The Third wave: the social consequences of the information age

Eighteen years elapse between the birth of a blind child and graduation from high school. Eighteen years ago, there were no personal computers, the Soviet Union was a super power, Japan looked to the United States for economic leadership, smoking was permitted on airplanes (but not the long cane), there were no biotech companies, and only a handful of mobility specialists taught in the nations public schools.

In eighteen more years, today's blind infants will graduate from a strikingly different world. What we teach these kids today will determine how well they survive in their future. We have to make educated guesses about that future (and keep guessing) to prepare them for success. Here is what Alvin Toffler and the futurists tell us.

The Communications Age

When a much earlier world changed from a hunting and gathering culture to an agricultural age, human relationships were redefined and concepts about space and time changed. The speed of life accelerated. Leadership shifted; old power structures were replaced by the newly empowered. Old definitions and institutions collapsed and new ones took their place.

Futurist Alvin Toffler called this change from the hunter-gatherer age, to the age of agriculture, the first wave. Toffler defined a second wave when the world changed again from an agricultural based planet to a world defined by the industrial revolution. Again, the speed of life changed, space and time took on new meanings, human attitudes and patterns of interaction changed, and old power structures were replaced by the new.

Toffler also predicted the third wave, the present change from the industrial age to the communications age. As this shift occurs, we can expect life to speed up even more, new perceptions of space and time to emerge, and we can anticipate new and unsettling patterns of human interaction. This third wave is the future that our blind students will face. We need to try to comprehend (predict) the changes coming as a result of the communications age. How we build our curriculum depends upon our awareness of this change. How we position the field of orientation and mobility also hinges on our comprehension and perceived consequences of global change.

The hunting and gathering stage lasted for a million years. The agricultural age lasted six thousand years. The industrial age lasted three hundred years. Some futurists defined the information age and then declared it dead after forty years. These same futurists announced the fourth wave, the communications revolution, which they say is giving way even now to the next wave, the Bio-technology age. The trend here is unnervingly obvious; the waves are washing in faster and faster.

The agricultural age defined wealth as land and property. Little changed from generation to generation. You looked to the past as a guide to the future. Grandfather and grandmother were the sages. The family farm was the focal point of everyday life. Values revolved around the church and the family. The rhythm of life was determined by the seasons and the natural life cycle of living creatures.

Wealth in the industrial age was based on capital goods made from raw materials. Those who owned and manipulated the raw materials and their products gained power and affluence. The future was defined by the present; lessons from the past were of little use in the new age. The old extended family structure was destroyed; the nuclear family was invented.

The concept of the "job" was also invented by the industrial age. It pulled the children off the farms to the cities where they had to adjust to new spatial and temporal rules. A job required an employee to be at a certain place for a set amount of time, to do repetitive tasks, to "work" at producing things that were not immediately relevant to the individuals life. In exchange for the loss of the agricultural life style, employers gave steady wages (not affected by the weather or the natural rhythms).

The industrial age saw the creation of vacations, health insurance, and sick days; all resulting from the invention of the job (a new way to work). This change was traumatic for a farm based, agricultural culture, and many resisted. Human beings no longer were "ruled" by their natural rhythms or by the seasons. Respect for the wisdom of the elders of the society declined as their power was by passed; they no longer controlled the source of wealth, and their knowledge was irrelevant to the new age.

The rules are again changing in this age of communication. The life cycle of a business is now only seven years. The cycle in technology is down to six months, and in the software business, if a company is to survive, it must bring new products to market within two to three months. There is hardly time to plan; certainly the present is of little help.

The communications age looks to the future to decide what needs to be done. A hockey analogy is often used to describe this. Businesses, professions, and individuals must predict where the hockey puck is going. Making plans based on where the hockey puck is now, is a sure strategy for failure. If we don't make good predictions and act on them quickly, when we get to the future, the future won't be there. The world is changing so fast it has come down to this: we literally have to invent our future.

Wealth in the communications age is linked to knowledge. The rich and powerful of our era will be those who find ways to turn raw data (information) into usable knowledge. This generation needs creative, inventive, imaginative people. Technology is not just a collection of fun toys, a playground for nerds, it is livelihood, wealth, and well-being. Just as the concept of the "job" was an industrial age concept, there is evolving a new entity. The concept of "job" is dying as the industrial age is fading. Our students will be facing painful life changes as jobs dry up and we invent the new work for the new age. We must redefine what it means to work.

For blind individuals and their families, and for the teachers who work with visually impaired persons, the waves of change bring good news and bad news; there are red flags and there are opportunities.

The perception of time and space

We don't have to venture into cyberspace to see the changes brought on by the information age. There are "here and now" changes taking place in our culture. Here are some examples:

The perception of space during the industrial revolution was linear: straight lines and right angles, rectangular or square spaces, grid lines defining layouts, one dimensional maps, modular and mirror image designs. Time was also linear and sequential. To build the Ford on the assembly line, you put one piece of the car together at a time, in order, and in a specified length of time. You got paid by the time spent on the job (not by the quality of the job) or by the number of parts produced per unit of time. The industrial age was structured and orderly, self imposed time and space constraints caused a rise in the level of cultural stress.

