The ultimate aim of an information-based society is to enable any person to find the answer to any answerable problem.
By modulating and demodulating digital data into- and back from the analogue signals of the phone system, the modem acts like an electronic doorman to a
parallel universe of clubs, services, arenas and knowledge banks that anyone and everyone can use for entertainment, communication, gainful employment,
subversion, sexual gratification, plain old curiosity and a thousand other activities. Whether it's access to a live, global press conference, back issues of the
Washington Post, or psychoanalytic abstracts you're after, or swapping multimedia artworks, nifty new shareware programs, snippets of new hacker lore or
the latest stock quotations, the doorman always remembers your face, rarely asks for a tip and never refuses you entry for wearing sneakers.
It wasn't until the advent of direct access storage devices in the mid-60s that the techniques behind this wealth of activities - text manipulation and on-line (interactive) operation - became practical. Before that, electronic data was stored on tape and access to it was sequential (and therefore slow) only. From simple message-passing utilities developed the now-familiar electronic e(lectronic)-mail. In 1971, the Nixon administration's wage and price freeze generated a sudden demand for communications and coordination among the private sector, labour groups and government policy makers, and the Office of Emergency Preparedness commissioned Dr. Murray Turoff to develop emisari (Emergency Management Information and Reference System), a computer-based version of the voice conference call, and the prototype computer conference system (Rappaport, Computer Mediated Communications, Wiley 1991).
The following year, the fact that much work in government and academia was already being generated electronically, coupled with the development of larger storage devices and advances in techniques for searching for text strings, allowed the first information services to start up. By 1989 there were 4,000 in the us alone, devoted to every subject under the electronic sun, from an exhaustive list of Pancake Recipes Database, to data from the last us census. In 1978, file exchange by the first modems was possible and all the key ingredients for an electronic community were in place.
Today, computer conferencing, bulletin boards and information retrieval systems together form a global web of interconnecting technology. This web is not yet integrated in any significant way, but gateways between centralized conference and e-mail systems, and global networks such as Usenet, mci mail and Sprint are growing.
From these humble, nerdy roots, with a little help from a crooked us president, the global telecommunications network has become the most complex human creation ever and the arena for an increasingly dominant share of economic and social activity. We're starting to call it Cyberspace, a developing dimension of electronically amplified human consciousness; the ultimate medium. As John Barlow said recently: If you don't believe Cyberspace exists already, where do you think most of your money spends most of its time?
If the 1970s were a decade of experimentation and model formation, the 80s witnessed an explosion in both systems and user numbers, as well as databases and the information in them. The trend to interconnection began and is gathering pace as the 90s progress. The local lans are linking up with the more widely dispersed Wide Area Networks (wans), connecting to national and international networks (often through electronic or virtual gateways) which are themselves coalescing into meta-nets. Although it is too soon to speak of The Network, very soon will be. Only then will we really start to see what it - or should it be we-is/are really capable of.
There's big money being put on the table to make sure it happens. During the next decade, estimates Northern Business Information, more money will be spent on phone equipment than has been spent since the invention of the phone in 1876. If I wasn’t averse to their use, I'd have used an exclamation point there. Sales are expected to nearly double from $101.6 billion in 1991 to $192 billion by 2000. This kind of money does not slosh around the global economy without leaving some pretty major change in its wake.
If you read the right magazines, you can be forgiven for believing that what the world needs now is billions of dollars of new glass fibre lines – Highways for the Mind, as they’ve been dubbed by those pushing the vision. Available bandwidth (the measure of how much data can be squirted down the line in a given time, measured in kilo- or mega-bits-per-second) is expanding all the time. So-called t1 (1.5 mbps) trunk lines are common, t3 (44 mbps) are already available and by the end of the decade, 100–500 mbps will be common, while gigabit-per-second and faster technology has already been demonstrated by researchers.
Each increase in bandwidth expands the uses of the network, and the media that can be used on it. In 1975, when messages were passed from one machine to another, round trip delays in electronic text communications of several days were not uncommon. As network speeds have grown, so the media we can use on them have expanded from text to graphics to Voicemail to video and eventually to hdtv images - all further extend the power of the phone line. The plain vanilla e-mail medium is splitting into a whole tutti-frutti of electronic media.
