InfoShok: Pushing the Envelope

  1. I Sing the School Electric
  2. InfoShok
  3. Cyberpolitics

The Internet is still too slow for us to send photographs, video recordings, and tape recordings--graphics, video, and sound--in any quantity. We have this vision on the net, however, of superseding text completely, making words without pictures as obsolete as computers without networks.

The vast majority of people on the Internet use the Internet for electronic mail. In fact, of all the Internet time wasters available to the University of San Diego community, electronic mail is the one that causes the most overload on our computers.

Because of its universality, netizens have decided it would be a great boon to be able to send pictures and sound inside our electronic letters. Unfortunately, there are many different picture and sound ‘formats’ in computers. In the same way that a VHS player can’t understand the tape from an 8mm video camera, graphics in one format can’t be displayed on another computer if that computer doesn’t have the right software. So, a few years ago, a group of computer geeks got together and defined a new ‘mail’ standard that would allow people to include pictures and sounds, or multimedia, in the electronic letters. They called it Multi-purpose Internet Mail Extension, or MIME. MIME covers about everything you might want to send via electronic mail except for hamburgers and fries. When people gush about MIME, however, they’re in love with the pictures and sounds that it supports over e-mail.

MIME, despite the cute name, is already dead. MIME provides what people think they want, not what they really want, and it is languishing. MIME is so widely ignored that I’m only dimly recalling what the letters stand for. Even the most up-to-date guide in my library--Mecklermedia’s Pocket Guides to the Internet--doesn’t even mention it by initials, let alone what the initials mean.

The original vision of MIME is a product of pre-network thinking. For information, as with tomatoes, efficient and easy transportation is key. We assumed that, if you’re going to send someone a 500 kilobyte sound file, then you need to transport that sound file to their door, and they want that sound file dumped into their lawn. To be fair, MIME does have an option for pointing to an Internet site but it’s a bulky format and strange to the eye. In the future, of course, it’ll be hidden from the eye. But none of our mail programs support it.

“In practice, it can do it in theory.” But the only thing that works reliably in practice today is sending huge files across the net. If a gang of Cro-Magnon teenagers were to find a Porsche Electric Spyder, they might realize, from the shape of the seats, that people are supposed to sit there. They might also realize, from the wheels, that it is supposed to carry people so they don’t have to walk. But they would probably be more amazed at the comfortable seating than at the wheel, and, having no concept whatsoever of what the engine could do for them, they would either hitch it to a brontosaur or enslave another tribe of Cro-Magnon’s and force them to pull it. That’s the stage we’re at now on the Internet. The medium is not yet the message, to quote Umberto Eco skewering Marshall McLuhan. We’re still the cannibal chieftain wearing a clock around our neck as jewelry, (?) not knowing that time will soon not be measured by night, day, and season, but second by tiny second, replacing the old world of myth with the new world of science.

If we ignore the clock, the spyder, and the network, our future will be a harsh one indeed. I have an “Internet Driver’s License” in my wallet. It’s a joke from a Sun Microsystems computer conference. If I still have that license fifty years from now, my grandchildren are going to ask me what a driver’s license is.

Everyone is talking about how wonderful it is to bypass the post office and send ‘electronic’ letters. They are completely ignoring the network that the mail is traveling through. And none of us have any idea what the engine--the computer--can do for us. The combination of the computer and the universal computer network is so different to what we’ve done before that, no matter how revolutionary we think we’re being now, we’re still a bunch of old farts talking about how nice color is on our television.

As we sit around the general store listening to the radio.

The real superhighway will be a two-way thoroughfare. Our home computer will someday be as necessary and as invisible as our answering machine. We have our answering machines turned on all the time. There’s no reason, once we have the infobahn coming into every home, that we won’t have our computers turned on all the time as well, and ‘electronic mail’ will become an intelligent form of ‘electronic voice mail’.

The heavy graphics and sounds will be stored on your computer. Send it to a friend, and they’ll only copy it over if they want to have it in their home. You won’t be forced to listen to your mother-in-law complain about your cooking. Thirty-minute videos of your best friend’s grandchildren won’t litter your storage space waiting for you to delete them. They’ll just sit at your friend’s computer, waiting for you to tell your computer to grab them.

