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Communication

What distinguishes the Internet (and other global networks) from traditional communication technologies is the level of interaction and the speed at which users can broadcast their messages. No other medium gives every participant the capability to communicate instantly with thousands and thousands of people. Consider this: it is possible for you, on your very first net-surfing expedition, to send a message containing your thoughts to several thousand people. What other communication medium gives you that power? Instantaneously? Without prior editing?

The Internet certainly has people talking; everyone has an opinion, and all opinions seem to end up on the Internet. The Internet functions as an ongoing consumer report, with people continuously offering up views, experiences, recommendations, and warnings. You can use the Internet's communication applications (explained in Chapter 3) to ask for help from thousands of people, broadcast an announcement of an event or a new service, offer your analysis of a situation, or just muse in an interest group. The Internet is a perfect tool for alerting and assembling large numbers of people electronically. Information relating to a certain event can be transmitted immediately, making it a very effective rousing device. Plenty of forums exist for this very purpose—announcing late-breaking bulletins about an event or sparking a debate about the most recent controversies.

Now, this online free-for-all doesn't come without a few "netiquette" rules. As in any social situation, there is an accepted mode of behavior, and you will do well to make note of it before diving in and instantly distinguishing yourself as a barbarian. Chapter 3 contains a must-read guide to some well-known network conduct codes.


SatelLife

Physicians in Africa are practicing medicine and dealing with some of this century's most serious medical challenges in the midst of staggering "information poverty." In the mid-80s, the problem caught the attention of Dr. Bernard Lown, founder of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, who felt the high frontier of space should be used for humanitarian rather than military purposes. He started SatelLife, a non-profit organization committed to promoting health in the developing world by providing improved communication and exchange of information. SatelLife's HealthNet is a computer network linking medical centers in the Southern Hemisphere in much of the developing world with an initial focus on Africa. Using two microsatellites—HealthSat I & II—simple ground stations, and dial-up in-country networks, HealthNet enables physicians and healthcare workers in rural as well as urban areas to communicate via electronic mail as well as reach data bases at research centers in the industrialized world via remote access.

For example, a physician treating a patient with cerebral malaria in Zambia, Africa, where it remains a deadly malady, could better treat his patient by communicating with physicians and researchers in other African countries as well as with colleagues in other parts of the world. Through HealthNet News, he can receive abstracts, summaries, and full-text articles selected from a variety of leading medical journals throughout the world or an update from any of the leading malaria research centers in Africa. A leading medical journal may cost more than the annual salary of many physicians, and even communication by fax or telephone is beyond the reach of most health professionals in Africa. Using the HealthNet system, a physician like the one in Zambia can ask colleagues about recent developments in prevention, diagnosis, or treatment. He might use the system to query nearby hospitals about availability of medicine.

Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, SatelLife has received major corporate support for HealthSat I & II from NEC Corp. in Japan. There are now HealthNets in sixteen countries in Africa, and four countries in the Americas, and expansion into Asia will begin by 1994. All HealthNets connect to the Internet through a gateway maintained by the Telemedicine Center at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada.

Based on an interview with Charles Clements, M.D., Executive Director of SatelLife.


Information

President Bill Clinton said in May of 1993: "We are moving very rapidly in all forms of production and services to a knowledge-based economy in which what you earn depends on what you can learn. Not only what you know today, but what you are capable of learning tomorrow." What you can learn depends on the information resources to which you have immediate access. The people who will succeed in today's and tomorrow's world will be those who can effectively use the resources and tools available to them. The Internet is there to help you.

There is an ever-growing number of valuable information resources being made available via the Internet. These include free and public archives, library catalogs, government services, and commercial databases. The Internet is liquid, changing every second; as news rains down, differing views, reports, and opinions irrigate archives and forums. Powerful search tools, with names like Gopher, WorldWideWeb, and WAIS (all explained in Chapter 4), can help you find and bring home these resources.

These digital devices give you the power to bypass the middle-man on your way to the source. It's not good enough anymore to turn on the 24-hour news service on your radio or TV and wait for the local weather forecast. On the Internet, you can check the latest weather and order goods and services online when you need them. For example, you can browse online real estate guides looking for properties thousands of miles away instead of first going to a realtor. You can form your own opinion based on the sources, not the summaries. The Internet can help you make intelligent choices. However, be aware that no network will show you the best path; it's up to you to compile and analyze what's available, and then make the intelligent decision.

Virtual Communities

The Internet excels in bringing people closer together. Since geography is no longer a delimiter, people from different countries and varied backgrounds are able to join together according to common interests and projects. The Internet is responsible for an untold number of associations between people and groups; this kind of interaction on such a wide scale without a computer network is impossible.

