|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.1
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
To The January 2001 Table Of Contents ]
A Customer Contact Odyssey
BY ERIK LOUNSBURY
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 email@example.com
To The January 2001 Table Of Contents ]