A refresher in basic Geek

The Second Information Revolution - Me++

February 6, 2004

Wendy Grossman reviews technology from postage to vicious nanobot attacks

We often forget that ours is not the first era to see a revolution in communications. The Economist 's Tom Standage argued persuasively in The Victorian Internet (1999) that the telegraph changed the world far more than the internet has. In The Second Information Revolution , Gerald Brock names the development of telephony and telegraphy as the first information revolution, with the railroads playing a part analogous to today's internet infrastructure in carrying the mail. Telegraph lines were, in fact, put in place under right-of-way contracts with the railroads.

Think of what those developments replaced. It cost an ordinary American worker a quarter of a week's wages to post a single-sheet letter to distances over 400 miles. The price for domestic mail became a flat rate 3 cents in the 1850s and did not go up again until 1958, when it rose to 4 cents. Now, 46 years later, it is 37 cents, and not only the postal service but telephony and telegraph are being overtaken. It is, as Brock notes, commonly believed that wireline long-distance revenues will drop to zero. The second information revolution, he writes, is one of both price and products, where the first was solely products.

The Post Office in the US was and is, of course, state owned, so it was Acts of Congress that flattened those postal rates back in the 1850s. But the computer, telephone and telegraph industries in the US developed as private businesses, albeit regulated ones. The US deliberately chose not to emulate Europe and make its telephone companies state owned. Brock speeds through this history and that of the significant 1934 Telecommunications Act; his primary focus is from 1950 onwards. He has little to say about telecommunications outside the US, even when he eventually reaches his section on the internet, which is largely limited to the development of the worldwide web.

Much of The Second Information Revolution covers familiar historical developments. The development of transistors and then of printed-circuit boards and the advent of first large and then small computers is standard stuff. This book is useful for those trying to understand the technical and commercial developments in communications of the past half-century, and it covers the impact of US government regulations.

Key government-mandated developments include the 1984 AT&T break-up, which went a long way to deregulating the telephone networks and opening them up to third-party suppliers. The late, unlamented Worldcom was, in fact, created to take advantage of the opportunities that the break-up created and, until its collapse, grew by acquiring similar long-distance companies via stock swaps. Finally, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 - at the time best known for its inclusion of the now struck-down Communications Decency Act - gets a section to itself.

The Second Information Revolution is important reading for anyone who needs to understand the functioning of American telecommunications, either to be able to analyse today's financial markets or to understand or influence public policy in this area. Issues such as local competition within the US telecoms market are best understood in the context that Brock gives them. The battle continues, for example, over allowing the Baby Bells - more correctly, Regional Bell Operating Companies - to enter the long-distance market. Brock even touches on debates over how radio spectrum is licensed, which go back as far as 1959 when Ronald Coase proposed switching to a market-based system. Today, the availability of cheap computing power makes it possible to use spectrum far more efficiently and the Federal Communications Commission is under pressure to change from its present method of allocation. Brock explains all this, but does not voice his opinion.

The title, Me++ , tells you that William Mitchell's target audience has already learnt some basic geek. Me++ suggests the more fully featured, improved version of Me (as C++ is the more fully featured, improved version of the C programming language). Mitchell, who is also author of the 1995 book City of Bits , draws on research carried out at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is professor of architecture and media arts and sciences, to predict the cultural impact of today's emerging technologies. To do this, Mitchell reviews many technologies that are either familiar or becoming so, such as wireless telephony and networking, nanotechnology and Mems (microelectromechanical systems), RFID (radio frequency identification) tags and wearable computers, embroidered with conductive thread or made out of conductive fabrics. If you have followed MIT research through the Media Lab or, latterly, the AutoID Center, much of this will not be new to you. Similarly, Mitchell's musings on the increasing splintering of aggregations of content such as music albums and journal issues are hardly new to anyone who is familiar with file-sharing.

You could think of Me++ as the update for today's early-21st-century world of Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital (1995) and not be too far wrong. Mitchell, however, says Me++ is the third in what he calls an "informal trilogy" beginning with City of Bits and continued in 1999 with E-Topia . In the early days of the development of cyberspace, it was popular to look at the emerging virtual realm as distinct from "real life". Me++ describes the merging of virtual and physical: the "trial separation of bits and atoms" is over, and our selves are merging into the networks. It may not be Mitchell's fault that when he says, "I am part of the networks and the networks are part of me", what echoes in the mind is Maurice Sendak's children's book In the Night Kitchen ("I'm in the milk and the milk's in me"). But it also smacks of Negroponte, who likes to talk about bits and atoms and the impact of turning what used to be physical products into streams of data.

For Mitchell, the internet is just one example of how institutions and infrastructures can be decentralised, making them harder for a malevolent third party to disrupt. Ironically, he writes, the Nimda virus did more damage to the workings of the internet than the World Trade Center attacks had the week before the Nimda release. (This depends where you live. If you were depending on the telecommunications systems that were housed in the World Trade Center, your mileage varied. Mitchell, in Boston, would have been unaffected by the attacks but in the path of the virus.) Institutions that invent new technology are not generally known for stressing its downside, and Mitchell's book is only partially an exception.

He does talk about "logic prisons", in which it may become impossible for an individual to break out of an interlocking set of computer rules that restrict their behaviour on every side. But he talks less than one might expect about the potential that RFID opens up for detailed surveillance, or about continuing issues for debate such as the digital divide, privacy and censorship. He talks more about biohazards, emerging diseases and the infective possibilities of vicious nanobots. His answer to this type of threat is decentralisation, which both helps us defend ourselves against a grand outage brought on by an attack on a single point of failure and helps attackers find their way into the network by creating many more points of access. Problems of authentication and access control, therefore, do get Mitchell's attention.

Both these books are potentially useful as textbooks because of the amount of ground they cover, although British audiences will note that both are entirely focused on the US and pay little attention to international issues. The exception to that is Mitchell's discussion of globalisation and networking as bringing new threats into the US.

It is hard to imagine there is a competitor covering similar ground to The Second Information Revolution , although Robert McChesney has done a good job of analysing the various telecommunications acts and their impact with respect to broadcasting in some of his books. The many books on the history of computing rarely look at the history of telecoms regulation or related telecoms technical developments, even when they move on to talk about the impact of the internet. The book is a valuable reference if your interests lie in any of the computer-networking technology areas.

A number of the topics in Mitchell's book are treated in greater depth elsewhere. Mitchell's "swarms", for example, are Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs , and where Mitchell brings academic distance to the subject, Rheingold attacks it as a journalist and investigator unearthing detail about how mobile telephony and pervasive computing are beginning to change the nature of public and private spaces. But the real question about Mitchell's book is how widely his vision of our augmented reality future will apply outside the US. There is an awful lot of world out there that still has not made a telephone call.

Wendy M. Grossman is author of net.wars and From Anarchy to Power: The Net Comes of Age .

The Second Information Revolution

Author - Gerald W. Brock
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 322
Price - £25.95
ISBN - 0 674 01178 3

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