Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Two Things...

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 17, 1997

Posted to HotWired 18 Dec 97

Two things will propel the internet into common currency: broad bandwidth, and integration into other media.

The need for broad bandwidth is obvious; the speed with which it is approaching less so. But cable modems are coming on-line in many regions; here, in Brandon, Canada, a company called Sky Cable is working on wireless 10mb/s access (both uplink and downlink, so you can *send* multimedia as well as receive). I hope to beta for them early next year.

The move from Wired (sorry guys) to Wireless will result in two major leaps forward: first, net access will be embedded into anything which can support an antenna, including your car. And second, it improves by leaps and bounds the prospect of internet access in lesser developed countries, since all they need are transmission towers.

The problem of access will be met largely by integrating web access into traditional appliances. It doesn't matter how many or few people currently have internet access. More relevant are the figures for numbers of people with telephones, televisions, or even VCRs. These numbers - which vary from the mid 80 percent range to the high 90s, show the likely penetration of the internet into homes over the next decade.

With widespread integration into other appliances, we will see the rise of VEry Specific Applications (VESAs - ha ha): for example, map-on-demand in your car, personal cellular videophone, on-demand television, etc., etc. etc. What we now know as the web will become a small part of the commerce and traffic happening on the internet.

Integration means two key developments: (1) net access will be cheaper, since it will be combined with the cost of accessing other media, instead of added to the top of those costs, and (2) it will be easier, since people will no longer need to use a single, complex device (the computer) to access the net (this is the - as yet undelivered - promise of Web TV).

Negroponte's argument is that developments like this will make the internet ubiquitous. In that, he is almost certainly correct. He also argues that it will lead to world peace. On this, the score is less certain, but it is likely he is correct again.

This will be due to no particular change in human nature. As several posters have already noted, human nature is unlikely to change in the short decades it will take to roll out this new technology (and yes, it will take decades). However, human perception will change dramatically, and that is what will lead to a more peaceful world.

Perception is a volitile thing, changable by even minor changes in body chemistry, alterations in physical environment, or even by preconcieved ideas and beliefs. When Abraham Lincoln was shot, the nation mourned, but it did not go through the instant catharsis it did when John Kennedy's assassination was broadcast nationwide. On a different scale, think of the way the car has changed perceptions. I think of Calgary-to-Edmonton as three hours, for example, not the week it would have taken by horse and buggy. Roadside signs, billboards, Route 66 - all these have changed our perception of the world. Made it smaller. More immediate.

Events half a globe away will have an impact on us only events on the next block used to have. This is already happening. I remember Tiananmen Square very personally even though it occurred acrosss the Pacific Ocean because of the fax transmissions and my conversations with the dissidents. It was not mere image - though, as we have seen through the broadcasts of CNN, those are powerful enough - it was my personal interaction with the participants.

Or more mundane - this morning I got a note from Australia from a user complaining that my software doesn't work. She was right; I wrote a fix and replied to her email. But I also bounced into her website, learned a bit about her, and read her unix guide. She becomes more than a customer or browser - she becomes tangible, a person.

Now - to anticipate a response - it is true that increased connectivity and even personal relations with people around the globe will not by themselves change human nature, will not themselves stop war, end terrorism, or curb violence. Not even with widespread internet access.

What will lead to greater world peace is not my interactions with other people, but rather, my revised understanding of myself. For I - and the five billion other I's - will become a different person as a result of this new technology.

For one thing, I am a lot more powerful than I used to be. I can access more information than any human through the whole of human history. And if i don't understand what I access, I can learn what it means. If it's in a different language, I can have it translated (Alta Vista is now testing language translation) - seeing my website in French rocks!).

Moreover, I am no longer silent. Even only ten years ago, if I wanted to be heard by any number of people, I had to depend on the good graces of the television, radio or print media to express my view. As I knew well then (having read Saul Alinsky's Rulebook for Radicals), that meant being raidcal, extreme, outrageous. Hence I kicked off one campaign by announcing before the assembled press, "Our version of restraint is not bombing the Administration Building." I don't need to do that any more. If I have a compelling story to tell, I know it will be spread the length and breadth of the globe.

Finally, I see myself differently. When I was a child growing up near Montreal, Canada, I saw myself as English only, growing up in a sea of French. Later, as I matured (and my family moved to Ontario) I saw myself as first, foremost and only a Canadian. But today, through my much improved communications with people of like mind and aptitude, I see myself as a member of many communities, as a unix-user, logic-cruncher, education specialist, Taoist - yes, and Canadian, English, and today, Manitoban.

Personal identity on a global scale is going to get a lot more complex, and with this complexity, people will realize that they are and have a lot more than their particular nationality and religion. They will have more to lose, which reduces their liklihood of violence. They will have more friends, same result. And they will have more power, same result.

I would be a fool if I expressed the view that the internet by itself would eliminate all violence, all war, all mayhem. Obviously not. But what the net will do is eliminate many of the factors which lead to such desperate responses, and if we as a species can work toward addressing some of the horrible inequalities which still persist in modern society, we can envision a day when war and violence are as unthinkable as we today regard such things as cannibalism and human sacrifice.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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