Don's Diary

April 14, 1995

Sunday. Leave Heathrow for a week in America, attending a computing conference in Nashville, then travelling on to Chicago via a meeting at Massachusett Institute of Technology's Media Lab, in Boston. I have, as usual, brought a laptop with me, and this time ensured I have a variety of power cables to cope with any possible eventuality. Usually I lug a computer half-way round the world and arrive somewhere to find I cannot plug it in. This trip I am also reading and sending e-mail via a CompuServe account to keep in touch with my office, so I have also brought a selection of telephone cables to make sure I can surf the information superhighway .

It is ironic my computer can only interconnect to the world's most sophisticated telephone system and the global computer network with a bit of copper wire. Arrive at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, which is huge: 2,000 bedrooms, several million feet of exhibition space, and an indoor tropical garden with a waterfall. As I am trying to get to sleep the waterfall starts up, accompanied by a sequinned dinner-jacketed pianist who plays a selection of C&W classics from a mezzanine floor 100 feet above the tropical garden. His rendition is also accompanied by "the world famous dancing water display" where jets of water, controlled by computer, spurt up lit by a light display. This is all very nice but every time I fall asleep, the crowd gathered under my window bursts into loud applause.

Monday. Awake from dreams of giving a conference paper while wearing a sequinned dinner jacket, accompanied by a computer-controlled waterfall in the lecture theatre and to thunderous applause. I plug into the hotel phone system to pick up e-mail. For some inexplicable reason, I cannot connect to the local access CompuServe number. Having tried all alternatives I use the knife from breakfast to slice open the phone cable and start splicing wires together. This eventually works, and I now have a computer, connected to the world's most sophisticated telephone system and a several million user global computer network by a bit of copper wire held together by sticking plaster. What better illustration of how the information superhighway is not really accessible to everyone after all. The number of TV channels in the US is always bewildering, as is the fact that they all appear to broadcast nothing very much (as Bruce Springsteen says, "57 channels and nothin' on"). It will get worse when the superhighway pipes 1 billion bits per second of multimedia programming direct to everyone's digital TV set. The one thing which is compulsive watching is the O.J. Simpson trial, which seems to occupy all channels simultaneously. The trial, transmitted live from the courtroom, is compulsive watching in a way I cannot explain. The details of O.J.'s chase in the white Bronco, the bloody glove, the private lives of the prosecutors are all raked over in detail. I cannot believe anyone is interested in all this, but I watch anyway. Tonight I dream of being chased by the information police down the superhighway in a white Bronco brandishing a telephone cable, knife and sticking plaster.

Wednesday. Arrive in Boston and check into my hotel relieved to find that I can dial into the local number to pick up mail with my improvised telephone cable. The irony of my using this set-up to mail to a colleague at MIT, one of the places where the most advanced communication technology is being developed, is not lost on me. Mike Hawley, professor at MIT with whom I am meeting, is amused by the cable saga. We talk about future systems in which people are freed from the constraints of cabled networks.

The ability to not rely on cables is one of the key enablers for future computer communications systems as it has been with cellular phones.

Friday. More meetings at MIT where we discuss Mike Hawley's work in the Personal Information Architecture Group at the Media Lab. Mike is interested in designing what he calls the BodyNet , a complete system for linking up computational devices, watches, clothes which have computational power - with the "bitstream" of information on the superhighway. The Media Lab is working on different ways of allowing people to effectively access the bitstream of data flooding around us down through optical cables. Nicholas Negroponte, director of the Media Lab and whose book Being Digital I am currently reviewing, suggests the "digerati" - people whose work is with the bits of information rather than the atoms of objects - require new kinds of tools: intelligent agents which can sort and act on information, or tools for "pulling bits" out of the bitstream, rather than passively accepting bits "pushed" from broadcasts.

Saturday. Arrive in Chicago, where I am meeting with a colleague to work on a book on managing information. Reviewing my e-mail, I see that I have read and sent some 200 e-mail messages to colleagues from the UK, US and Europe over the last five days. Waiting for me at the hotel is a FedEx package from the UK with some contracts to sign. The atoms of the contracts have been transported, at great cost, across the Atlantic only to have more atoms applied by me (the ink of a signature) and then the whole collection of atoms is sent back across the Atlantic. 'Being digital' clearly has its advantages.

Professor of information management at the University of the West of England.

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