We’ll probably even have ‘bit buckets’ to discretely discard things we don’t want, so as not to offend a friend. In computerese, a ‘bit bucket’ (!) is a black hole that sucks data into itself and does nothing with it. So you could tell your mail program to go out and pretend to get the grandkid video, but don’t actually do anything with it, and for God’s sake, don’t waste any space storing it.

Your mail and the mail that you read will be ‘smart’ mail. You’ll be able to send mail that knows who is reading it, when they’re reading it, and where they’re reading it. And even who else has read it. An invitation to a potluck, for example, will be smart enough to check back with your home computer to see what dishes have been staked out. The first person to read the invitation will get a list of what you’re providing for the meal. The second person will get that, plus a description of whatever the first person offered to bring. If someone reads the invitation and waits before deciding what to bring, they’ll see a growing list of dishes.

You’ll be able to tell your letter to verify the identity of the person reading it, and to say different things depending on when the person is reading it, or where they happens to be when they’re reading it. What will that allow you to do? Smart mail, stored on the author’s home computer, can change at the will of the author. Like the rich man from the New Testament whose friends refused his invitations, you can change the guest list at any time.

Businesses will find this eases appointment making considerably. When your dentist sends a reminder, you’ll be able to make your appointment by choosing a date and time from the list of available times on the message. If you postpone making an appointment, the times available to you will change. How will you make your choice? You might use a ‘mouse’ to ‘click’ on the appropriate appointment time. You might use an electronic pen and write your name into your chosen slot, or you might end up just talking to the computer and verbally telling it what you want.

When electronic mail becomes interactive, is it still mail? Is a Porsche a chair on wheels? This is merely the beginning of the end of Gutenberg man, when every man is his own computer network.

How much would you pay for a smart answering machine?

It’s Sunday. You are watching a football game. Your mother calls. Your telephone, knowing you don’t want to be bothered, gives her the answering machine. She says it’s important. Your answering machine decides that, yes, it is important, but not important enough. It offers to forward her call to your brother in Massachusetts. While your mother is deciding whether or not to accept this generous offer, your girlfriend calls. Your telephone is able to handle more than one call at the same time. Knowing exactly how important she is to you, your telephone lets it ring three times on her end before buzzing you. Had she hung up before you were buzzed, obviously it just wasn’t that important of a call, right? Besides, you can’t appear too desperate.

While you’re talking with your girlfriend, you get electronic mail from a very important potential account in Poland. Your answering machine realizes that you desperately want this account, so it grabs the electronic mail message and sends a copy to each of your three business partners. At the same time, it prints a copy of the message onto your television screen, overlaying the text on top of the San Diego Chargers. Two of your business partners make a joint call to discuss the Polish account. Your answering machine can’t decide whether to break through or not. It asks you if you want to take the call. You tell it to tell them that you’ll be back in five minutes, and you also tell it to record their discussion if they decide to talk about things until you “come back”. While your girlfriend’s talking, you’re listening to their conversation at double-speed over your television. After a couple of minutes, you break off your conversation with your girlfriend and break into the conversation with your business partners.

And then your wife calls...

How far in the future is this? One year? It’s already here if you waited until the book came out in paperback. That’s where the technology is. When it gets implemented is a question of when we’re willing to accept a completely new way of dealing with our world.

Now how much would you pay?

If you think that information overload is bad now, consider what happens when everyone’s entire life is on-line. Within fifteen years, predicts Dr. Raj Reddy, of Carnegie Mellon, you’ll be able to carry a recorder with you at all times, and the “hard drive” that stores your entire life will cost the equivalent of fifty bucks. (Business Week 6/23/97) The family mausolean will be on-line and your descendants will be able to call up any point in your life. They’ll even be able to ask you questions, because a computer with access to your entire life history will be able to predict pretty readily how you might answer any particular question.

Think about that for a moment. You’re in a life quandary, you wonder what your dead father’s advice would be, so you hop over to the URL and ask him.

Heck, you could put your own life on-line before you’re dead. Route your computerized answering machine over to your virtual self for unimportant calls, and who’s to know the difference? You might even be able to give your virtual self a little more backbone for dealing with telemarketers.

Your answering machine will outlive you.

  1. Umberto Eco, “Cogito Interruptus”, Travels in Hyperreality .
  2. On Unix, this is /dev/null. Yes, Unix is such a hip operating system, that it even has a place to send junk if you don’t want it to go anywhere.
  1. I Sing the School Electric
  2. InfoShok
  3. Cyberpolitics