The Information Age/The Digital and ICT Revolutions

From Wikibooks, open books for an open world
Jump to navigation Jump to search

What is the digital revolution?[edit | edit source]

Technological breakthroughs have revolutionized communications and the spread of information. In 1875, for example, the invention of the telephone breached distance through sound. Between 1910 and 1920, the first AM radio stations began to broadcast sound. By the 1940s television was broadcasting both sound and visuals to a vast public. In 1943, the worlds first electronic computer was created. However, it was only with the invention of the microprocessor in the 1970s that computers became accessible to the public. In the 1990s, the Internet migrated from universities and research institutions to corporate headquarters and homes.

All of these technologies deal with information storage and transmission. However, the one characteristic of computer technology that sets it apart from earlier analog technologies is that it is digital. Analog technologies incorporate a combination of light and sound waves to get messages across, while digital technology, with its system of discontinuous data or events, creates a universal model? to represent information that is expressed by almost anything using light and sound waves. [1]

To use an analogy, a digital world is a world united by one language, a world where people from across continents share ideas with one another and work together to build projects and ideas. More voluminous and accurate information is accumulated and generated, and distributed in a twinkling to an audience that understands exactly what is said. This in turn allows the recipients of the information to use it for their own purposes, to create ideas and to redistribute more ideas. The result is progress. Take this scenario to a technological level all kinds of computers, equipment and appliances interconnected and functioning as one unit. Even today, we see telephones exchanging information with computers, and computers playing compressed audio data files or live audio data streams that play music over the Internet like radios. Computers can play movies and tune in to television. Some modern homes allow a person to control central lighting and air-conditioning through computers. These are just some of the features of a digital world.

Box 1. Wearable Computer Systems

Wearable computers are entire systems that are carried by the user, from the CPU and hard drive, to the power supply and all input/output devices. Such systems are under development here at the (MIT) Media Lab, where we are also working to create prototypes of uniquely affective wearable systems. The size and weight of these wearable hardware systems are dropping, even as [their] durability is increasing. We are also designing clothing and accessories (such as watches, jewelry, etc.) into which these devices may be embedded to make them not only unobtrusive and comfortable to the user, but also invisible to others.

Wearable computers allow us to create systems that go where the user goes, whether at the office, at home, or in line at the bank. More importantly, they provide a platform that can maintain constant contact with the user in the variety of ways that the system may require; they provide computing power for the all affective computing needs, from affect sensing to the applications that can interpret, understand and use the data; and they can store the applications and user input data in on-board memory. Finally, such systems can link to personal computers and to the Internet, providing the same versatility of communications and applications as most desktop computers.

Source: MIT Media Lab Affective Computing Research Group, Wearable Computer Systems for Affective Computing� [home page on-line]; available from; accessed 28 August 2002.

What is ICT?[edit | edit source]

ICT is short for information and communications technology. It refers to a broad field encompassing computers, communications equipment and the services associated with them. It includes the telephone, cellular networks, satellite communication, broadcasting media and other forms of communication.

What is the relationship between the digital revolution and the ICT revolution?[edit | edit source]

The digital and ICT revolutions are twin revolutions. To understand their relationship, let us look at the history of voice telephony. According to Robert W. Lucky, The crux of [Alexander Graham] Bells invention of the telephone in 1875 was the use of analog transmission—the voltage impressed on the line was proportional to the sound pressure at the microphone. [2] The growth of the telephone was relatively slow; it was not until the 1920s that a national telephone network was established in the US. In the late 1940s, an alternative to analog transmission of voice was considered with pulse-code modulation (an encoded signal of pulses). This marked the start of digitization in telecommunications.

However, it was only in 1961 that the first digital carrier system was installed. Digitization meant the widespread replacement of telephone operators with digital switches. In 1971 the first fiber optic cables suitable for communications were made, leading to efforts to send communications signals via light waves. (Light wave transmission systems are inherently digital.) By about 1989, ones and zeros had become the language of telephone networks in the US. Digitization was a critical development because with digital transmission noise and distortion were not allowed to accumulate, since the ones and zeros could be regularly restored (i.e., regenerated) by a succession of repeater sites along the transmission line. [3] The outcome was clearer communications over longer distances at lower costs.

