|Accuse me, if you will, of nursing a millennial hangover.
But even now, two months into the year 2000, Im still feeling disoriented, blankly
regarding the detritus that accumulated during the New Years observances. I
dont mean to say Im wading through trampled streamers and confetti, stepping
around empty bottles of champagne, or sounding plaintive tones through a battered kazoo.
Rather, Im still mulling over technological prognostications so breathlessly
enunciated in the days leading up to the new year, and now so quickly forgotten.
might say the partys over. You might say its time to sober up and rededicate
myself to the daily grind. But forgive me if I linger a while longer in my high-tech
reverie. And, if you are of the mind, accompany me while I pour one last round
STOP MAKING ME MAKE SENSE
If youre even slightly preoccupied or impaired, you may notice that ordinary,
everyday tasks become difficult, perhaps even too troublesome to contemplate. And yet, if
technology enthusiasts are to be believed, were all just waiting for the chance to
painstakingly manage the minutiae of our lives through balky computer and communication
systems. I tend to doubt it.
The problem, as I see it, is a sort of bottleneck problem. And I dont mean a
bandwidth bottleneck. (Weve all heard that bandwidth will be too cheap to meter,
havent we?) No, Im thinking of the ultimate bottleneck: the average
persons capacity for frustration.
While our evolving computing and communications systems will enable us to do amazing
things, these very same systems all too often exact a fateful price. They demand just a
small fraction of our attention here, and a small fraction of attention there, and so on
and so on. They invite us to enter our preferences-- so that we may activate interesting
routing schemes, or access customized services-- but they also require us to submit to
highly formal interfaces. We dutifully peck at the telephone keypad, point and click our
way though the graphical display, or drag a stylus over a pressure-sensitive pad on a
personal digital assistant.
It all reminds me of my introduction to programming, when I made the shocking discovery
that the tiniest departure from the proper syntax would disable my program. Of course,
when I started out, I was used to dealing with fellow humans, so I had the expectation
that I could say something that approximated what I meant, and the computer would
understand. In other words, I expected that the computer would do what I meant, not what I
said. I was soon relieved of that illusion. I quickly learned that the computer would do
only what I said, and only if I said it in just the right way.
Communicating the computers way was exhausting, but I persisted. Working with
computers was, after all, my calling. I learned to reconcile myself to the computers
needs. And, to this day, I happily manipulate interfaces that most people would find
intolerable. Most people, I need hardly add, lack programming backgrounds, and are far
less patient with having to observe exquisitely strict matters of form. If people such as
these are to be won over to visions of next-generation networks, those who would propagate
these visions will have to allow for simpler interfaces between people and networks, even
as the tasks carried out by networks become more sophisticated.
I NETWORK, THEREFORE I AM
In a sense, many of the decisions we now make consciously will have to be taken over by
our networks. This idea may sound ominous, but it is merely an extension of a very natural
form of automation that we all take for granted-- the automation within our own bodies. We
dont think about breathing, we dont consciously adjust our heart rates, we
dont schedule a time to straighten out our glasses. All these tasks take care of
themselves without our conscious intervention.
Analogously, we can leave behind conscious intervention and still accomplish mundane
tasks that, in aggregate, occupy untold hours in our daily lives, absorbing immeasurable
amounts of attention. These tasks might include various kinds of information access, the
monitoring of appliances and processes, and the locating of people with whom we need to
communicate. We can, I daresay, live more friction-free lives. All we need is sufficiently
powerful technology. And, as it happens, the technology is already being developed.
THE PROSTHETIC GOD
Likening technological developments to activities at the human scale puts me in mind of a
passage from Freuds Civilization And Its Discontents. In it, Freud wrote,
"Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic god. When he puts on all his
auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and
they still give him much trouble at times." By using the word prosthetic, Freud
suggested technologies could be seen as artificial adjuncts to the human capabilities. For
example, a rocket could be seen as another way to hurl a stone, or an automobile could be
seen as another way to run a great distance.
Similar thinking was evident at a recent event staged by Lucent. At this event, which I
described in my January column, the network of the future was described as a
communications skin. This prosthetic skin, like real skin, is sensitive, permeated with
network devices of all sorts -- phones, laptops, PDAs, wireless information appliances,
etc.-- as opposed to nerve endings. Other devices might include thermostats, pressure
gauges, pollution detectors, cameras, alarm systems, household appliances, and
All of these devices, as network elements, operate on a common network (or nervous
system). And, like parts of our anatomy, these network elements neednt be under our
conscious control. Consider something as simple as the sweat glands. They neednt
await our command if they are to help us cool off. They work automatically. So why should
we have to adjust the thermostats in our houses when we enter and leave? And why should we
bother programming our schedules into our heating and cooling systems? Shouldnt the
network be aware of where we are, and react accordingly?
It will. The mega-network of the future, the communications skin, will take over such
distracting chores as adjusting thermostats, looking up contacts, creating itineraries,
booking and confirming reservations, monitoring medical conditions and scheduling visits
with healthcare professionals, tracking favorite stocks, digging up relevant research,
issuing payments, etc.
None of these tasks, by itself, is all that taxing, but together, they could be
overwhelming, or they could, at the least, oblige us to navigate a lot of clutter,
forfeiting no little peace of mind. By relieving us of such drudgery, the mega-network of
the future may not help us feel godlike, or render us magnificent, but it will enhance our
lives. So, perhaps we could put aside power fantasies, and content ourselves with becoming
reasonably competent and relatively unharried.
BEYOND NETWORK PHRENOLOGY
To extend the communications skin analogy just a bit further, we might ask ourselves about
the role of the brain, the destination for many of the impulses emanating from the skin
and its many receptors. Or should we say the prosthetic brain?
