Get Ready for Digital Convergence: A Primer on Life in the Twenty-First CenturyFirst, a riddle: What are the differences among
Imagine a place without books, photographs, movies, televisions, stereo systems, letters, post cards, billboards, telephones, and fax machines. That place is not Europe in the Dark Ages but the world that most people in the twenty-first century will inhabit. In lieu of the media that we now take for granted there will be the one great digital medium that replaces the current Internet. The process by which all these separate media become digital and come to be delivered via the global network is known as digital convergence.
Why is digital convergence such a certainty? There are three major reasons. First, bits—the 1s and 0s that computers understand—are incredibly cheap. Think of the staggering cost of cutting down trees, turning them into paper, writing words down on this paper, flying the paper via airplane across the country, sorting the paper from among thousands of other pieces of paper, loading the paper onto trucks, and paying someone to carry the paper to someone’s door. Think also of the time that such a process takes. A letter sent from Boston to Los Angeles may well take seven to ten days to arrive. Now think of sending a piece of e-mail. Type the mail into your computer, click on a button, and the bits move almost instantaneously and at a cost so low as to be almost nonexistent, to any place on the globe. The United States has an incredibly efficient, cost-effective mail system, but traditional mail, sometimes referred to as snail mail, can’t begin to compete with the cost of e-mail. What is true of mail is even more true of such tangible products as books, music CDs, and videocassettes. A new hardbound novel costs around thirty dollars; a music CD, fifteen; a videocassette, twenty to forty. Turn each of those—the book, the music CD, the videocassette—into a bunch of 1s and 0s and you eliminate the manufacturing cost almost entirely. And, of course, there is an environmental benefit to not cutting down all those trees and not making a lot of plastics that will end up in landfills.
The second major reason why digital convergence is not simply a possibility for the future but a certainty is the quality of digital materials. Think of the difference in sound quality between an old LP recording and a music CD. The difference is that the former is an analog medium, whereas the latter is digital, and digital materials can be reproduced at any resolution, assuming that one has the storage space and the bandwidth (bandwidth is simply the number of bits per second that can be sent through a given medium, such as fiber optic cable or the air). At some point, the level of resolution achieved by digitizing a signal, such as a music track or a graphic image, becomes so good that it is indistinguishable, given the limitations of our senses, from the real thing. Television signals today are grainy and poorly resolved compared to the digital signals that we shall receive in the future. Watching a television program in the year 2040 is likely to be similar to peering through a window.
The third major reason why digital convergence will happen is that technology is rapidly approaching the stage where high-bandwidth transmission of digital information between any two places is possible. Telephone companies are replacing old copper twisted-pair cables with new fiber-optic lines that transmit billions of bits per second at the speed of light. In many areas of the United States, cable modem hookups to the Internet, which provides up to 60 Mbps (that’s millions of bits per second) for downloads, are now available. Two companies—Teledesic and Motorola—are planning, for the first decade of the twenty-first century, a system of low-orbit satellites that will make wireless global networking available to the entire globe. And, of course, governments around the globe are hard at work updating their information infrastructures, including cables, routers, and switching devices, to make high-bandwidth networking, on which economies of the future will depend, widely available.
Other technological obstacles to digital convergence are being rapidly overcome. Storage prices have dropped dramatically in the past decade. In the mid-1980s, a 20-megabyte hard drive could cost as much as seven hundred dollars. Now, a 2-gigabyte hard drive can be purchased for a fourth of that. It seems reasonable to expect that this exponential drop in the cost of storage will continue. Recordable DVD-ROM is but one of many emerging technologies that will give us all someplace to store those massive audio and video files that come streaming over the global network onto our home media centers.
In the future, almost every device will be a network device. Some of these devices will be large and immobile, like movie or television screens. Others will be small and portable, like wallets, watches, or cellular phones. All will be hooked up to the global network. It is often objected that most people do not want to read a book online, and that is indeed true given today’s display technologies. But here, again, the times are changing. Researchers at MIT have invented a kind of ink that turns a sheet the thickness of a piece of paper into a black-and-white monitor, and they are working on a color version. Within a few years, breakthroughs in display technology will make extremely high-resolution monitors commonplace. People will be able to carry their computers or even to wear them as clothing and will be able to use these computers, in any place and at any time, to send telephone, mail, video, or fax messages; to do their shopping or banking; or to receive news and entertainment. At home, the telephone, the personal computer, the mail box, newspapers, newsletters, magazines, the tape deck, the VCR, and the CD player will be replaced by one or more all-purpose devices, and one will be able to interact with these devices using ordinary speech commands.
In the future, people will doubtless still make books and other consumable information and entertainment products, but increasingly, these will become not primary delivery mechanisms but objects of art. It is no accident that at the same time that Project Gutenberg (http://www.promo.net/pg/) is assembling the largest collection of online books that the world has ever seen, the staff of the rare book division of the Wellesley College Library is hosting a show of handmade books—books as art objects rather than as mass media.
Most commentaries on the coming digital convergence concentrate on high-profile, jazzy applications like online movies, but the emergence of the global network and of wireless connections will also have profound effects on the everyday devices that we use. Consider, for example, the automobile. Via wireless connections, automobiles will be able to access GPS data (see http://www.redsword.com/gps/apps/index.htm) to pinpoint a person’s location or to provide street-by-street maps (of the kind that can already be found online at http://www.proximus.com/yahoo). There is no good reason why other consumer products and appliances might not be hooked to the global network as well. A home heating system, for example, might communicate with the local power plant or with a national power grid and adjust itself to achieve energy efficiency and low cost. Ranges, stoves, microwaves, and refrigerators might communicate with food products manufacturers, cookbook publishers, and food delivery services. The possibilities for such networked appliances are enormous. All that awaits is the genius (that good old Yankee ingenuity, often found, these days, in places like Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea) needed to figure out the applications. Who knows, the Edison of the digital appliance might be learning his or her multiplication tables in some elementary school as you are reading this.
A lot remains to be worked out. Cable, telephone, and entertainment companies are busily trying to position themselves for the digital future. They know that in that future they will be general media companies operating over the global network. There will be companies that provide and maintain the hardware and software for the global network, and there will be content providers, but the old distinctions among the cable company, the telephone company, the television network, the news wire service, and so on, will become part of technological and cultural history. Despite the occasional horror story in the astonishingly Luddite popular press, more and more people are realizing that conducting commercial transactions via the Internet is at least as safe as conducting them over the telephone. New technologies, such as digital watermarks, are being developed to protect intellectual property online. Plug-ins and helper applications for playing multimedia over networks are improving, as are engines for real-time videoconferencing and 3-D interactions using avatars, or virtual proxies. To date the courts have largely held the line against censorship, encryption schemes, the outlawing of links to others’ sites, and other legislative obstacles to the development of the online world, and the FCC has continued to relax the regulations against entry of media and telecommunications companies into markets previously closed to them.
The coming digital age
holds much promise. It will extend human abilities and shrink space. It
will make available to ordinary people, worldwide, resources that Caesar
Augustus, Kublai Khan, or Louis XIV could not even have dreamed of. The
real possibility exists for a renaissance of human potential, not just
in so-called "developed countries" like the United States, Germany, and
Japan, but over the entire globe. Certainly, traditional societies will
encounter threats from the global network to their mores and ways of life,
but the global network also promises to give those mores and ways of life
a wider audience. The astonishing variety of the present-day Internet is
but a small taste of what is to come. The future is but a mouse click away.
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