Today, voice is translated into data packets, sent over networks to remote locations, sometimes thousands of kilometers away, and, upon receipt, translated back to voice. Even television is not immune to digitization. In the near future, television signals and television sets will be digital. It will also be possible to use the television to surf the Internet. The digital TV will allow people from different locations to chat with each other while watching a program. With everything becoming digital, television, voice telephony, and the Internet can use similar networks. The transmission of hitherto different services (telephony, television, internet) via the same digital network is also known as convergence.

Cairncross observes that once the infrastructure and the hardware, be it a computer or a telephone or another device, have been set in place, the cost of communications and information exchange will be virtually zero. Distance will no longer decide the cost of communicating electronically. [4] This explains why, for example, a three-minute transatlantic call that costs $0.84 today would probably have cost nearly $800 in todays money 50 years ago!

Box 2. Enter the Communication Satellite

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, just as [Michael] Jordan appeared on the scene, commercial television began to jump over national boundaries. A decade later, NBA games, especially those of the Chicago Bulls, could be seen in ninety-three countries. This exposure was made possible by the direct broadcast satellite (DBS). .. DBS was to have a much greater impact on the day-to-day lives of people around the world than did the moon landing. Launched into orbit so it would float in space over the west coast of South America, the first broadcast satellite relayed information from specialists on health and education into previously isolated areas…. The experiment was so successful that private companies stepped in to launch their own satellites. The companies, as usual, made their profits by selling advertising. Thus new technology led the worlds people into a new era of globalization, paid for by new advertising.

The potential profit of [TV] markets skyrocketed in the 1980s when fiber optic cable carried information in light waves along a silicon wire that had the thinness of human hair. Compared with the copper wire it replaced, the silicon wire could transmit dozens of television programs at once instead of one or two … Digital compression technologies meanwhile increased the possible number of channels on a television set from dozens to 150 and even 500. A British firm developed the first round-the-world fiber optic system in 1991.

Now the possibilities were breathtaking. A single direct-to-broadcast satellite could transmit to earth all of the Encyclopedia Britannica in less than a minute. The contents could even be picked up and placed before the viewer by a cable relay station whose cost in 1975 had been $125,000, but in 1980 was less than $4,000 because of the quick technological advances. Profits promised to have no limit. As cable and satellites created international television in the 1980s, so did advertising, whose profits for cable companies shot up more than ten times.

These new systems seemed to resemble magic cash registers as they churned out the money. They also resembled dynamite as they blew apart governmental regulation and geographical boundaries. They did nothing less than change some of the fundamental ways nations officials behaved toward their citizens.

Source: Walter LaFeber, Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism (New York: Norton & Company, 1999), 69-71.

What are the main characteristics of digital technology?[edit | edit source]

Media Integrity
Data stored in analog formats cannot be reproduced without degradation. The more copies made, the worse the copies get. Digital data, on the other hand, do not suffer such deterioration with reproduction. [5] For instance, movies, videos, music and audio files in digital format can be copied and distributed with a quality that is as good as the original.
Media Integration
One of the major limitations of many conventional technologies is their inability to combine media types. Telephones, for example, can send and receive only sound. Similarly, you can watch television and expect a character to answer a question you pose. However, with digital data, it is easy to combine media. [6] Thus, phones with video, or interactive sound with pictures, become possible. Hence the term multimedia.
Flexible Interaction
The digital domain supports a great variety of interactions, including one-on-one conferences, one-to-many broadcasts, and everything in between. In addition, these interactions can be synchronous and in real time. [7]
The ability to combine the transactional capability of computers and computer networks with digital media is another interactive advantage of the digital domain. Placing an order and finalizing a transaction becomes as easy as filling in an electronic form and clicking a button. Movies-on-demand (where you pay for movies that you choose to watch on your TV screen) is just around the corner.
Software developed for digital communications and interaction is designed so that users may tailor their use of the tool and the media in a manner not possible with conventional analog technologies. [8]
The conventional alternatives for manipulating text, sound, images, and video are almost always more cumbersome or limited than the new digital tools. Years ago, Francis Ford Coppola said that the day would come when his young daughter will take a home video camera and make films that would win film awards. Coppola’s prediction is fast becoming a reality. Computers with the right software and minimal hardware can do today what thousands of dollars worth of film and video editing equipment did in the past decades.

What is the Internet?[edit | edit source]

The Internet is a network of networks. It is a global set of connections of computers that enables the exchange of data, news and opinion. Aside from being a communications medium, the Internet has become a platform for new ways of doing business, a better way for governments to deliver public services and an enabler of lifelong learning.

