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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

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a s i a w e e k  m i l l e n n i u m  s p e c i a l
<< back to millennium special

By Being Everywhere the Network Will Rule
No more wires. And the connection will go much deeper

By Robert Dietz

AS YOU STEP INTO the next century, realize this: The Internet as you know it has as much relation to the Network of the future as gunpowder does to a satellite launch rocket. The meteoric rise of that funky web of telephone lines that started connecting a slew of room-filling computers at American universities and government research labs in the 1970s is only the beginning. Our generation's enthusiasm has grown it into an increasingly tightly woven network of fiberoptic and coaxial cables, microwave hops and geostationary satellite up- and down-legs, last-mile links ending in line-of-sight laser beams to laptops and T1s to TV screens. How quaint.

To envision the future Internet, first discard all those wires and cables. "Up to now, the idea of wireless has pretty much gone nowhere. Ten years from now it will be everywhere. Constant wireless connectivity will be taken for granted," Internet pundit Esther Dyson predicted earlier this year. Instead of a hard net of wires, think of a seamless web of radio-type frequency connections that allow total mobility, in just the same way the cell phone freed you from your desk. There will be no physical restraint on your activities - the network of connections will be with you wherever you go. And that extends the rest of the universe. Designers are contemplating space-based routers and switchers to handle communications with probes traveling to nearby planets.

Next, drop the idea of computers - those clunky hunks of machinery currently cluttering your desk, lap or palm. Increasingly, your point of connection to the web will be through countless constantly shrinking data processors, some of them a few molecules in size. Designed for specific tasks, they will interact with mainframe computers housed on "farms" scattered around the world, many of which are already in place and growing. The computing power down on those farms will be the world's decentralized digital brain, to which you'll have constant access. You'll need an interface device - something that transmits your voice commands or messages from sensors on or in your body. The interface will also visually and audibly display the information you request. Current thinking envisions a flexible, foldable paper-thin screen that you can slip into your pocket. Or maybe eyeglasses with display capability and an audio input cupping the back of your earlobe. You'll tote those few ounces of gear only because you find having a bi-directional data tap direct to your central nervous system repugnant. Your kids won't. They'll want to be "wet-wired" as soon as it's viable. And their kids will be connected to the grid at birth.

Who's going to pay for all of this? You, of course. The decision was made about 10 years ago. As Vint Cerf, who is now the digital guru-in-residence at the American communications giant MCI recalls it, the idea of commercial salvation only gradually dawned on him and other founding fathers of the Internet: "The absolute magnitude of the scale of the system wasn't apparent until the late 1980s. By 1988, I know I realized it could not grow to global scale without becoming a commercially supported enterprise." Cerf and his early online brethren, many of them utopians of a scientific stripe, lobbied hard to pry the Web away from the institutions that spawned it and get it into the hands of business people.

The Big Bang of connectivity and information exploded circa 1970, so we are only a few nano-seconds into the creation of networking. Even so, its impact is obvious. You're connected to the Internet either at work, school or home, possibly all three. You have learned to live with cell-phones. Your paycheck is deposited directly in your bank, while you withdraw cash on demand from an automated teller. After scanning your purchases at a checkout counter, cashiers swipe your credit card with aplomb. You wave your debit card to board a bus which zips through autotoll lanes . If you haven't already, you'll soon be doing some of your shopping on the Internet.

So the Net is off and running? It is if you're wealthy enough or at least living in an industrialized economy. But the United Nations Development Program recently took a good look at the hype surrounding the Internet. Some of its findings: North America, with less than 5% of the world's population, has more computers than the rest of the world combined. South Asians make up 23% of the world but account for 0.39% of the world's Internet users. For Southeast Asia, those figures are 8.6% and 1.8%. And 80% of all Web sites are in English, which is spoken by less than 10% of the world's population. In fact, only 2.4% of all the people in the world have access to the Internet. In every trend the UNDP analyzed, the movement is toward exacerbating those differences. If that trajectory continues, the multimillennia-old contradiction of poverty and privilege will not be resolved, no matter how liberating the flow of information. "The rush and push of commercial interests," the UNDP says, "protects profits, not people."

Too Malthusian? Maybe. The gains in productivity from global interconnectivity could be stunning. If the automobile industry had the same productivity growth as the computing and communications sector in the 1990s, an automobile would cost $3 today. Cars are common in poor countries, so why not connectivity? "At the end of 1998 there were 15 million Internet users in Asia, but this market is expected to grow by a compound annual rate of 40% during the next five years to total 64 million by 2003," according to the U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs. That growth rate is twice that of the U.S., the benchmark for Internet statistics. But 64 million is not a lot of Asians, particularly when compared to the numbers in North America and Europe, the epicenters of the Internet world.

Is such techno-centric globalism inherent in the Net good? Maybe not, but it seems inevitable. Japan's "Mr. Yen," Sakakibara Eisuke, blames the "convulsions of cybercapitalism" for causing the economic Crisis of 1998. Nonetheless, "I am increasingly convinced that the next center of capitalism will not be an actual city or region, but cyberspace," the former vice finance minister for international affairs during the Crisis said. If Wall Streets fade away, won't nations, too? For countries locked in economic diaspora - like India, China or South Korea - the ties to their scattering populations are increasingly easier to maintain. And there are already plenty of examples of the impact that information streaming in from the outside world can have on authoritarian regimes - exiled activists make full use of the Internet to publicize their issues. The invidious nature of the Internet makes it potentially the strongest tool ever to organize people for change - although it's hard not to feel that for the foreseeable future, political power will still come out of the barrel of a gun, not from an Internet connection.

"What defines us is our social relationships. Telecommunications will allow us to maintain those relationships."That's the hope of Arno Penzias, the Nobel laureate who discovered the background radiation left behind by the real Big Bang that created the universe. "If we are sensitive and care about who we are working with, then technology will help us. It will help us to be nicer to each other and to have more fun." Penzias accurately plumbed the history of the cosmos. Let's hope he is right about the future of humanity.


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