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January 2001


Tracey Schelmetic Welcome To The 21st Century...For Real


Go To Sidebar: A Customer Contact Odyssey

What we are building now is the nervous system of mankind.... The communications network, of which the satellites will be nodal points, will enable the consciousness of our grandchildren to flicker like lightning back and forth across the face of the planet.
Arthur C. Clarke

As a young Royal Air Force officer in 1945, Arthur C. Clarke designed the first prototype of an orbital communication satellite. The principles he laid out in a paper entitled, "Extraterrestrial Relays" were the basis for the first telecommunications satellite, launched in the early 1970s. So thoroughly is he considered the father of the telecommunications satellite that most satellites today travel in what is known as "Clarke orbit," another term for the geostationary orbit, 22,300 miles above the surface of the earth, in which satellites circle at the same speed as the rotation of the Earth.

Welcome to 2001, the real new millennium, despite all the marketing hype of a year ago. What a wonderful opportunity to pay homage to a person who is often called the godfather of modern telecommunications, in addition to having penned one of the most revered science fiction novels of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey. (In actuality, the novel was written after director Stanley Kubrick and Clarke collaborated on the screenplay for the 1968 film version. The screenplay for the film was based on Clarke's 1958 story entitled "The Sentinel.")

Here's an anecdote for you. Some years ago, Arthur C. Clarke attended the Twelfth International Astronautical Congress in Washington D.C. There, he delivered a speech, "The Social Consequences of Communications Satellites." During his speech, he stated, "For communication satellites will enable us, in effect, to move almost instantaneously to any part of the world....Indeed, by the end of this century, all terrestrial calls may be local calls and may be billed at a flat standard rate." From our current perspective and with the rise of Internet telephony, this is news to none of us. Why is this such a remarkable quote? Because the speech was delivered in September 1961, well before anyone had yet conceived of even the earliest prototypes of the Internet.

Question: When did the first mobile, wireless communications occur?

Answer: 1900. Guglielmo Marconi developed a steam-driven wagon for his early experiments. A tall cylindrical aerial affixed to the wagon was lowered to a horizontal position while the wagon was moving.

As a science fiction fan, I have read a multitude of books since first discovering the joy of the genre in my early teens. I've always found the books typically fall into two types: the fantasy science-fiction (which may include any of the following: elves, gnomes, wizards, space travellers in impossibly tight silver outfits, light-sabres, ray guns and giant lizards, not to mention the infinite improbability drive); and the kind of science fiction that makes you think, "This is possible. This could, can and probably will happen." Clarke's books have typicaly fallen into the latter category. Where there's technology, regardless of how futuristic, there is hard science behind it. Space ship propulsion systems make sense (i.e., they do not run on "dilithium crystals.") Societal changes that have occurred in his books' futures are rooted in trends in present-day society. But to the benefit of the telecommunications industry, this magazine and the business of customer support, Clarke has never abandoned his love for the potential of all things telecom.

In an interview with Wired magazine several years ago, Clarke was asked the question of whether he thought long-distance calling charges should be abandoned. His response was a hearty yes, and he elaborated. "There'll be so much more business if they [the long-distance companies] do. We've been through this whole thing already with the Penny Post. Charles Babbage, the father of the "difference engine," worked out that the cost of sending a letter was independent of the distance it traveled. In those days, every letter was charged a different rate depending on how far it had to go. There were armies of clerks working it out. Mail was very limited and very expensive. But once they had a flat rate it multiplied, and totally transformed the postal service. It's a similar thing with long-distance calling."

I particularly love the quote with which I began this column. The one that implies that eventually, our consciousness will "flicker like lightning back and forth across the face of the planet." A hypothetical (and probably common) scenario comes to mind. One day, shortly after it was purchased, my office printer might break down for no apparent reason I can discover. I send an e-mail to the company's support desk, though they are backlogged and cannot get back to me immediately. I provide the support staff with my palm.net address, since I need to go out and run errands. In the office supply store, my PDA tells me I have an incoming e-mail. It is from Susan, a customer support rep who specializes in the type of problem I am experiencing. I reply to her e-mail with my cell phone number, and she calls me, while I am standing in front of the printer supply section in the office supply store, and helps me choose the items I might need to fix the problem myself. I might even use my hand-held to browse the printer company's Web site so I can visually match part numbers with those I am currently viewing on the shelf. In the meantime, my co-worker might send an e-mail to my PDA asking, "What's wrong with the printer?" While speaking to Susan the rep, I can reply to my co-worker, informing him that I am currently trying to solve the problem. That co-worker can then inform everyone else who uses that printer of the situation, and the problem is on its way to being solved before I even get off the phone with the printer company.