The concept of digital colonies and online civilizations is fairly new, yet it is quickly becoming a way of life for many Internet travelers. In this hectic world of two-income households and work-study lifestyles, building communities of interest within a school, neighborhood, or city is difficult. The problems with "reality-space" communities include lack of local involvement, geography, and inflexible schedules. The Internet transcends these barriers. It's a lot easier to join an ongoing discussion with people who share a common interest when you are available, no matter where you are.

For example, a group of busy, young professionals and students in Seattle, Washington, take advantage of the Internet's flexibility by using an email list to alert everyone to volleyball games, ski trips, and nights out on the town. They also check ski and weather reports on the Internet, and participate in online volleyball and skiing interest groups. Several of them travel, but they keep up with local happenings by accessing the Internet and reading their email on the road. This group could not be as organized without the Internet; at least one dedicated friend would be needed to call everyone and coordinate activities. No one in this group has time to play cruise director. The Internet for them has become a necessary social tool.

Internet "netizens" have circled their computers around virtual campsites, communing and cultivating friendships. Because it's so simple to join or leave a group, your own virtual village may change on a daily or hourly basis. You are a native to your own web, your own cyber-sphere of influence, but it is easy to be a tourist, visiting and interacting in other communities. Beaming yourself around incognito is also possible; you can become a digital cyborg, assuming other personalities. As a well-known cartoon proclaimed in 1993, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog."

PEELING BACK THE LAYERS: DIFFERENCES BETWEEN NETWORKS

People have to make many conceptual leaps in order to understand computer networking. Trying to understand the differences between the Internet and other online services and networks is just one of them. It's especially difficult if you've had experience with one but not the others. There are literally thousands of different "networks" that you can access. Some of them have been around for almost twenty years. What makes the Internet different from all the others? Companies like Prodigy and CompuServe are not really networks in the sense that the Internet is; they're commercial providers of information services. To get access, you call up the company, provide your credit card number, and set up an account. You can then use your computer and modem to dial a local or 800 number and get access to the service. The services are documented, support is available, and the pricing structure for usage and access is well defined. Each of these services is owned, controlled, and run by a business.

Not so with the Internet. Remember, it's a network of networks, a transport service, an information highway, not, as a whole, a commercial information service. It's a distributed, anarchic system, and much larger in terms of people and diversity of services than all the commercial information systems put together. Support, quality, and pricing for Internet connectivity and services are not regulated or defined throughout. The on-ramps are numerous; there are many ways to get access from local, national, and international Internet transport providers or from dial-up commercial access systems.

This flexibility has advantages and disadvantages. In most cases you're not limited to one solution. If you don't like one Internet provider's service, you can easily get access to the Internet another way. This can be frustrating, though, because there are so many choices in providers that sometimes it's difficult to make a decision.

Another difference to keep in mind is the diversity of services you get on the Internet. For example, to provide an information service through a commercial information provider, a person or organization most likely has to get permission and make special arrangements with the company that owns the service. The Internet, on the other hand, doesn't have a controlling organization that denies or approves involvement. As a result, individuals and companies are making new resources available every day. In fact, many of the commercial databases you might access through a commercial information service have already made (or are planning to make) direct connections to the Internet. The Internet is basically providing the highway connections for you to get to these services. (Be aware, though, that you may still need to set up an account with each commercial database provider to use them.)

CONVERGENCE: A TRAFFIC CIRCLE ON THE INFORMATION HIGHWAY

The Internet is providing the common ground for information service providers to do business. It's also blurring the lines between what used to be separate and distinct applications.

On May 23, 1993, a historic moment occurred when a cult movie entitled Wax: Or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees was broadcast over the Internet to a small worldwide audience who watched and listened to it live on their computers. The video was fuzzy and in black and white, and the audio sputtered in and out, but this digital moonwalk marked another small, yet significant, step toward the much-heralded convergence of audio, video, and data. The movie was about a beekeeper who ends up being kept by the bees, and perhaps this is poetic justice, as today many Internauts are held captive by the digital bits buzzing through wires and telephone lines.

To understand what this convergence craze is all about, let's back up a bit and consider the different types of communication. Most televisions and telephones transmit information (your voice, the evening news, and so on) using an analog signal; that means the information is represented by a continuous signal of varying strength.

Computers, on the other hand, work with binary digits, or bits. A bit is simply a 1 or a 0. That's it. Computer, or digital, information is simply represented by patterns of these ones and zeros. By digitizing communication—representing everything in ones and zeros—computers can deal with multimedia and data in the same way. Furthermore, if computers are connected to a network of some kind, they can enable interactive digital audio and video communication between people. Your computer can become an all-purpose communications appliance that combines the functions of a telephone and TV, and also lets you use applications like a word processor or electronic mail program.