Smarter is Faster
However, telling us we need Highways for the Mind now (and subscribers and/or government should pay for it) is disingenuous, to say the least. For one, we're going to get them anyway through natural upgrading. Glass fibre is cheaper and easier to install and maintain than the old copper wires. Secondly, it disregards the equally important role of the intelligence of the communications terminal (computer plus modem) being used. Smarter machines can use smarter compression techniques and better interfaces with the network, more intelligent modems can send and receive data quicker, irrespective of the network speed.
Nicholas Negroponte, director of MIT's Media Lab, uses a ‘wink’ metaphor to explain why bandwidth is an over-rated necessity (Scientific American, September 1991). A wink (1 bit) across the dinner table to a friend may convey an enormous amount of information - say, 100,000 bits or a compression rate of 100,000 to one. The transmitter and receiver share a common pool of knowledge and experience and they have the intelligence to put the wink in context. We cannot look at bandwidth at the expense of the intelligence of its terminals (which itself is growing at a phenomenal rate, as is the speed/price ratio of modems, and compression technology). We can already send video signals down the old t1 wires. Both channel and computing capacity used imaginatively will lead to useful services and products in the future, not one. It seems possible, even likely, that this combination will lead to the demise of text-based communication, as vr goggles, and multimedia video images, etc. become cost effective.
Far more significant are the social barriers to cyber-paradise. As the range of services and options available increase, so training time and costs to use an expanded data network grow too, demanding significant commitment from employers, and effort from users to master complicated interfaces and sophisticated search techniques. Both have been overestimated by network architects, to whom networking was both easy and its benefits obvious. At the same time, by extending the power of the desktop to reach any corner of a corporation (in the sense of 'group of collaborating humans'), and beyond, the 'risk' that traditional lines of corporate communications are bypassed is increased.
Equally importantly, the very construction and functioning of most electronic media ensure messages sent leave an indelible audit trail as they move around the network. The immediate availability of such records is a potential political problem and may be the primary reason for the resistance to this form of communication, claims Rappaport.
He illustrates the point with an episode from the recent past. When the Exxon Valdez hit Prince William Sound in 1989, communications between Exxon HQ in New York, the us Coast Guard and Alaska were conducted through one fax machine (all the public phones were jammed with calls). Exxon set up an emergency office in Houston and asked Notepad International Inc to submit a proposal for facilitating communications (this a week after the spill). Notepad's proposal emphasised not only the comms. capabilities but the auditability of the electronic trail. Exxon's reply was a thanks, but no thanks. According to Notepad, the system could have been up and running in hours. About three months later, an Exxon employee claimed to have 'accidentally destroye' a tape containing all records of communications about the crisis.
Communications software and potential revelation of culpability go hand in hand. The threat to management comes from this unquestionable documentation of the negative (although records will also reveal who made good moves and suggestions too). Can the rising call for public accountability of governments and corporations be stemmed much longer? Rappaport fears that managers, who have achieved their status largely on verbal skills (and the ability to cover their asses, claim credit while avoiding blame, etc) fear alteration of the communications landscape towards text skills. This very fact may prevent text conferencing from ever achieving a significant impact on the American corporate scene, says Rappaport.
The legal and ethical questions surrounding our march into cyberspace also threaten to disrupt a smooth transition to this new era in human communication. As the network and its human creators are corkscrewed together in increasingly committed symbiosis, so the flaws in our half of the partnership become intensified. The primary symptoms are an increasingly urgent need to answer questions such as who owns the knowledge on the network, how do we ensure equitable access to it and how do we protect our privacy and the security of our data? Beneath these are deeper questions such as what is wealth and creativity for? What do we mean by equitable? How do we address the grievances of potential electronic terrorists? What does it mean to be human? These are questions which have to - maybe more importantly, can- be attended to synchronously with the development and extension of our new symbiotic partner.