Where, in the prosthetic brain, might we find intelligence? Could we go so far as to
liken learning and memory to the creation and maintenance of data structures? Such
speculation could easily become fantastic, so lets restrain ourselves. Lets
just note, in passing, that the mega-network of the future does allow for a sort of brain,
one that even works in ways the real brain does.
Brain functions, we have learned, are highly distributed. No longer do we adhere to the
discredited claims of phrenology, which held that brain functions and human attributes
were highly localized. (People used to draw maps on the brain, placing hard borders around
regions labeled "aspiration," "sublimity," and other human qualities.)
Like the real brain, the prosthetic brain admits of distributed intelligence and
functionality. These attributes are in fact necessary. They make it possible for people
with multiple addresses -- such as IP addresses, phone numbers, locational addresses -- to
communicate as though they all had simple, universal addresses. In addition, distributed
data structures, in a mega-network with enormous bandwidth, will transform the Internet.
First, caches will be everywhere, so frequently sought out information will be deployed
near the users. (Algorithms will determine the most relevant information and where to
store it.) Second, the network will include software agents that will help users extract
desired information via text, voice, images, and video.
More broadly, distributed intelligence and functionality, made possible by
communications software, will make distance irrelevant. It will, ultimately, usher in a
new age of virtuality. Virtual enterprises will transform e-commerce (and commerce
generally). Well see virtual travel, virtual business conferences, virtual offices,
virtual universities, and all sorts of virtual experiences.
BEING THERE (OR NOT)
Communications software, the key to a greatly expanded virtuality, will be there to
set up communications links; to simplify user interfaces; to add realism to remote
conferences and collaborations; and to collect, manipulate, and deliver the right data
--wherever and whenever it might be needed. Moreover, communications solutions (in
combination with vastly increased bandwidth) will support a new services paradigm. No
longer will service creation and delivery be limited to traditional service providers.
Instead, we will see a proliferation of independent software vendors that will offer
In the new millennium, communications solutions will do for the communications what the
huge number of "killer"PC applications have done for the computing industry in
the past decade. Well just have to keep an open mind--or, if you prefer, an open
At Communications Solutions EXPO
In the future, mega-networks may well help us live more friction-free lives. Well
learn what we need to learn, accomplish what we want to accomplish, and realize the
sublimity of realized aspirations all without suffering the drudgery of sifting
through irrelevant information, without losing ourselves amongst a plethora of petty
details, and without succumbing to the disappointments dealt us by ordinary, meaningless,
But what do we do in the meantime? We rely on trusted information resources,
outsourcing (in a manner of speaking) the work of paring down and editing mere
circumstance, and creating a richly rewarding, custom-made experience. One such experience
is already being assembled. This experience brings together, under one roof, in an
educational venue, all the leading experts and leading vendors in the industry. The
experience is called Communications Solutions EXPO. It will take place April 26-28
in Washington, D.C. (For details, please visit www.comsolexpo.com.)
Last month, in this space, I described the Communications Solutions EXPO
conference program. This month, however, I would like to describe all the free attractions
within the Exhibit Hall. Once youve reviewed the attractions, I think youll
agree that the exposition portion of our event, like the conference program, is studded
with compelling educational opportunities. I would urge you to take advantage of these
opportunities. Communications Solutions EXPO is where you need to be to keep up to
date on communications technology, to familiarize yourself with the latest products and
services, to find out all the ways you can advance your career and bolster your
And now, without further preliminaries, I present our roster of free Exhibit Hall
Six Learning Centers
Technology-specific "no sales, no hype" areas where you can compare and evaluate
cutting-edge communications solutions from the industry leaders. The specific centers are
ASPs, E-Sales/E-Service, Next-Gen Wireless, Speech Recognition, TAPI 3.0, and Testing
A live, on-site network serving as the multivendor interoperability proving ground,
showcasing IP telephony standards compliance.
Live Office Of The Future
See the latest products every professional needs to work smarter and more productively.
These products will be demonstrated on the show floor in a simulated office setting.
The industrys brightest minds made available to answer your questions for FREE.
Next-Gen Telco In A Booth
Explore the nuts and bolts of an actual ITSP (Internet Telephony Service Provider)
complete with profit-generating enhanced services.
Nortel Networks Succession Trailer
See the latest next-generation network technology from Nortel Networks on display in a
unique 40-foor tractor trailer, right on the show floor! (Sponsored by Nortel Networks.)
Live, Web-Enabled Multimedia Call Center
A live, on-site, working call center employing the latest Web-enabling technologies and
applications, making over 10,000 customer contacts in two days. (Sponsored by CellIT.)
Live CRM Showcase
The latest CRM solutions enabling you to manage any type of customer interaction in a
consistent and highly flexible fashion. (Sponsored by Aspect Communications.)
Your Remote Office
Take advantage of next-generation communications server technology to redirect your phone
and fax calls to this special area of the show floor, which has been set aside as your
personal workspace. You will also be able to conduct conference calls, receive voice mail,
send faxes, and check e-mail. (Sponsored by Interactive Intelligence.)
Internet Phone Center
Make free long-distance calls anywhere in the world using a variety of the latest Internet
telephony services. (Sponsored by Quicknet Technologies.)
Job Fair And Career Resource Center
Find your dream job in the booming communications industry and learn about the latest
educational programs that will further your career.
See the latest Web-based unified messaging in action. Every Communications Solutions
EXPO attendee will receive a free account courtesy of TelePost. See how unified messaging
compares to your current e-mail service, which will be accessible as well.