Unlike the telephone, radio or television, the Internet is a many-to-many communication medium. John Gage argues that—

The Internet is not a thing, a place, a single technology, or a mode of governance: it is an agreement. In the language of those who build it, it is a protocol, a way of behaving. What is startling the world is the dramatic spread of this agreement, sweeping across all areas of commerce, communications, governance that rely on the exchange of symbols. [9]

The Internet has become the fastest growing mass medium. In only four years the number of Internet users has reached 50 million. In contrast, it took radio 38 years, television 13 years and the PC 16 years to reach the same milestone. Despite its explosive growth, however, less than 10% of the global population is online.

Why is the Internet important?[edit | edit source]

The Internet, according to Lawrence Lessig, is an innovation commons, a shared resource that enables the creation of new and/or innovative goods and services. [10]

The Internet can be likened to designer clay; its use is limited only by the imagination and skill of the designer. This unique characteristic is due to the fact that the Internet is designed using the end-to-end (e2e) principle. That is, the intelligence in the network is at the ends, and the main task of the network is to transmit data efficiently and flexibly between these ends.

Lessig identifies at least three important consequences of an e2e network on innovation. First, because applications run on computers at the edge of the network, innovators with new applications need only to connect their computers to the network to let their applications run. Second, because the design is not optimized for any particular existing application, the network is open to innovation not originally imagined. Third, because the design has a neutral platform - in the sense that the network owner cannot discriminate against some packets and favor others - the network cannot discriminate against a new innovator design.

The Internet as an innovation commons has made the transformation to the information age possible. As Christopher Coward notes,

Because of end-to-end, the Internet acts as a force for individual empowerment. It fosters entrepreneurship. And, as long as end-to-end is not violated, it is democratizing in the sense that it redistributes power from central authorities (governments and companies) to individuals. In the Internet Age, everyone can be a producer of content, create a new software application, or engage in global activities without the permission of a higher authority. [11]
Box 3. The Earth Will Don an Electronic Skin

In the [21st] century, planet earth will don an electronic skin. It will use the Internet as a scaffold to support and transmit its sensations. This skin is already being stitched together. It consists of millions of embedded electronic measuring devices: thermostats, pressure gauges, pollution detectors, cameras, microphones, glucose sensors, EKGs, electroencephalographs. These will probe and monitor cities and endangered species, the atmosphere, our ships, highways and fleets of trucks, our conversations, our bodies even our dreams.

Ten years from now, there will be trillions of such telemetric systems, each with a microprocessor brain and a radio. Consultant Ernst & Young predicts that by 2010, there will be 10,000 telemetric devices for every human being on the planet. They'll be in constant contact with one another. But the communication wont be at our plodding verbal pace.Fifty kilobits per second is slow,huffs Horst L. Stormer, a Nobel prize-winning physicist employed by Lucent Technologies Inc. Bell Laboratories and Columbia University. Machines will prefer to talk at gigabit speeds and higher so fast that humans will catch only scattered snippets of the discussion.

What will the earths new skin permit us to feel? How will we use its surges of sensation? For several years maybe for a decade there will be no central nervous system to manage this vast signaling network. Certainly there will be no central intelligence. But many scientists believe that some qualities of self-awareness will emerge once the Net is sensually enhanced and emulates the complexity of the human brain.[1]

What is Moores Law? Metcalfes Law? Internet time?[edit | edit source]

Moores Law and Metcalfes Law are insightful observations into the power of the personal computer and the Internet.

Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, the chip making company, postulated that the computing power of a microchip doubles every 18 months. This means that the power of the computer chip keeps growing as its size shrinks. As the chip becomes smaller and more powerful without significant price increases, so does the personal computer. Many associate Moore’s Law with the widespread availability of powerful PCs at constant (if not lower) prices. It was used as an explanation for the rapid changes in the PC industry, which in turn affected the whole economy.

Robert Metcalfe, co-inventor of the Ethernet, the local area networking (LAN) technology, observed that a network’s value grows proportionately with the number of users.

Internet time refers to the fact that with the Internet, more intensive activities are possible. Indeed, in business Internet time can be the source of competitiveness.

