Digital Fables and Foibles 17

The Call of the Modem

If you were to hire household staff to cook, clean, drive, stoke the fire, and answer the door, can you imagine suggesting that they not talk to each other, not see what each other is doing, not coordinate their functions?

By contrast, when these functions are embodied in machines, we are perfectly prepared to isolate each function and allow it to stand alone. Right now, a vacuum cleaner, an automobile, a doorbell, a refrigerator, and a heating system are closed, special-purpose systems whose designers made no effort to have them intercommunicate. The closest we get to coordinated behavior in appliances is embedding digital clocks in a large number of them. We try to synchronize some functions with digital time but for the most part end up with a collection of whimpering machines, whose flashing 12:00 is like a small cry to "please make me just a little bit more intelligent."

Machines need to talk easily to one another in order to better serve people.

Being digital changes the character of the standards for machine-to-machine communications. People used to sit around tables in Geneva and other such places to hammer out (a telling metaphor from the industrial age) world standards for everything from spectrum allocation to telecommunications protocols. Sometimes this takes so long, as in the case of the telephone standard ISDN (integrated services digital network), that it is obsolete by the time it is agreed upon.

The operating assumption and mind-set of standards committees has been that electrical signals are like screw threads. For nuts and bolts to work from country to country, we have to agree upon every critical dimension, not just some of them. If you had the right number of threads per inch or centimeter, the match of nut and bolt would still not work if the diameter was wrong. The mechanical world is very demanding that way.

Bits are more forgiving. They lend themselves to higher-order descriptions and protocols* (a term previously reserved for polite society). Protocols can be very specific about how two machines handshake. The term handshaking is the technical term for how two machines establish communications, deciding upon variables to be used in their conversation(s).

Just listen to your fax or data modem next time you use it. All that staticky-sounding noise and the beeps are literally the handshaking process. These mating calls are negotiations to find the highest terrain from which they can trade bits, with the greatest common denominator of all variables.

At a yet higher level, we can think of protocol as meta-standards, or languages to be used to negotiate more detailed bit-swapping methods. In multilingual Switzerland the equivalent is being single and riding on a T-bar ski lift with a stranger: the first thing you negotiate with your T-bar partner (if you talk at all) is what language to speak. TVs and toasters will ask each other the same kind of question as a precursor to doing business.

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Updated on May 14, 1996