In The New Age of Communications, author John Green outlines how computers and the World Wide Web are revolutionizing our lives in the new global community.
Originally published in 1997, Green covers the history of computers to how wired the world has become, to the nature of the Internet and the potential power of artificial intelligence.
A Scientific American Focus book.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
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About the Author
John Green is a freelance writer specializing in computer technology and education. He has also learned about the merging of communications technologies through his experience as a software, video, and multimedia producer. He lives in New London, Connecticut.
Paul A. Gilster is the best-selling author of numerous books, including The New Internet Navigator. He has been technology columnist for newspapers and magazines and is the former head of the Internet Association of the Carolinas.
John Green is a freelance writer specializing in computer technology and education. He has also learned about the merging of communications technologies through his experience as a software, video, and multimedia producer. His books include The New Age of Communications. He lives in New London, Connecticut.
Read an Excerpt
The New Age of Communications
By John O. Green
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1997 John O. Green
All rights reserved.
Scenarios with a Metabook Anyone, Anything, Anytime, Anywhere
Somewhere toward the end of the first decade of the next millennium, you'll be carrying around a small object about the size and weight of an appointment book — sometimes referred to as an omnibook, or metabook, or just "my book." When you open it, a screen unfolds that can display text, photography, and graphic design of a quality found in a "coffee table" book of our era. Small speakers produce sound and music that is crisp, clear, and high fidelity. Video looks and plays like film. Yours has a tiny video camera always aimed at your face as you look at the screen.
What you have access to, whether you are plugged in at your desk, sitting in your car, or walking in city or countryside, is astonishing, but you pretty much take it for granted as part of the fabric of daily life. It's a gateway through which you can reach anyone, anything, anytime, anywhere. All your friends, colleagues, and family and anyone else on the planet — either directly or through their messaging systems. Because of the clarity and a certain three-dimensional quality of the video and the sound, you almost feel that the person is present. Lovers actually do reach out toward each other and even touch the screen as they whisper the age-old terms of endearment.
If you're working on a project, or you simply have a particular interest you want to explore, you can also access all text, graphics, art, music, film, and video ever created in all of human history, as well as the wide variety of new media materials being created every day.
Although it sounds daunting to be "wired" to everyone and everything, you seldom think about it — no more than people of the late twentieth century felt in awe of the fact that they could place a phone call to any one of millions of people all over the planet.
One reason for your equanimity is that you have a software program, sometimes referred to as an "intelligent agent." You have been training your agent for years in the way you do things: your tastes, needs, preferences, and priorities. It also monitors everything you do and where you go on the Net and learns more.
In the morning when you click, touch, or ask for your account, the agent has collected a variety of world news headlines that anyone might see, the Big News, as well as headlines on new developments in stories or topics you flagged anywhere from a day or two ago to months ago. Touching or clicking on the head takes you to a brief synopsis. If you have time and want to go deeper, you can choose from two or three levels, each containing more detail than the last, as well as optional sound and video materials, including location shots and interview clips. At the deepest level you can access any and all of the full sources, such as the complete interview with a person who especially interests you, or all footage of a particular event or location, and a wide and deep range of related background text and other media sources. If you feel so inclined, you can instantly fire off a text, voice, or video message that may be viewed by the person you've been viewing and will definitely be viewed by his or her "agent."
You also have primed your agent with names of your favorite newscasters, journalists, commentators, and pundits, and the story defaults to their bylines and presentations. You can instantly mark any materials: text, video, or sound that you think you might want to return to — your agent knows exactly how and where to index these for you. If you're interrupted, the agent automatically marks your place.
Sometimes you come across a cartoon, an important piece of information, an unusual photo that you'd like to share with a friend or colleague. "Send ... this ... with ... voicemail ... to ... Ellen ... Silver." (Your book still has trouble understanding, if you speak normally and slury our words-together. But your agent can recognize almost any single word you say, as well as many common phrases.) Your agent records your message and sends the packet to Ellen. Your agent knows many of your other preferences, right down to the percentage of time you like to see a talking head versus the source materials they're commenting on.
When a favorite film director, multimedia producer, poet, storyteller, singer/songwriter, interactive novelist, composer, or critic releases a new piece of work, your agent can notify you instantly or accumulate the information and hyperlinks for your later perusal.
In addition to the now ancient institution of e-mail, you also have the ability to record and send video mail messages, packet voice mail, or combinations of all three.
Kids and Whimsy
If your children allow you to view some of their to-and-from messages, you're astonished at the virtuosity they show. They're peppered with sound effects, zany clip art and photography, animations, and whimsical writing. Simple digital tools for editing, changing, and manipulating media give everyone the ability to work quickly with sound, text, music, voice, video, art, photography, and graphics. Children who have been using these tools since they learned to read and write are astonishingly fluent with them. Both kids and adults collect over the years vast personal catalogs and source locators of their favorite writings and multimedia materials — all quickly accessible via intelligent agent.