We still live with the evidence of the industrial age, streets and cities laid out in grid patterns, rectangular buildings and rooms, paychecks that reflect how many hours we devoted to the work place. This familiar industrialized world is unraveling and the effects of the new communications age are beginning to be felt. Certainly, by the time our blind students graduate from high school, the full impact of the communications age will be upon us.

We can see the beginnings of the communications age in the layout designs of businesses, particularly the big department stores. There was a time when you could go into a Sears or Penney's and locate departments after walking along pathways laid out on gridlines. Now the pathways curve every which way, trying to sweep customers by as many visually appealing items as possible. The more items that consumers pass, the greater likelihood that something will catch their eye; that's the theory, and that's what research tells business owners: get the customer lost in a visually pleasing circus. The blind traveler should expect to encounter more irregular spaces, more curves, less mirror image layouts, and fewer modular concepts (like the "departments" in department stores). The very concept of departments is an industrial age idea.

Not only are pathways less linear, but they keep changing. We live in a change hungry world. TV shows hit us with scene cuts tenths of a second long. We want our food fast. We live in an impatient, frantic paced culture. Stores that plan on surviving in an even more impatient age, must frequently change the look of the visual circus. In modern malls, for example, stores are required to change their look (ie. the store layout) every few years. We can expect the time between layout and pathway changes to become even shorter as the communications age accelerates.

For the sighted population, the visual circus found in stores and on television is becoming a habit. For the blind traveler it could become a nightmare. The key to adapting to changes in stores, as in all the areas discussed below, is flexibility. The blind traveler will have to relearn layouts more frequently. That's the bad news.

The good news is that blind individuals may never have to leave the home to shop (only if they want to). New technology will allow them to search for and compare products at their own leisure, to individually tailor these products to their own needs, and to order and pay for these products without ever leaving home.

Why should Sears build hugh stores, hire employees, pay utility bills, and carry gigantic liability policies, when they can create a virtual store on the Internet? Why shouldn't the National Federation of the Blind, or the American Foundation for the Blind, sell canes, talking appliances, even information access, directly to the world's population of visually impaired persons? It is already happening. The third wave has created a whole new kind of space: virtual space, cyberspace, space your mind moves through. This is a kind of mobility that blindness does not hinder.


The communications age brought the world an entirely new kind of space; something never before encountered. We call it cyberspace, a world where reality is virtual. Word processing works with virtual paper (the laws of the paper universe have changed). Virtual books are being created as we speak. Using virtual reality, 3-D technology over the World Wide Web, we can navigate our avatars (graphic symbols representing our virtual selves) through virtual worlds (the multimedia, 3-D "book"). These virtual worlds need not pay the slightest attention to the laws of nature. You may walk through walls, float through the air, walk in and out of time periods, or twist and shake the fabric of space and time. Cause and effect disappear if you like; the ego is reduced to a point of view. Just as we use clip art to cut and paste together our creations, we will soon have the ability to clip virtual universes and paste them together to invent our own virtual worlds.

The concept of a computer as a keyboard, monitor, and central processing box, sitting on a desk, is already a fading paradigm. Computers in the future will be invisible, built into the walls, furniture, and appliances within a room. They will not generate images on a tiny screen. They will provide voice feedback and/or they will generate 3-dimensional virtual objects into rooms. Images will be generated in windows or will be any size required, from match box to full wall displays. The television and the radio will be cannibalized by the computer and the central medium of the new age will be the Internet.

Another way to think about cyberrooms is as simulation spaces. They will evolve first as games. Later, education and special education will use classrooms as simulated environments. Mobility specialists will be able to expose rural blind children to subway platforms and crowded city streets. Urban blind students will travel on country paths. Blind children in the third world will have virtual reality mobility specialists visit there rooms as needed.

The step beyond 3-dimensional projection is form generation. 3-D images will be given substance in special machines that replicate shapes (like thermoform maps). Blind children will be able to explore environmental concepts from the comfort of their classrooms (exploring virtual fire hydrants, traffic lights, Rodan statues, tree leaves and cat whiskers).

If all this sounds like wild science fiction, remember Moore's Law, and the movement to the 33rd square of the chessboard (weird things are about to happen). Remember too that holograms, virtual game machines, and 3-D television are realities now. We are not too far away from the holideck of the Star Trek Enterprise.

We are the profession that should teach disabled people how to navigate in virtual space. Why? Because we are the profession that teaches these same individuals how to navigate in real space. There is also a mind/body interface that will be crossed as we move between real and virtual reality. For example, the blind traveler may pause in real space to use a mobile wireless navigation device that probes virtual routes or uses triangulation to locate position. The disabled traveler of the future will move in and out of virtual space.

Social changes

The move to a communications age requires that visions of the future be rapidly adaptable, that long range plans be flexible, and that we build in mechanisms for adjusting to change. The society of the future will need a large population of open minded, tolerant, flexible individuals. The number one social goal of the blind rehabilitation specialist (and consumer organizations) will be the molding of open minded, tolerant, patient consumers.

