Net-setting Our Lives

–MOHAN TAMBE, MD, INNOMEDIA TECHNOLOGIES

Fifteen years ago, the microprocessor era
had just started and nobody could exactly predict how it would change the world. Nobody at
that time visualized anything like Internet swamping the world.

All that the people talked was the High Definition TV,
which is yet to come. Of course, the contemporary computer science elite used LISP, APL,
and SNOBOL languages, all of which finally crumbled before the no nonsense ‘C’. And
whatever happened to the noble pursuits of Artificial Intelligence, Expert Systems, and
Neural Networks-they turned out to be mere pretentious academic stuff.

During the last 15 years, we were supposed
to witness several products and services which haven’t yet got commercialized; such as the
video-phone, voice-recognition, machine translation, 500-channel TV, Digital TV, Josephson
junction, and the pen-computer. While acknowledging that the progress in the last 15 years
has been more than what was achieved in rest of the century, we couldn’t exactly predict
the unfolding future. We now realize that the pace of change is accelerating, making it
even more difficult to predict the next 15 years.

Even big corporations, in spite of
meticulous planning, find it hard to predict their future. All that they do is make a
virtue of whatever accidentally went right, and not talk about what backfired despite
intensive planning. Who knew how IBM would give rise to Microsoft by overlooking
implications of its agreements. How IBM would unwittingly create the de facto standard for
PCs, over which it would ultimately lose control. How a new-born Compaq would subsume the
mighty venerated Digital. If ‘genes’ use the ‘human body’ for self-propagation and
advancement, ‘technology’ uses the ‘corporations’ for the same effect. Ultimately, it is
the survival of the fittest.

Little do people realize that at a
particular time, some underlying technology ingredients give rise to an ’emergent layer’
whose properties are very different and, therefore, cannot be predicted. Such has been the
case when the unicellular life emerged from the chemical broth in the primordial oceans.
Such has been the case when Internet emerged from the underlying computers, connection
protocols, and hypertext technologies. And such will be the case when it behaves as the
primordial ocean to breed new electronic life forms or a new machine consciousness
altogether.

Can We Really Guess?
Nature created sophisticated entities like human beings without any directed intelligence.
Today, in spite of our self-assumed intelligence, we too would be creating more
sophisticated entities in an unwitting manner. Nature abhors vacuum, which gets
immediately filled. As a corollary, technology vacuums would also get filled. Whatever is
possible will eventually happen. We are mere elemental forces in the relentless march of
technology toward an unknown future. The journey is then all that we can look forward to
and relish.

Such is the paradigm that governs
prediction of the next 15 years and the emerging future of the civilization. We can still,
however, make some broad conclusions. The rate of change in the physical world will at
best follow the previous trends. So, we shouldn’t look forward to pothole free roads and
flyovers at each traffic bottleneck. Though we can look forward to rise in pollution,
overflowing garbage, and proliferation in the number of slums. The progress will indeed be
more in pushing up the top-line, rather than in raising the bottomline. Thus we can safely
predict that the political bottomline slogans will coexist with the new info-era slogans.

Possibilities in the physical world are
today stagnating, so the automobile industry will remain essentially unchanged in the next
15 years. In contrast, the Cyber world is in its infancy and would see rapid, mindboggling
growth. Predictions in this case are fraught with problems and tinge on wishful absurd.
What can be safely said, however, is that rapid growth will be for stuff which is
‘software’ and is created through ingenuity rather than a stuff which is ‘hardware’, and
where difficulties are endless-from design to production to marketing. Thus, technologies
would emerge to pipe the most lucid dreams into each home, but won’t actually take-off due
to the affordability problem of the ‘pipe’. However, there is one aspect which we can
forecast with quite certainty-the basic human nature, as it will not change. There would
still be corruption, scandals, and politicking at the surface of tomorrow’s info-era
society. After all, water remains turbulent at the surface of seas, irrespective of the
level of the water column. As today, would people tomorrow learn to live with
inconsistencies in society and their own irrational attitudes?

Convergence Of Technologies
In today’s world, we are caught in a debate on whether TV and PC will merge to form a
common device connected to the information highway. But in reality, identity of both the
devices will remain, and in fact will only get enhanced according to their distinct role
in the society.

