InfoShok: The InfoPoor

  1. Cyberpolitics
  2. InfoShok
  3. MUSHing the Electronic Frontier

He served two years in Germany as the “twenty-one year old kid from Maine”, but that was a long, long time ago. I was forced to ride the bus due to a fractured elbow, and I overheard his conversation with another elderly man, this one a born-again computer geek who thinks everyone should have a computer. The Aging Geek wants the Maine Kid to get a computer, but the old Kid’s reply is that he still hasn’t figured out his telephone. Why should he get a computer?

He’s not the only one who feels that way, and his opinion isn’t limited to people who ride the bus.

“There’s an old story about the person who wished his computer were as easy to use as his telephone. That wish has come true, since I no longer know how to use my telephone.”

This is a possibly apocryphal quote attributed to B. Stroustrup, the inventor of the computer programming language of the future, “C Plus Plus”, usually written as C++. With call waiting, call forwarding, caller id, a hundred memory locations, and other special buttons and bells, the telephone is rapidly approaching the computer in complexity. This is because the telephone and computer are rapidly merging into one. Like the telephone today, you’ll need a computer tomorrow just to live a normal life; you won’t know “what you did without one”.

“That may be true”, the Maine Kid says, “I don’t know.” He pauses. “It used to be just businessmen used them, not people.”

This is true of telephones as well as computers. The telephone was originally advertised as a way to pass orders from the top to the bottom, from manager to staff, or from master to servants. (?) In the end, the telephone also allowed the servant and staff member to talk back, which made it useless for master-servant relationships. Dangerous, even.

The telephone quickly became required for individuals of equal status to keep in touch. Anyone who doesn’t have a telephone today soon loses track of their friends--or, more realistically, is lost track of by their friends.

What will be transported on the infobahn of tomorrow?

  • SmartMail/SmartPhone
  • Libraries, Radio, and Television
  • Financial Transactions

Electronic mail, the answering machine, and the fax machine will combine into SmartMail™/SmartPhone™. Your computer will be a mailbox that understands who you’re receiving mail from, who you want to receive mail from, and what is most important to you about your mail. It will know who is calling you, where they are calling from, and whether or not you have a special message waiting for them. It will know whether or not you want that message forwarded to you immediately, or even if you want the call forwarded to you immediately. It will know this based on who the person is, what business they’re calling from, or even the phase of the moon if that’s what is important to you.

There are, not paradoxically, a lot of witches on the infobahn.

There won’t be any difference between ‘mail’ and ‘telephone’. Either way, it’ll be on your computerized answering machine. If you don’t have a computerized answering machine, you’ll lose touch with your friends and colleagues. When your boss calls and tells your answering machine that you need to go to press in five minutes, and your answering machine doesn’t forward the call to you, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, what will your boss think? If you’re lucky, your boss will think you’re being lazy. If you’re not, your boss will assume that you’re snubbing her. Either way, your job is in jeopardy.

What do you want to hear? What do you want to read? What do you want to watch? Tell your computer, and it will get it for you, debiting your CyberCash Account™ at the same time.

I’ve made inordinate fun of “movies on demand”, and because it deserves derision I will continue to do so. We will get it, however, by hook or by crook. Every form of information or data that modern humanity will need or want will be available in the corner stores of the infobahn.

Your computer will read the newspapers for you, even the comics page, and neatly summarize the articles of minor interest, and show, in full, articles that you really want to read. It may even translate articles if they’re written in languages you don’t understand, if you’ve purchased or licensed the necessary translation software. None of this is particularly amazing or prophetic: it all happens today, on a lesser scale. If you are a member of the Compuserve Information Service, you can pay for a ‘news folder’, which will contain clippings of all articles whose ‘keywords’ match the list of keywords that you supply to Compuserve. If you are a member of France’s Minitel network, the letters you write can be piped through a translator, so that you can converse with people with whom you have no common language. And if you receive an electronic letter in a language you don’t understand, you can submit it for translation, and pay the price. Or decide that it isn’t worth it, and ignore the letter.

This is not the future. This is now.

You won’t have any trouble getting your money onto the net in order to pay for all of those services, because all of your financial transactions will take place on the infobahn. Your CyberCash, your credit cards, and your debit cards will all use the infobahn to transfer sales information to your service provider. It may be that financial institutions will gang together and create a parallel highway for security, but more likely than not they’ll just use the same street everyone else uses. If we’re stupid enough to transfer liquid natural gas by truck through the center of villages and cities, we are certainly crazy enough to transfer private financial information over a public computer net.