The third wave could be a blessing, or it could be a disaster. We have put in place the opportunity for a homogeneous, one minded world consciousness, with the potential to be controlled by George Orwell's "Big Brother". The information super highway could be the most frightening change ever to happen to mankind. It is certainly one of the more bewildering. All of us have a social responsibility to see that the third wave is a blessing, not a black hole.

The amount of information in the world is doubling every seven years. One half of every thing a college student learned in his or her freshman year is obsolete by the time they graduate. The amount of knowledge we are asking a typical high school senior to learn is more information than their grandparents absorbed in a lifetime. Our decision load is growing. We are running too fast, making too many decisions too quickly about things we know too little about. How can all these grand ideas about individual web pages, global consciousness, and the coming of massively capable workstations ever be implemented when we hardly have time to eat? This is the major social question facing the beneficiaries of the communications age.

Every field of study has a responsibility to organize this massive influx of information. As a profession, we have an obligation to look at this miracle and decide how our little corner of the global data base will be structured. We will address the problem of information overload through the creative use of teams. We are going to have to collaborate more, in ways yet unexplored.

The communication super highway is destroying old power structures. As knowledge flows into every home on demand, it empowers consumers. The consumer movement that began thirty years ago is about to jump to warp speed. Consumers can scan the worlds data bases for the best bargains. They can instantly order products from their computers. Specialty use groups will band together to apply political pressure, share their experiences, address educational problems and strategies. The internet allows consumers to self-educate, to bypass teachers and doctors. When consumers do these things they bypass the educational system, the medical system, the publishing system, the current political system, even the consumer agencies. The individual is about to be empowered, particularly the individual who is flexible, self-motivated, and who has strong data gathering and organizational skills.

As power shifts, so will leadership. A greater number of people will be able to express their views on issues relevant to them. Committees can be composed of members from all parts of the globe. It won't be just the rich (who can afford to travel) or the professors or business leaders (who are authorized to meet) who make the decisions. Now, from the comfort of individual homes, regardless of position, impairment, or finances, people will be able to meet, discuss, decide and lead.

There will also be greater awareness, empathy, and responsiveness in the culture toward people with disabilities. This is because more and more disabled individuals will be active in cyberspace. There is no need for physical mobility in cyberspace. The inability to walk or navigate does not hinder cybertravel. There is no need to hear, to see, or to talk. Disability fades on the internet. At the same time, people with disabilities can speak their minds, counter the prejudices, argue for political issues, and interact as equals. The communications age holds the possibility for a psychic equality that has the potential for reducing stress and strengthening self esteem.

Many blind children, because of the loss of non-verbal communication, have a deep need to connect with others. The internet is a 24 hour world where these kids can reach out and communicate with others across the planet. It is also a way for isolated blind children to find others their own age who also happen to be blind.

The new society will allow for greater individual choice, decentralization of power (less centralized planning), a reduced urban population, a change from top down leadership to lateral leadership, and a faster rate of adopting and dropping identities as jobs change frequently.

We will still have the same human needs: to gather around a camp fire to tell stories, to meet at the watering hole to exchange informal ideas, and to escape into our psychic caves as needed. We will still need to leave the house and the information explosion behind to converse flesh to flesh with other human beings. We will still need to move through space for our own personal, physical, and emotional well being.

The Other Half of the Technological Revolution

Communications technologies are one half the story. The other half are the medical technologies. It is the convergence of the world of computer hardware, with the world of biotechnology that holds the greatest hope for the blind traveler.

In the summer of 1995, Wired magazine carried a story called "Hacking the Mother Code." Some rather chilling revelations are discussed in the article. The bioscience community is looking at DNA as just another computer software program, one that can be copied, backward engineered, and micro-altered. On desks, in research offices of DNA scientists, sit machines the size of microwave ovens. These machines make DNA. Type in a gene sequence, flip a switch, and out of a chemical soup comes human DNA, the protein building blocks of life.

Next to the gene machines sit the technology for putting DNA on a computer chip, layering it on a micro-wafer, just like silicon chips are made. The gene microchip and the gene machine are being used to map the human genome, and to find genetic flaws.

These bio-developments are the bridge between the technological revolution and the revolution in human medicine, the bio-revolution. Soon the human genetic code will be mapped, gene surgery will be possible, we might even see in our lifetime the ability to rejuvenate nerves, and clone optical pathways or brain centers. Professionals working with disabled populations must monitor these changes, identify advances that might benefit our students or our professions, and champion products or ideas that have potential. We need to be part of the teams that are helping to change the world for our blind students.

As technology changes, there will be intermediate times where half solutions hold reign. There will be incomplete pattern recognition systems that mobility specialists teach students to use; GPS instruments to aid with orientation, and radar based electronic travel head bands. These systems will evolve and converge, get smaller, get cheaper, and they will constitute the main tools of mobility specialists in the future. The whole system may end up being housed (the computer brain stored) in a folding long cane. There will be medical breakthroughs that completely upset the notion that blind mobility should even exist as a profession serving primarily blind students. The future is here and now, a revolution of possibilities rolling over us every eighteen months. Are we even aware of this as a profession? What plans do we have to position ourselves for the benefit of all?


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