Peter Russell (The White Hole in Time) approaches this issue by backtracking a few tens of billions of years to get the wider angle. Throughout the evolution of the cosmos, says Russell, the amount and speed of information (change) has been growing through positive feedback as creativity begets more creativity. The more things that exist, the greater the chance of more existing. The evolution of matter took around 10 billion years after the Big Bang to occur. Once complex chemicals had allowed the evolution of life, the rate of change increased. The evolution of sex whipped things up a bit more, and so did the evolution of multicellularity. This in turn enabled nervous systems and brains to come onto the scene, again speeding up the rate at which change occurred.
The human brain – the most complex structure yet observed in the universe – allowed the evolution of language, as significant as the evolution of sex. We no longer had to build up all our experience from scratch but could pass it on across generations and the meme (idea) began its journey to replace the gene as the currency of human evolution. We began to see order in the universe, ask questions – science was born, along with philosophy and theology. Time was extended beyond the ‘eternal now’ into past and future as we became conscious that we were conscious, an eye on the universe which through us was able to observe itself.
Each new step forward quickened the pace at which change could occur, like a huge spiral whose first revolution took 10 billion years, it tightened in on itself as the spiral’s arms got smaller and smaller.
Our opposable thumbs also allowed the development of tools and technology, giving us immense power to shape the environment. Agriculture, fire, the wheel – all increased our leverage, extending life’s ability to collect, process and store information to the stage where we needed electronic brains (computers) to sort through it, again tightening the spiral with positive feedback. The spiral is now so tight, its turns now take just years, soon months. How long can it go on?
The headlong rush has created unparalleled opportunities for disaster, Russell claims as result of our detachment from nature. Our best, if not only chance of making it through to the end of the spiral (to God knows what’s is in store) is to explore the last domain, the inner self. Russell calls for a Manhattan Project of the Mind to develop technologies for the management and understanding of the mind.
De-bugging our Human Software
Still prone to the greed, paranoia and aggression of our ancestors, Mankind is like a cancer or a viral program that keeps us growing uncontrolled at the expense of the organism (Earth). Although greed, paranoia and aggression had their role to play in the development and success of humans, today they are not just inconveniences but lethal bugs in the software of the mind, rather than the hardware of the body. Russell’s Manhattan Project of the Mind would be a project to de-bug our software.
Such a project would be the largest and most important in our history. The only way it could be achieved is through the networks. Only the networks have the speed, reach, storage capacities and interconnectedness necessary to handle the flow and exchange of information necessary.
The psychotherapeutic and imaginative uses of a fully-functioning cyberspace have been widely discussed, but the promise of group collaboration across and between academic disciplines, the electronic audit trail mentioned, on-line political activism and fundraising, all combine to make cyberspace the key to personal, societal and global survival.
But to get there, one of the biggest hurdles we face is the question of security, from cybervandalism, government and commercial intrusion of privacy, blackmail, terrorism and so on. The technology for 100% security already exists, but the us government (the de facto standards setter in computing thanks to its huge power of patronage) consider the main techniques military critical technology and subject to export controls. They even keep trying to insert a right to tap amendment to the various communications bills that come before Congress, like a bunch of old men hanging on to their childhood security blanket while the world transmutes around them. Until the question of security is answered to the public’s satisfaction, the potential of cyberspace will remain neutered. What no politician I’ve ever heard appreciate is that the shift to a networked society necessitates a move to a new system of social control based on fairness, tolerance, mutual need and diversity rather than fear, coercion and monopolisation of material and geographic resources.
In the meantime, the fbi has a growing role call of heavy-handed and inappropriate action against electronic information users and service providers. From within the cosy, congenitally tolerant and mutual society of Holland, it is easy to downplay the problems of privacy and censorship. The Dutch Grondwet (Constitution) guarantees that telecoms carriers have no say over the information carried, and the government takes it seriously. Yet even here, the tram ticket inspectors are already carrying cd-rom players loaded with a complete list of names and addresses of Amsterdam residents (to check up on fare dodgers giving wrong addresses). There are opportunities for abuse of electronic data we are only beginning to dream about. The European Community is currently tendering for suppliers to build the European Nervous System, a high-speed data highway similar to that proposed by the us National Research and Education Network. This is designed to link up taxation, customs, police and emergency services Europe-wide. Barely a peep from the non-specialist European media about it.
