On the fast lane of the information superhighway....
The recent interest in the Clinton/Gore information superhighway is encouraging for computer and telecommunications professionals. We are about to enter the next computer revolution, and that revolution will be built around the concept of a digital common carrier. However, it will serve us well to reflect on technologies past lest we duplicate earlier mistakes.
The worst mistake that we can make is to pay too much attention to the technology issues and neglect the content issues. The very term "information highway" suggests that we are preoccupied with the technology. Little discussion has been given to what or who will travel along this highway and, to extend the metaphor, whether there will be adequate rest areas and services. Add to that a growing concern that the policy issues are being resolved at the political rather than social and technological level, and there are genuine causes for alarm.
There is a striking parallel with the evolution of radio technology. The original work by Marconi, de Forest and, most importantly, Armstrong became ensconced in legal, economic and political turmoil which worked against the exploitation of the technology. This delayed the commercialization of FM radio and television by decades (of course, WWII played a role as well). Through all of the courtroom dramas and the political deals struck in smoke-filled rooms the issue of information content rarely came up. As Yogi Berra once said, "this is deja vu all over again".
I want to draw some parallels between radio and television on the one hand and our information superhighway on the other. First, and foremost, the social value of both is derived from the fact that both are distribution technologies which yielded considerably more compression than their predecessors. What radio did that the print media could not is get more information into a unit of information-consumption time. What used to be read in ten seconds could be heard in 3. Where one could only read one persons' writing at a time, one could hear and understand many voices simultaneously. The gist of it is that more information was condensed into a time interval. Television went beyond radio just as radio went beyond print. The fact that these were electronic technologies offered two yet additional advantages: (1) the information could be sent anywhere without the physical displacement of objects, and (2) the information was moved to the consumers rather than the other way around (as in motion pictures).
The early forms of the information superhighway were built on the model of radio and television. People sat in their homes or offices and consumed the information coming into their terminals and workstations. Initially, the acquisition process was passive, much as with radio and tv. One connected to bulletin boards and digital "stuff" was sent. If the material was good, it was consumed, else discarded. The "delete" key was the digital equivalent of the tuning knob. This was the 1970's. Life was simpler at 110 baud.
Now we're in the fast lane. The bread-and-butter T3 network trunks carry 50 million bits of information per second. The big-ticket trunks carry several billion bits per second. But the speed of data transmission is not the most important aspect. Far more important is the fact that the greater bandwidth of the digital carriers support what I will call "digital participation." Not only can the information consumer receive information, he can actually participate in the creation. The participatory nature of the modern digital information infrastructure will be the foundation of the next computer revolution. This revolution will make it possible to digitally leave our living rooms and offices and join the information producers on stage.
The key is interactivity, and that concept makes the digital common carrier an ideal unifying technology. In the 1960's we digitized the transmission of text. In the 1970's we digitized the transmission of still-frame photos. In the 1980's we digitized the transmission of sound. In recent years we digitized the transmission of animation with sound from a variety of digital and analog sources (multimedia transmission). Within the decade, we will digitize the transmission of force (e.g. through the popular forced-feedback data glove). Simulated 3-D vision is a staple of nearly every university research lab. Soon to follow will be digitized smell. But, and this is the most important thing, at the moment this information is being transmitted one-way just as in the case of radio and television. When it becomes two-way, we will be in the next, and most important, phase of the computer revolution. In this phase, we will all interact with the digital information source and be a part of the information creation.
If this sounds too futuristic, consider for a moment that 3-d virtual reality has already made it to the shopping malls. The underlying concepts were cutting edge in the computer science and engineering labs only a decade ago. These traveling road shows are complete with 1980's data helmets, motion sensors, and holography and they show very well indeed. In the late 1980's the leading labs added the forced-feedback data gloves, the data suits and began to add holographic projection. Look for this in your mall in 3-5 years.
In closing, let me try to tie this all together with the information superhighway. First, if we attempt to harness the technology through government-directed technology policy, we may likely repeat the problems we experienced with radio and television. The technology will evolve too little too late, and some of the major technology opportunities will be lost. The classic example of this is the politically and economically motivated extension of AM radio thirty years beyond its useful life cycle.
Second, we must remember that as of this writing, only one lane of traffic on the information superhighway is open. Current advances will pale in comparison with the results we get when the superhighway is completed and information exchange becomes fully cooperative and participatory.
Third, the current multimedia offerings provide us with a window into the future. In 1994, multimedia material will continue to saturate the networks. Today, workstations and PC's can be equipped with multimedia client-server browsers (e.g., Mosaic), sound cards, and video accelerators for a few hundred dollars. With the interest in multimedia program material being fueled by the cd-rom industry and the low entry-level cost, the use of multimedia material on the networks will grow exponentially. This uni-directional multimedia information flow will soon give way to bi-directional, multisensory, participatory communication, and that will inaugurate the next phase of the computer revolution.
Finally, let me predict the next round of litigation: control of the "box." The two legal milestones in the evolution of the information superhighway were the break-up of AT&T in 1984 and the lifting of many of the restrictions on Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOC's) in 1991. The result has been upheaval in the cable and telephone industry. New alliances are struck continuously between businesses in both industries as everyone competes for the control of your tv box. The next wave of legal disputes will involve that small box atop your television, for it will soon serve as the conduit between your family and the information resources which it needs.
The big challenge for all of us will be to stay on the information superhighway without getting run over.