Digitizing multimedia technologies has the communications, broadcasting, and publishing industries all aflutter and ushers in the chaotic days of convergence mania. The traditional roles of the telephone, television network, and cable companies with which we're so familiar are rapidly ceasing to exist, and ultimately, all of these companies will be in the same business, either providing the contentent—entertainment, interactive communication, and information services—or access to these. The broadcast and entertainment industries have only just begun warming up by advertising possible new interactive services, while communication companies consider new alliances and mergers. The publishing industry is also repositioning itself.

And through it all, the Internet has been a testing ground, in a sense amalgamating everything in its path by bringing technologies together and letting them play in a digital sandbox. The Internet may not be providing 500 TV channels, but it is possible today to participate in interactive video and audio conferencing from your computer, and to share the same "whiteboard" for illustrations and notes. You can listen to Internet radio shows while simultaneously downloading software. You can read online articles or books with hyperhooks that "mind-bind" you on-demand to text, video clips, still images, and audio. All of these applications have only recently been made available, but they're rapidly becoming more popular, and are making up a significant percentage of the traffic and use on the Internet. Unfortunately, many of these applications demand powerful workstations and a high-speed connection to the Internet—requirements beyond what most people by themselves can meet. So if you want to see the future, go to a university or a research lab. But it's important to know that these things are possible, because it probably won't be long before you can participate.

MRS. SMITH CONNECTS TO WASHINGTON

The merging of communications media, the popularity of the Internet, and the convergence of information technologies have gotten the attention of the U.S. government, and have made everyone take a step back to review regulations. In the United States, regulations apply to each communications industry separately, based on the information or entertainment that is broadcast (TV and cable), or on the type of interactive communication (telephones). However, since digital bits can represent voice, video, and data, and since all bits are created equal, redefining policies to standardize or eliminate regulations altogether in order to level the playing field and promote competition is the next step.


The Big Crunch

"I'm reminded of an idea of Stephen Hawking, the British physicist. . . . Hawking has speculated about a distant future when the universe stops expanding and begins to contract. Eventually all matter comes colliding together in a "Big Crunch," which scientists say could then be followed by another "Big Bang"—a universe expanding outward once again.

"Our current information industries—cable, local telephone, long-distance telephone, television, film, computers, and others—seem headed for a Big Crunch/Big Bang of their own. The space between these diverse functions is rapidly shrinking—between computers and television, for example, or interactive communications and video."

From a speech given by Vice President Al Gore on January 11, 1994, at Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles, California.


Noting the convergence trends, the incredible success of the Internet, and the future of interactive multimedia communication, U.S. Vice President Al Gore has called for the formation of the National Information Infrastructure, the NII. The NII will connect more than just computers; it will also link televisions, telephones, and, most likely, "appliances" that combine all three technologies. Many countries' governments are starting to follow the lead of the United States.

Vice President Gore's involvement in the NII is not by chance; he has been an enthusiastic supporter of a national information highway for many years. Most notably, his High Performance Computing and Communications (HPCC) legislation was passed into law in December 1991, while he was a senator representing the state of Tennessee. The HPCC Act defines several components, including providing all researchers with access to powerful supercomputer resources and valuable information services, and coordinating and combining several federal agencies' individual networking efforts into one high-capacity, high-speed network known as the National Research and Education Network (NREN). The NREN exists today as more of a concept or vision than a physical network; its purpose is to extend the Internet beyond universities to primary and secondary schools and to libraries. The NREN vision still exists, but has been adopted into the goals of the NII. Vice President Gore has challenged businesses and organizations to connect schools and libraries in order to provide access to information and interactive communication facilities by the year 2000.

While the Clinton/Gore administration further defines the national information highway and the role government should take, it's using the Internet to disseminate major initiatives and press releases, and to receive electronic mail comments. In many countries, governments are the largest producers and users of information, so it makes sense for them to review the latest information technologies. Many people believe that broad access to government information is a right—not a privilege—and that tax-supported projects that produce information should warrant its free electronic availability. In the United States, for example, an increasing number of agencies are beginning to make public archives accessible over the Internet. Today you can obtain the latest White House press releases, as well as the text of speeches made by the president and vice president. The White House has also made itself more accessible to government watchdogs by establishing a presidential email box (president@whitehouse.gov).

Chapter 1 Business Use Copyright © 1994 by Tracy LaQuey and Editorial Inc.


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