September II 2008

18 September 2008

Fredric Morris, Editor-In-Chief, Connect-World
Fredric Morris
Editor-In-Chief
Connect-World

For whom Bell tolled

I read a rather ordinary press release last week about a consumer product – a good product likely to have a good market. A product, nevertheless, that like so many others, we never knew we needed. According to the release, the product was based upon research from Bell Labs.

There are so many products based upon research from Bell Labs, that this is not news, but it reminded me of the Lab’s history.

I can think of no other corporate research facility quite like Bell Labs at its prime. The world we know would be a much different, much poorer, place without the basic research that built the fame of Bell Labs. Can you imagine a world without the transistor, the lasers, information theory, UNIX, the C programming language or the mobile phone?

Many of the biggest questions science is struggling to answer today – the sort of questions that prompted countries around the world to invest US$ 9 billion in the EU’s CERN atomic research facility’s LHC super atom smasher – were first raised because Bell Labs ‘invented’ radio astronomy.

In 1931, Bell Labs’ Karl Jansky investigated the causes of the hissing, the static that plagued long-distance shortwave communications and found something wholly unexpected – the centre of our galaxy was emitting powerful radio waves

This discovery gave birth to radio astronomy and paved the way for the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to two Bell Labs researchers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, for their discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation – the radio remnants of the Big Bang.

Bell labs researchers won five other Nobel prizes as well:

Can you imagine the world today without the transistor?

The list of brilliant Bell Labs researchers, the list of prizes, of truly important scientific breakthroughs and the list of the inventions born there is far from restricted to those that won the Nobel Prize. The first workable fax machine, synchronous sound motion pictures, the first long-distance television transmission, the ‘cell’ that gives cell phones their name, the seamless handoffs between cells and many other technologies that make mobile telephony what it is, were all from the Labs. So too was Claude Shannon the father of modern cryptography and the father of information theory. The list is long, far too long to deal with here.

I never worked at Bell Labs, but I do have a very personal and long-standing attachment to the Labs.

The Chairman of the Physics Department at my New York City High School worked with William Shockley at Bell Labs during the 1940s. He was there when the transistor was invented. His stories of the research going on at the Labs, where he also served as a consultant, and his courses in solid state theory and practice, at a time when few universities taught this at an undergraduate level (observers came from as far as Japan), inspired me to study physics at the university.

To me, to my generation at school, Bell Labs was a powerful, legendary, influence. A friend’s cat was even named Jansky after the discoverer of the hissing from space – what can you expect from a nerd? Jansky hissed at everyone and everything and often came back from his nightly rounds badly clawed and bitten until, one day, may he rest in peace, he didn’t return.

Many years ago, looking for solutions to some difficult radio communications problems – now long resolved, but beyond even Bell Labs at the time – I spent a good deal of time there as a client. It was a memorable experience – work sessions with brilliant people, tours of the labs to see the latest developments, meetings with some of the best theorists of the time.

In one lab, two wires connected to a rather messy looking bunch of circuits and devices were hooked to a screen. The end of each wire was held in a clamp with a micrometer-type adjusting screw. The clamps were mounted on a workbench so the ends of the wires rested point-to-point on a glass slab. A researcher dripped a bit of colourless liquid, immersing the ends of both wires, and turned the adjusting screws until the ends of the wires were aligned within the liquid. The screen came to life and showed that a signal was flowing along the wires.

The ‘wires’ were, in fact, among the world’s very first optical fibres; a laboratory curiosity at the time. No one had yet figured out a good way to splice the ends of the fibres so they dropped a bit of liquid with the same refractive index as the fibres between the ends to make the connection. They eventually resolved the splicing problem. Twenty years ago, in 1988, Bell Labs’ TAT-8 became the first trans- Atlantic fibre optic cable.

That same day I saw the fibre demonstration, researchers in another nearby lab demonstrated one of the first experiments in Free Space Optics (FSO) using lasers to transmit data between two points. In one of the most bizarre demonstrations of explicit ‘geekness’ I have ever seen, a rather awkward researcher climbed on a chair, frantically flapped his arms and jumped through the beam to show how a bird could disrupt the signal. I grabbed and kept him from stumbling to the floor.