What will you lose if you’re not on the infobahn?

You heard there are no stupid qustions? You heard wrong. That’s a stupid question. It’s like asking, what will you lose if you aren’t an oxygen-breathing creature. You are, no matter what you might want to do about it based on obscure sexual perversities. And you will be on the infobahn.

The telephone company will be part of the infobahn, and when you make a call, from your home, business, or from the pay phone down the street (which won’t accept coins anymore, it will only take your cash card, debit card, or credit card), you will be routed through the infobahn.

The telephone network is already used for a large amount of Internet traffic and the telephone companies want to increase that. Whether or not they succeed, they aren’t going to be able to maintain a completely separate network. Everyone wants--and needs--to be connected to everyone else. If the phone companies don’t ‘own’ part of the infobahn, they’ll no longer be the big business they used to be, and they won’t be able to afford to keep separate. If they do ‘own’ part of the infobahn, they won’t want to keep separate. They’ll want to keep exerting their power over the global net, and the only way to do that will be to maintain a presence there.

If you decide to stay away from the infobahn as much as possible, you’ll need to get ‘phone cards’, or whatever they happen to be called in the future: cash cards that hold a certain amount of cash. Credit cards give you a certain credit limit, and merchants need to get in touch with credit central to verify that you have enough credit left. Debit cards only allow you to spend whatever happens to be in your account, and that, too, requires central verification. Only ‘cash cards’, which are a certain amount of cash, purchased electronically, will not require central verification.

We’re already coming to the point where we view cash in any normal amount ‘dirty’, used only by black market dealers. The Pittsburgh Press ran a series about ‘asset seizures’ and ‘civil forfeiture’, and the flimsy evidence used to seize people’s property. In one particularly blatant example, a police officer’s reasoning for taking money from New York Giants center Kevin Belcher included that Belcher was:

carrying $100, $50, $20, $10, and $5 bills, “”which is consistent with drug asset seizures.”

Watson made no mention as to what denomination other than $1 bills was left for non-drug traffickers to carry. (?)

The real problem was the Watson is black and the officer racist. But the dirty cash was its own reason for being taken away.

Cash cards will end up with the same stigma as cash, unless we undergo a major shift in how we support and view individual privacy and personal freedoms. Which we’re going to have to do if we want to meet the future head on. Copyrights, cash, patents, everything that involves the exchange of information, is going to have to be redesigned for the twenty-first century.

No, it doesn’t have to be. But it will be, whether we do it or not. The question is simply who’s going to do it and how it’s going to affect you and me.

Without an infobahn connection and computer, you will be as homeless as any bum on the street. You will not be able to take messages from potential employers, nor communicate with friends. At best, you may end up having to use a common hookup with other ‘roadless’ people, but it isn’t going to be very reliable or secure. Imagine putting a homeless shelter as your address on a job application.

I have a friend who, on Saint Patrick’s day this year, went out tavern hopping. Somewhere along the way, a friend of his in Los Angeles gave him a call and invited him up to LA that night. Even an answering machine couldn’t have gotten that message to him in time. But he made it: you don’t have to be home nor sober to answer your cellular telephone. The line from the telephone to the answering machine to the cellular is one of increasing immediacy and less planning. The answering machine allows callers to leave a message even if you’re not home. The cellular allows you to answer even if you’re not home. As more and more people use immediate technology, the need to plan ahead disappears. And as this technology pervades our society, the need to have it increases.

If nobody else is planning ahead, you’re going to be left out in the cold if your friends have to plan ahead in order to include you.

Don’t want a computer because you don’t understand your telephone? Start dialing now. You will learn, or you will be cast aside. We will bury you, in the environmentally correct foam packing that our computers were shipped in.

  1. Judith A. Perrole, “Computer-Mediated Communication and Conversational Norms”, from Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices, Charles Dunlop and Rob Kling, editors.
  2. Andrew Schneider and Mary Pat Flaherty, “Presumed Guilty: The Law’s Victims in the War on Drugs” , The Pittsburgh Press, August 12, 1991.
  1. Cyberpolitics
  2. InfoShok
  3. MUSHing the Electronic Frontier