TV is essentially a social medium, a
substitute for outdoor experience such as a theater or a stadium. Its value is enhanced in
direct proportion to the number of people watching it together, due to the exchange of
views during a program as well as after it. A TV, therefore, occupies a prominent place in
a living room, with the viewing experience getting enhanced by a larger screen.

In contrast, a PC is essentially a personal
work-tool, best kept on a study table. It is like a book to be studied at close quarters
by an individual, without others looking over the shoulders. The PC requires undivided
attention and an alert mind. Indeed, PCs will be increasingly used in future to allow
‘knowledge-workers’ to operate from their homes. So, while TV is for ‘heart’, a PC is for
‘mind’. There is no conflict between the two, with both deserving their distinct places.

The Internet has brought the whole world to
the desktop PC, unleashing immense possibilities. The Net is like roaming around the
streets of a city and being able to visit every shop or house over there. Very soon, one
would realize the opportunity cost. After all, how many people can make a living by just
wandering around the roads. At such a time, one would restrict visit to only those places
which can be of some help in one’s pursuits. One will have to learn the art of not getting
distracted by the neon signs of the ads, and entering at the wrong places. In the next 15
years people will become as expert in navigating the cyber roads with purpose, as they do
with city roads.

Major distractions, though, loom large in
the Cyber world. The very people who avoid visiting red light areas in their cities would
find it hard to resist the same in the Cyber world. In fact, these are the only sites
which do successful business on the Net. What can then one predict about the future of
these sites, which have already become pretty vicious. Can one count on legislation
curbing them or people getting sick of them? All one can safely say is that their business
will achieve a steady level in the next 15 years and stay at that. But for now, they are
the prime reason making people buy costly PCs or getting Internet connection. These people
would subsequently discover better usage of Internet.

Mother nature seems to be at work again.
Much like the wild West times, Internet started out as a vast wasteland of unedited and
unverified data. With time, it will develop sophisticated sites and mega-sites: epitome of
civilization. As the Earth carries the visible signs of the human civilization, the Cyber
world will carry the accumulated knowledge of the world (except for the strategic
information buried in corporate offices). Enough tools would get developed for systematic
categorization, indexing, and searching of this vast knowledge base.

Despite all formative problems, Internet
will become the biggest leveler of the global society. People would assume a more cerebral
identity on the Internet, as the attribute which thrives on it is ‘thought’ and not
material wealth. Intellectual properties of individuals would become that of the society
once they are put on the Internet-the copyright laws will face a serious challenge. In a
manner similar to the crumbling of communism in Russia, Internet will dissolve national
boundaries. This would be due to the free flow of information, independent of any
geographic barriers-a precondition to any revolution. During the next 15 years, the
necessity for unfettered commerce on Internet will bring down economic barriers between
countries as well.

Interactive Media
The difference which information highway can bring into each home has been well talked of
in the media for the last 15 years, and would perhaps continue to be talked of during the
next 15 years too. In an era, where everything is possible, the only constraint becomes
one of economics and priorities. The technology for making concrete roads and flyovers has
been around for more than a hundred years, yet major cities, like Bangalore for instance,
still have roads adorned with pot-holes and, flyovers too are conspicuous by their absence
where necessary. Sometimes, even the money is not the problem; it is a problem of a social
system where vested interests and corruption takes centerstage. How do we know that these
very factors will not stymie the information highways?

One very important factor which determines
the rate of spread of any technology in a country is the nature of planning-centralized
v/s decentralized, as exemplified by the telephone and the cable networks. Our telephone
networks have achieved much lesser coverage in the last 100 years compared to the reach of
the cable TV networks in the last 15 years.

Decentralized planning is today allowing
faster spread of pager and cellular services through private operators. Tomorrow, the
progress rate for the infohighways will depend on how the market forces are allowed to
develop while conforming to the necessary standards. We will see dilution in the
government’s role tomorrow for ensuring standards and fair competition.