Moore’s Law, Metcalfe’s Law and Internet time are pithy ways of expressing the dynamism that characterizes developments in the ICT sector and in the areas being transformed by ICT. Ed Lozowska best puts the rapid changes in the ICT sector in perspective:

If, over the past 30 years, transportation technology had improved at the same rate as information technology with respect to size, cost, performance, and energy efficiency, then an automobile would be the size of a toaster, cost $200, go 100,000 miles per hour, travel 150,000 miles on a gallon of fuel. [12]

Why are these technological revolutions important?[edit | edit source]

New technologies transform our lives “by inventing new, undreamed of things and making them in new, undreamed of ways�?, says the economist Richard Lipsey. [13]

Imagine what will happen when the cost of a long distance telephone call becomes as low as the cost of a local call? Or, when you can get a driving license at a time and place of your own choosing? Or, when you can bank from the comfort of your own living room? In some countries, ICT is already making these happen. Many believe that the current technological revolution may in time exceed the Industrial Revolution in terms of social significance. [14 ]

Lipsey, who studies the relationship between technological change and economic development, suggests that the introduction of new technologies can have the following effects on society [15] :

  • Initial productivity slowdown and delayed productivity payoff from the new technologies
  • Destruction of human capital (as many old skills are no longer wanted)
  • Technological unemployment (temporary but serious)
  • Widening disparities in the distribution of income, which tends to be temporary until the supply of labor catches up to the new mix of skill requirements
  • Big changes in regional patterns of industrial location (globalization)
  • Big changes in required education
  • Big changes in infrastructure (e.g., the information highway)
  • Big changes in rules and regulations (intellectual property, antimonopoly, etc.)
  • Big changes in the way we live and interact with each other

What are some of the consequences of the digital and ICT revolutions?[edit | edit source]

First, let us look at the effects of the digital revolution. James Beniger explains:

The progressive digitization of mass media and telecommunications content begins to blur earlier distinctions between the communication of information and its processing…, as well as between people and machines. Digitization makes communications from persons to machines, between machines, and even from machines to persons as easy as it is between persons. Also blurred are the distinctions among information types: numbers, words, pictures, and sounds, and eventually tastes, odors, and possibly even sensations, all might one day be stored, processed, and communicated in the same digital format. [16]

On a societal level, the digital and ICT revolutions make possible better and cheaper access to knowledge and information. This speeds up transactions and processes and reduces their cost, which in turn benefit citizens and consumers.

The ability of ICTs to traverse time and distance allows human beings to interact with each other in new ways. Distance is no longer a consideration. As Giddens observes,

With the advent of the communications revolution, distance has a different relationship to self-immediacy and experience than it used to have. Distance isn’t simply wiped out, but when you have a world where the value of the money in your pocket is affected immediately by ongoing electronic transactions happening many miles away it’s simply a different situation from how the world was in the past. [17]

Put another way, so what if two people are located in different time zones? They can still talk, negotiate, and make deals as though they were face to face. As the sociologist Manuel Castells has noted, “Technological revolutions are all characterized by their pervasiveness, that is by their penetration of all domains of human activity, not as an exogenous source of impact, but as the fabric in which such activity is woven.�? [18] What else can go wrong???

Will all countries and peoples be swept up in the technological revolution?[edit | edit source]

The revolution will affect some countries earlier than it will others. For ICT to weave its magic, it must find a hospitable social and political environment. New technologies threaten existing power and economic relationships, and those that benefit from these old relationships put up barriers to the spread of the new technologies. Note, for example, how the music industry has resisted digital audio tapes and Napster. Moreover, laws can deter (or encourage) the spread of new technologies. For example, the lack of legal recognition for digital contracts and digital signatures is holding back electronic commerce.

Debora Spar states that “life along the technological frontier moves through four distinct phases: innovation, commercialization, creative anarchy, and rules.�? [19] While individualism and the absence of government are characteristics of the first three stages, government—with its rule making and enforcing capability—is a key player in the fourth stage. This is because

The establishment of property rights is one of the most crucial events along the technological frontier. It allows the market to unfold in a predictable way, and gives pioneers a hefty dose of ownership and security. Most important, perhaps, the creation of property rights also marks the difference between pioneers and pirates, between those whose claim on the new technology is legitimate and those whose claim is not. [20]

It is important to remember that technology is shaped by society as much as it shapes society. Thus, those interested in harnessing the power of new technologies should help create the right environment for it to flourish.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Neil Gross, The Earth Will Don an Electronic Skin, in Businessweek Online (August 30, 1999). Accessed 28 August 2002.