Perhaps this scenario does not yet represent humans with chips built into their brains, merely thinking messages to one another (though science is currently working on that technology), but if this isn't a case of the mind-boggling potential of 21st-century communications turning customer support on its ear, I don't know what is. The scenario I envision above would not have been possible even just a few years ago, despite the fact that at least one visionary foresaw it decades ago.

I cannot recommend highly enough the Web site of the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation, which features "A History Of Modern Communications, Computing & Media" and covers the years from 1793 to the present. The site can be located at http://www.acclarke.co.uk/shc.html.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke turned 83 on the 16th of December. Despite being in poor health, he continues to write. He is considered by many to be the greatest living science fiction writer, perhaps the greatest of all time. I, and I know many others, hope he is with us for years to come to continue telling us about the wondrous things we can come to expect from this century and the next. On the flip side, we science fiction fans can also gratefully thank him for the inspiration to occasionally stand under the stars on a cold clear night, dreaming alone of the possibilities that are only limited by our imaginations.

1The World of the Communications Satellite.

The author may be contacted at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com.

[ Return To The January 2001 Table Of Contents ]

A Customer Contact Odyssey


Here on the cusp of the 21st century, how far have we come in communications? Although we cannot make video calls from the space station using a credit card on the Bell network (Who, in 1968, could have foreseen the breakup of AT&T?), what we have wrought is a worldwide communications network that facilitates global commerce, education and health care -- that brings light to previously dark and mysterious places. Through television, radio and the Internet, we can see the common interior of our government. We can look inside a courtroom (though not quite into the Supreme Court) and see there is no mystery: the judges, the lawyers, are like you and I, just doing their jobs in the mundane work-a-day world.

Through our media, we demystify our leaders, take them off their pedestals, even listen to them on Oprah, give our opinions through 800 numbers, chat with them in chat rooms or send them e-mail. But we are yet not under the control of a HAL 9000: we can project the demographics of a precinct in Miami or Palm Beach, yet our technology is still that we cannot accurately measure the voice of the people. We are not in the often frightening dream of the future brought to us in science fiction: if we were, there would be an exact count of everyone in this country, all nicely numbered and registered votes tallied without question.

But in business, this accounting reigns paramount. The more information we have about our customers, the better: the better to serve, the better to sell. Open communications systems have unleashed the power of the collected knowledge of the enterprise, allowing a free exchange of information in real- or near-real-time (often the difference is so brief as not to be perceptible to the human consciousness): information to educate -- we learn about our customers. We can analyze their buying habits and listen to their needs. We can know exactly what they are asking about as they send us an image and we can push screens to them or perform remote diagnostics on their computers. We put what we have learned from each interaction into a knowledge base we continually refine, which grows like memory. Just as James Joyce boasted you could reconstruct Dublin from Ulysses, we can reconstruct our customers. They may not be HAL, but we can talk to machines (speech recognition has made tremendous strides in past few years) and listen to what they have to say, interpret their reports.

As telecommunications networks bring us closer and shuttle launches become commonplace, perhaps we have lost some of the sense of wonder that was in the air in the '60s when 2001: A Space Odyssey was filmed, but through telecommunications our exploration of the world, of space and the human condition has continued. Business, like life, is a journey. Let us avoid the Scylla of bad customer service and the resulting Charybdis of loss of market share on our odyssey of customer contact. Although we depend on our machines, we still put our trust in the voice on the line, the person on the Web chat, helping us on our journey of discovery.

The author may be contacted at elounsbury@tmcnet.com

[ Return To The January 2001 Table Of Contents ]

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