Another problem with telephone networks as
well as Internet, is their ‘point-to-point’ nature. This makes them quite unsuitable to
reach out to an entire population. In contrast, any of the ‘broadcast media’ such as
newspapers, radio, and TV can reach out to a far larger number of people. The cost of
setting up and running a broadcast media is very small compared to reaching out to a
fraction of the same population with a point-to-point network. Broadcast media, with its
stupendous coverage, is able to attract advertisement and sponsorship revenue, which prove
to be adequate for their sustenance without critical dependence on subscription revenues.
Fifteen years from now, the broadcast media would have further consolidated its reach as
well as its range of services. We would further see maturing of the long-awaited
Interactive Media.

This media would have a reach similar to
that of broadcast media, with the added advantage of interactivity. It would allow people
to choose the contents of their choice, rather than being passive viewers of pre-decided
contents. There would also be the advantage of the personal nature of the point-to-point
networks. In order to reach into each home and appeal to people at large, the Interactive
Media has to emerge through cable TV. The interactive viewing takes place via a settop box
which sits on top of the TV and fetches its contents via a powerful server, kept at the
cable head-end. The server is kept replenished through satellites. Interactive Media would
change the normal TV channel viewing to menu-based program viewing where the user has the
control. It would, in fact, change the very nature of broadcasting. In the future, a
viewer will be able to see any movie at his will. He will just have to go through an
on-screen catalog of the movies available, and select a movie after seeing its synopsis
and trailer. After that he can book a movie to be shown at one of the available
time-slots, while agreeing to pay some nominal rates. In a cable network, in this manner,
at a point-in-time, hundreds of people can watch the movie of their choice. In a similar
way, people can select the music of their choice. This way, nobody will really require to
buy audio or video cassettes.

Even the transactions will take place from
home. A departmental store experience can be completely replicated through interactive TV
shopping, where one can examine various goods and place the orders. These will then get
delivered at home. The charges incurred would get added to the monthly bill payable to the
cable operator, depending on the credit available. Of course, the actual shopping
experience can’t be replaced for those goods which need demonstration or where one has to
touch, taste, or smell to get the feel of the product.

Most of us shudder to think about the level
of congestion in streets in future, when they are already so congested. Luckily, the
interactive transactions possible through homes would help in reducing the street traffic.
Interactive TV will also make polls or surveys in any geographic region easy. People will
just have to indicate their choices in a questionnaire displayed on their interactive TV,
and after sometime the results would be known. With the ubiquity of interactive TV and its
accessibility to everyone, a new phenomenon will emerge i.e. governance by people. Why do
people need elected representatives to govern on their behalf (especially since they
mostly mis-represent us) when they themselves can vote on any national issue? Of course,
this would be problematic if suitable weightage is not given to the competence of the
voter in the concerned area.

Human Mind—The Limiting Factor
People these days, are bombarded with excessive information through email, TV, newspaper,
and Internet. Human mind has a finite capacity and this information inundation leads to
very poor retention and a ‘scatter-minded’ behavior. Fifteen years from now, the limiting
factor won’t be the machine but the human mind. Can its reaction time, learning time,
memorizing, and recalling capacity be improved? As the competitive pressure increases, the
preference will be for people who have a sharper brain.

The issue is not of the raw capacity of the
brain, but the way it gets trained up from childhood for better performance. Recently, an
American Senate announced generous funding for initiating research on effective learning
techniques. This has been a sequel to the problems emerging in various organizations of
people not being able to cope up with the amount of information they have to mull over
each day.

In 15 years time, we will see the fruits of
this research which will allow people to work more effectively in face of information
inundation. The computer-aided training programs, through Internet and TVs, will be
perfected. These will allow kids to learn at their own pace while retaining their
interest. A teacher’s role will not get diluted; he would now be able to give more
personalized attention to each student. Students in future will be better off, with
essential information about the world well structured in their brains.

Computer programming skills will become an
essential part of every child’s curriculum. This will be more project oriented, so that a
child can develop confidence by creating something useful. The major aim of this would not
be creating computer professionals, but allowing the child to develop ‘analytical
reasoning’ on his own. A child would discover that the machine doesn’t forgive errors and
proper results would be achieved only when the logic is right. Long hours spent in
debugging programs would convince him that there are always tangible reasons behind
seemingly mysterious behavior of programs. The exercise would help him to imbibe a
rational attitude. He would understand that superstitions arise only where things are
misunderstood, the reasons may turn out to be trivial once wrong assumptions get
corrected. To aid the productivity of the child, touch-typing on the computer keyboard
will be taught as an essential skill.