A whole cultural phenomenon has sprung up around the art of multimedia signatures. Many people like to have a piece of music fade up at the end of their mail. People with the time and ability create their own. Others have even worked with a composer on-line to develop a personal theme. Musical signatures vary widely, from a piece of fiddle and banjo music to a blues riff to a grand orchestral flourish. Most people have a variety of musical motifs to be used according to the formality or informality of the piece of correspondence. Sometimes you send a voice mail message with music and a head shot of you or a landscape "beauty shot" or a montage of scenes from your recent mule pack trip in the Sierras. Or your very slick personal animated logo.
Over the years you've also tailored your interface with the computer to what's convenient to you. Depending on the situation, you turn on the touch-sensitive feature on your screen and point and drag with your finger or use mouse, track ball, voice commands, keyboards, and other pointing devices, alone and in combination.
All your work, play, and communications are accessible through file servers from wherever you happen to be, although many metabooks have an astonishing amount of onboard memory and processing power.
The machine has changed the business world in interesting, unexpected ways.
There's a strong difference from company to company in how the ubiquity of video and multimedia affect the culture of meetings. All corporations still employ meetings in the flesh for ceremonial occasions, extremely crucial decisions, meetings of the board, and those occasions where "pressing the flesh," buttonholing, working the room, or just the intimacy of one on one are called for.
But the video meeting is fully rooted in the day-to-day function of work groups and project teams. Younger and older workers who have put in some thought and time in video communications workshops make good use of the medium.
People can tape themselves making a comment short or long, edit the piece, and correct the color and lighting. Some are more sensitive than others to issues of how they look and how convincing their "telepresence" is. (The quality of early video conferencing technologies were abominable, and many old-timers got turned off to it. But the new camera and screen technologies, the corrective software, the three-dimensional quality, and the dynamism of the protocols have made it a new ball game.)
For work groups who are separated in space (so many are now), video conferencing is a boon, and even people in the same building use it for ad hoc get togethers, short reports, quick questions, and consensus decisions. All video conferences can be digitally recorded, and some offices have it done automatically, unless someone opts to turn the record feature off.
Some work groups and extremely informal companies, like ad agencies, opt for a video conferencing package that is, well, quite special. Their video meetings have a very dynamic character. The screen frame of the person who is speaking increases in size while he or she talks. People who want to speak have a light or "hand-raised" icon by their frames. If someone interrupts, his frame begins to swell, while the interruptee's shrinks. This can go back and forth while the exchange takes place, until the new speaker is established. If someone who's been interrupted is dying to reply but is "holding his tongue," his screen pulses indicate variable levels of impatience.
At the ad agency, if you have a problem with what someone's saying, you can draw a diagonal red stripe across his face, or morph (blend) it with the head of a rhinoceros, orangutan, or a particularly pedantic U.S. Senator — whatever you have on hand in your "mockery" file. Naturally, these meetings can get quite lively and can even get out of hand. There are sometimes meetings about the meetings. One night, late, the creative director strips the software from everyone's system except hers. But a graphic designer serendipitously has made a copy and has it back up for everyone next week, when things have cooled down.
Needless to say, very few banks or insurance companies use this sort of volatile and rude conferencing software, although some of the dynamic possibilities of new video conferencing make a restrained appearance.
New Media Arts
Recently, the whole world — or so it seems — has been buzzing about an extraordinary multimedia composition by a young media wizard who first started playing with multimedia on her parents' AV Mac in 1995 when she was only three years old.
The whole piece is only 42 minutes long, but it's had an extraordinary affect on people. It premiered to a large audience before she put it on-line. At points in the composition the whole audience or the individual can interact with the piece. A storm of controversy has built up around it. In fact, at the premiere some people walked out, most were cheering, some were in tears, and others argued tensely in groups.
The controversy is over a new technology developed by the composer with her friends and collaborators that has enabled her to take old video and sound of people dead or living and construct completely new, utterly lifelike scenes — that never happened.
In one scene a deceased president, a notorious terrorist, and the composer's dead parents meet beside a river and sing a song together. The ability to construct such a scene is the culmination of a technology first hinted at in a film from the 1990s called Forest Gump in which the lead character shares the stage with famous figures of the recent past.
Only this is so lifelike. There is no way to tell that the people are not real, or that the event or scene is a complete fabrication. Some critics are outraged and call the scenes monstrous and ghoulish. Others focus on the whole piece for its undisputed beauty and power. Millions, even those disturbed by parts of it, have favorite scenes they play over many times.