Being British, I have more time for the fears of the likes of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (eff). Britain has over 100 laws restricting access to information. The Thatcher years were notable for the number and range of cases brought against journalists, civil servants and members of the public who revealed embarrassing details of government shenanigans. mi5, the primary internal security force, has just moved to a spanking new, state-of-the-art headquarters in London, said to be filled to the rafters with electronic surveillance and counter surveillance (and counter-counter surveillance for all I know) equipment. We need organisations that care about and lobby for the right legal and technical cyberspace.
For the record, the eff has published a set of principles of network access.
1. Establish an open platform for information services by speedy deployment of personal isdn nation-wide (I would change this to worldwide. Even the most liberal minds keep clinging on to the idea of national competitiveness. You can’t have half a cyberspace.)
2. Ensure competition in local exchange services
3. Promote First Amendment free expression by reaffirming the principles of common carriage
4. Foster innovations that make networks and information services easier to use
5. Protect personal privacy
6. Preserve and enhance equitable access to communications media.
There are many other areas of legality that need ironing out as well, such as who owns the text posted to a bulletin board? Compuserve claims ‘compilation copyright’, while leaving individual texts under ownership of their authors. What rights of editing do sysops have? What is an author? The problems of legal and political barriers will be harder to solve than the technical. Says Rappaport: Universal access is unlikely before a world government is in place.
The price of access to the network is still based on the (inflexible and expensive, especially in Europe) phone billing system. With an isdn network, connectionless service is possible, private-public network differences disappear, the trunk-and-branch topology disappears, as does the concept of a network backbone, as any computer can establish identical connections to every other node as required. Self-routing datapackets whiz through the net making and braking connections in microseconds. The network itself becomes a huge processor with its own high-speed storage, dynamically moving, replicating, modifying data and adding or deleting control or accounting information as it passes from connection to connection. From the view of the network there are no users or circuits per se, only self routing, variable packets of data. Prices should reflect this, perhaps by charging for the number of nodes visited rather than amount of time logged on or the distance travelled.
A Network for Who?
The benefits of using a network increase the more people are using it. Companies have consistently overestimated the motivation of the mass market to use information services. The problem is that the more there is to watch, the less the untrained user feels inclined to spend time getting to know their way around. The problem of the personal commitment needed to use the services has not been tackled. Motivation was taken for granted by software authors. Games, telerotica or a Rupert Murdoch-like entrepreneur (Play Cyber-Bingo and win a Ford Fiesta or later, Bonk Sam Fox in Cyberspace!) may be the best bets to bump-start a mass market. Office gossip and politics are great motivators, but it is just this sort of use that many managers have been keen to stamp out, for reasons mentioned earlier.
Nor should discussions be confined to getting the affluent North alone on-line. In fact, with their traditions of oral storytelling, shamanism and mystic paths to enlightenment, the ‘developing’ nations have a major role to play in the building of cyberspace. Where on-line technology has been put in the hands of indigenous populations, their reactions have been to show an acceptance and comfort using it that would shame many a grizzled old exec. Dave Hughes, a Colorado techno-pioneer, gave a workshop in using the combined text/graphics code naplps to a group of native American artists last year, and found a people who could share his vision and then expand it (High Performance, Spring 1992).
In the hands of the Sioux, Crow, Navajo and Assiniboine artists, naplps had become an algorithm with soul. With it they created bold colourful graphics and sent them to each other down the phone line and stored them in a virtual library. The works recreated stories sketched out in the sand by grandfathers, tales of shamanic flight. Virtual reality had been discovered by indigenous peoples aeons ago. At a time when Future Shock is becoming a permanent state of mind and philosophers grimly ponder how the proliferation of new technology will affect our lives, the Indians are excited by the prospect of reintegrating the cultural values of their ancestors, concluded the article.
It seems we could all use a little reintegration around here. After dividing and differentiating knowledge for hundreds of years – with, let’s not forget, some great achievements – it seems that to go any further it’s imperative we stand back and re-integrate it to give a more encompassing and meaningful model of nature that takes into account the whole of human experience. Such a broad-brush vision painted in cyberspace is not only desirable, it’s crucial.