first Apple Macintosh computer, but I never did buy an Apple computer until 2010.

Writing about the past is fun. Might try this again in a future post.