Others are worrying publicly about this technology getting into the hands of criminals, blackmailers, con artists, and the like — even though the composer explains that the scenes took hundreds of hours to appear lifelike.
In another startling and disturbing part of the piece, you glimpse yourself among the passengers on an airliner just before it crashes.
And at the end — the last 4½ minutes — you revisit characters you chose to follow, images you'd responded to earlier, and music that captured you. It's all reprised in a finale that has unlimited variations, according to how you participate — and by some miracle of the composer's art, all of them seem somehow right and powerful.
Teachers, Students, and the Global School
Although problems of resources, infrastructure, and haves and have nots still exist, the new connection technology has brought at least two major benefits to education. Virtually all schoolchildren have their own metabook. Even the poorest have an inexpensive version provided through private and public foundations. The cheaper versions, sometimes called webtops, are purely connection devices to the World Wide Web and other networks, and the software they use is from a base of public domain shareware. The connectivity makes even the cheapest sets extremely powerful by today's PC standards.
Paradoxically, the ubiquity of metabooks has taken away some of the anxiety and former hysteria about "computer education." The idea that children needed to be taught computer literacy is as foreign a notion to teachers and parents as the idea in our time would be that children must be taught how to open a book. It is widely accepted, though, that children need to learn through real world, hands-on experiences, away from the classroom if possible. In the early grades, especially, use of metabooks is minimized.
The Web and universal connectivity have proven a great boon to teachers and financially strapped school districts. Over the past decade educational foundations have sponsored a wide and growing range of superb curricular multimedia materials in the sciences and humanities for all grade levels. These are available free anytime to all teachers and students — and anyone else, for that matter. The materials provide teachers with everything from highly structured "ready to go" lesson plans to as much choice in developing their own teaching materials as they have time and energy for. Students who develop particular interests in a topic can explore as deeply as they want through hyperlinks to primary sources of text and multimedia.
Another important development has been the phenomenon of "student-teacher explorer teams." Often sponsored by corporations, these teams have fanned out over the globe — and beyond. Students and teachers in the classroom can go on-line with the teams wherever they are: at undersea exploration sites, astronomical observatories, ecological and engineering projects, archeological digs — the list goes on and on. During on-line visits, the teams discuss the science and latest developments or observe ongoing operations with commentary from the field teams. Students in the classrooms suggest experiments to their counterparts in the field. In fact, senior scientists and principal investigators have been astonished more than a few times by important insights and discoveries made by students through these classroom partnerships.
One of the most popular on-line sites is the student-teacher explorer team on the space station. Students have devised a wide variety of physics, biology, and materials science experiments (as well as art and dance projects) that range from silly to ingenious. With the enthusiastic comments and collaboration of their earthbound counterparts, the "space team" has invented and refined a variety of games that can be played only in zero gravity.
Students are nearly always surprised when they learn that their taken-for-granted connection capabilities were mostly unavailable to students in the last century.CHAPTER 2
Something Is Bound to Come of It
It often happens, with regard to new inventions, that one part of the general public finds them useless and another part considers them to be impossible. When it becomes clear that the possibility and the usefulness can no longer be denied, most agree that the whole thing was fairly easy to discover and that they knew about it all along.
Abraham Edelcrantz, inventor of the Swedish optical telegraph
To understand modern communications and media and where they're headed, it helps to look back at several independent tracks that are now all converging, through some kind of interesting trick of synchronicity, precisely in time for the millennium. This chapter focuses in particular on two critical strands: the evolution of distance communications and the rise of the microprocessor and general-purpose computer.
The Engine of War
Many of the early developments in communications, like so many other technologies, owe their genesis to the arts and exigencies of warfare. Commanders have communicated with their officers and troops with gongs, bells, pipes, drums, rattles, horns, cannon, and rifle fire. Visual media have included smoke, flags, banners, hand and arm signals, semaphore and, at night, torches, flares, and rockets. Runners, riders, carrier pigeons, and trained dogs have all been used. Genghis Khan directed his forces to attack by firing whistling arrows toward the enemy host. The ancient Gauls erected stone towers from which they warned each other about the encroachment of Caesar's armies and other invaders by a system of shouts and cries pitched to carry from tower to tower.
Excerpted from The New Age of Communications by John O. Green. Copyright © 1997 John O. Green. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One Scenarios with a Metabook Anyone, Anything, Anytime, Anywhere,
Chapter Two Something Is Bound to Come of It,
Chapter Three How the World Is Wired,
Chapter Four The Net, the Web, and the Highway,
Chapter Five What's New About New Media?,
Chapter Six The AI Wildcard,
Chapter Seven The Vector of Desire: The Ultimate Telephone,
Other Scientific American Focus Books,