In contrast to informative programs, the
entertaining programs are quite relaxing to human mind. This is primarily as the these
programs have very little new knowledge, and mostly have permutations of the known facts.
Thus entertaining programs serve to refresh and consolidate the earlier knowledge. This
way they are sought out by the unconscious, and can become very tempting (like some of the
TV channels become so hard to resist). Tomorrow, we will be able to select quality
entertainment programs from a list displayed on the TV-no longer do we hop through the TV
channels mindlessly. With so many quality entertaining options, switching off the TV may
become even more difficult.

The most precious territory tomorrow will
be a place in customer’s attention, with all the advertising and marketing companies
competing for it. The need will be even greater tomorrow for using some filter programs
for controlling the information inputs. Thus an Interactive News bulletin on a TV can give
news customized to an individual’s taste. However, these filters cannot be effective on
their own; people will have to exercise self-discipline and desist from seeking
unnecessary information. This will have to be taught from the childhood itself.

With the Internet serving as repository of
all the ‘known knowledge’ in the world and being readily accessible, the human brain can
be saved from the drudgery of storing rote knowledge. The Net would serve as an extension
to the storage capacity of the human mind, making people over-dependent on it. Although it
will be accessible to people on the move through a constellation of global satellites, the
problem may still be of the delays due to congestion in information traffic.

For quick accessibility, without a
possibility of congestion, (as in Internet) personal info gadgets will get developed,
which will be a superior form of today’s digital diary. Thus, it would be possible for a
person to search his electronic info-base for the name of the person approaching him,
allowing him to greet just in time without giving away any visible clue of his frantic
search. This info-on-the-move, without engaging anyone’s hands, would be possible with a
miniature display device, mounted on your specs, with the input coming from sensors which
pick up signals from some of the nerve endings, say on your shoulder. The info-device can
also pick up info from the constellation of Internet satellites surrounding the earth. The
implications are enormous. The human brain will be primarily concentrating on pattern
matching and decision making, with rich inputs coming from the ‘electronic sense’ in
addition to the other senses.

Whither Culture
Fifteen years from now the biggest leveler of culture would be the cable TV. This doesn’t
mean that the Indian culture would wither away, but that it would be adapted and blended
with some of the accepted forms of other cultures. Small countries such as Bhutan have
tried to preserve their culture by banning TV reception outright. Many other countries
have put strict regulations on the satellite channels. These regulations would, however,
crumble during the next 15 years affecting the culture and the practices in that country.

In spite of the cultural invasion brought
about by satellite TV, the habits based on touch, smell, and taste would largely remain
unchanged. So, the culinary habits would persist. In the conceivable future, we cannot
dream of the electronic media invading the senses of touch, smell, and taste.

The destiny of the languages would be
irreversibly changed by Internet and TV. Internet would encourage proficiency in reading
and writing of English. The vernacular medium wouldn’t work for the global community just
as it hasn’t for magazines and newspapers. Indian languages would get used where
appropriate, mostly for archival of ancient heritage. The ISCII code (also embedded in the
UNICODE) would allow transliteration of the Indian language documents to any script,
including the Roman script with diacritic marks. Indian users will feel comfortable only
in using English for their emails, in spite of the availability of Indian language tools.

School children in cities too will continue
to appreciate TV programs in English, Hindi, or their native language. They, however, will
not have much command over spoken Indian languages and much lesser on their written form,
since this would in no way impair their lifestyle. This trend will change the tilt of the
TV programs toward English. Dubbing and subtitling in Indian languages will be actively
used to allow comprehension in all parts of the country.

Would the windows to the Cyber world keep
people from going outdoors into the real-world? Too much fascination with Cyber world
would create psychological disorders, as are indeed being noticed by some researchers
today. Where people end up ignoring their real life responsibilities. Ultimately, however,
every one will rediscover that ‘man is the measure’. They would then yearn for going out
to the nature and discovering the same satisfaction which their predecessors had and what
nature had designed them for. Developing a balanced attitude toward cyber and real world
will become a priority tomorrow.

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