The following text is copyright 1996 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

Certainly Unpredictable

While I was in Las Vegas pitying the magicians, jugglers and pool hustlers trying to get people into the booths at Networld+Interop (and lamenting the lack of technical prowess that the use of such devices demonstrates) the mail brought an interesting new book. The National Research Council's Computer Science and Telecommunications Board has published another volume in its excellent series on the national information infrastructure (NII): "The Unpredictable Certainty: Information Infrastructure through 2000" (ISBN 0-309-05432-X)

The book is one of the results of a workshop and a forum held in early 1995 which were guided in part by a letter from Vice President Al Gore in it he said "We would like to see an NII that allows individuals to be producers as well as consumers of information, that enables 'many to many' communication, and that provides a 'general purpose' infrastructure capable of supporting a wide range of services. This is a somewhat different picture than some of the cable and telephone companies seem to have. They seem to think that they will be the font of all information. Since the main power of the Internet (and, come to think of it, the telephone) has been its support of 'many to many' it is more than passing strange that these companies don't yet 'get it'.

The book takes a look at many of the aspects of the forces that are driving data communications. It explores the business case for investment in these technologies, the technologies themselves and the role of public policy. I do recommend it, as well as an earlier book in the series, Realizing the Information Future: The Internet and Beyond (ISBN 0-309-05044-8).

The authors of this book believe, as I do, that the Internet of today will evolve into the information infrastructure of the future rather than be replaced by it as many observers once thought. But even assuming that the future will evolve from the present, it is not possible to predict much about what it will look like.

It is certain that there will be a global, not national, information infrastructure in our future. It will not be the Internet, in the sense that the Internet is a differenciatable data service, the data service of tomorrow will be an indistinguishable part of the whole. There is great uncertainty about the shape and control of this information infrastructure.

Some have called the Internet (by which they mean generalized data connectivity) is second only to the printing press in its potential impact on the societies of this earth. The printing press brought information and ideas straight to the hands of the general population. Before then, information was a sacred commodity with few possessing the skills and resources required to be a part of the knowledgeable elite. The printing press broadened this elite until it was not so elite at all. The general population could participate, at least in the receiving part.

The sending part has been more restrictive. While publishing the printed word is now far more dispersed than it was in the days of medieval monks, there is still a high entry fee. It costs quite a bit to publish in a way that reaches a large audience. This is a factor that is changing with the Internet. There is a far lower cost of entry on the Internet than with traditional publication.

We are in a time of significant stress about this emerging communications ability. Printing presses are control points that governments and others use to affect what is published. These control points are absent in the many to many world of the Internet and will be absent in whatever the Internet grows up to be.

The Internet of today is not a canvas upon which we can easily draw maps of the roads we will be traveling, it's just communication, but communication is the stuff from which the future will be built..

disclaimer: Harvard has been interested communication for quite a while, as evidenced by the Gutenberg Bible in the library (despite what our Cambridge neighbors would have you believe) but the above meanderings are mine.