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February 2000

 

Outsourcing Thought

BY RICH TEHRANI

Go Right To: Obliterating The Mundane

Accuse me, if you will, of nursing a millennial hangover. But even now, two months into the year 2000, I’m still feeling disoriented, blankly regarding the detritus that accumulated during the New Year’s observances. I don’t mean to say I’m wading through trampled streamers and confetti, stepping around empty bottles of champagne, or sounding plaintive tones through a battered kazoo. Rather, I’m still mulling over technological prognostications so breathlessly enunciated in the days leading up to the new year, and now so quickly forgotten.

You might say the party’s over. You might say it’s 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 you’re 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, we’re 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 don’t mean a bandwidth bottleneck. (We’ve all heard that bandwidth will be too cheap to meter, haven’t we?) No, I’m thinking of the ultimate bottleneck: the average person’s 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 computer’s way was exhausting, but I persisted. Working with computers was, after all, my calling. I learned to reconcile myself to the computer’s 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 don’t think about breathing, we don’t consciously adjust our heart rates, we don’t 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 Freud’s 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 automobiles.

All of these devices, as network elements, operate on a common network (or nervous system). And, like parts of our anatomy, these network elements needn’t be under our conscious control. Consider something as simple as the sweat glands. They needn’t 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? Shouldn’t 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 let’s restrain ourselves. Let’s 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). We’ll 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 customized services.

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. We’ll just have to keep an open mind--or, if you prefer, an open networking environment.


Obliterating The Mundane

At Communications Solutions EXPO
In the future, mega-networks may well help us live more friction-free lives. We’ll 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, grinding circumstance.

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 you’ve reviewed the attractions, I think you’ll 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 company’s fortunes.

And now, without further preliminaries, I present our roster of free Exhibit Hall Attractions:

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 Tools.

ConvergeNET™
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.

Consultants’ Corner
The industry’s 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.

Messaging Center
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.







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