I could go on.

John Donne (1572-1631) wrote of the ties that bind us one to another. “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main … therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Bell Labs tolled for us all; it rang the changes of a new world, and tunes now ring from transistorised devices around the globe. Today, the bell tolls the passing of an era, not just at Bell, but at corporate facilities everywhere. The bell also celebrates the greatness of vision that looked for the unforeseeable and saw the birth of the information society – that looked for the causes of radio static, but saw galaxies and the beginnings of the universe.

And for whom did Bell toil; why it toiled for thee.

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The next issue of Connect-World Latin America will be published early next month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows such as: Futurecom (São Paulo, Brazil October 27th to 30th).

The theme for this issue will be Merging and converging – work, life and ICT.

The convergence of networks, technologies, devices and applications has changed our lives – even the lives of those that don’t use a computer or a cell phone – it’s inescapable. Our lives and our lifestyles have changed – lifestyles that depend upon ICT, digital lifestyles, are evolving. This is happening, not only in the world’s great cities, but everywhere reached by digital communications – anywhere a mobile phone works or a cyber café exists. The companies we work for, the companies we deal with, the governments we depend upon and the services they provide, our entertainment, our finances, our security, our health, our social networking and many other aspects of our lives have merged into the worldwide digital universe. ICTs surround us just as surely and pervasively as air.

The ICT sector created the conditions for this change, but users of every type – businesses, governments, manufacturers, individuals and so forth – are now driving the change and shaping the sector’s technological priorities, the solutions, applications and content. The more you have the more you want; the demand is insatiable

This issue of Connect-World Latin America will examine the growing impact this pervasive digitalization of our lives and lifestyles is having upon the ICT sector, businesses, government and society.

Latin America 2008 Media Pack; Click here

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September I 2008

4 September 2008

Fredric Morris, Editor-In-Chief, Connect-World
Fredric Morris
Editor-In-Chief
Connect-World

From Democrats, to democracy to Internet demos (δήμος)

For many years, I have worked with a small television on my desk, usually with the news – CNN, BBC or a local channel – burbling along, barely audible. I rarely pay much attention; I have a neuron or two that monitors the TV and lets me know when something important is happening. These neurons bypass the daily bumph, the feel-good features, the glop that turns any woman into a supermodel and the latest must-have technology that does something no rational person really wants. If something important happens, like 9/11, my watch-neuron rings an alarm

A few days ago, with the Democratic Party National Convention rolling along in the background, I got a wakeup call from my watch-neuron. A participants on one of those panels of distinguished figures, academics and reporters, that re-hash the obvious or speculate knowingly about things none has more direct knowledge of than I do, spoke of online, viral, political marketing.

Viral marketing refers to marketing campaigns that depend upon word of mouth or the Internet – especially via social networks – to spread information, stories, product promotions and such in much the same way viruses, both human and computer, propagate. Viral marketing campaigns are designed to be passed voluntarily from person to person. The information might be in a song, a video clip, text messages, an advertisement, a game and image of some sort – anything that conveys an idea. What caught my attention was a statement by one of the panellists that, on average, people pass along good news, a favourable review – whatever they agree with – to three people. On the other hand, when people do not like something they tell eleven other people.

I don’t know if the ‘3 – 11’ rule was discovered by serious researchers, or if someone invented it on the spur of the moment to win an argument. When I mentioned the rule to a friend that had phoned me – a marketing type, not much given to scholarly pursuits or reflection – he quickly said, ‘sure, everyone knows that’. I didn’t, and I was amazed that he did. It made me wonder if that statistic itself wasn’t a bit of virally propagated misinformation.

Correct or not, the ‘3 – 11’ rule sounds like it should be right, so people believe it – they want to believe it – and, besides, it’s a good line; it sounds scientific enough to sidetrack a discussion when you run out of facts.

The panel’s ‘expert’, explained that conservatives were using the Internet and social networks to accelerate the spread of viral marketing – especially negative marketing – aimed at Obama, the Democrat’s nominee for President of the United States. He was probably right, at least in this.

As they spoke of negative marketing, I thought of the ways technology influences so many aspect of our world, including the election for the President of the USA and I remembered something I had read, somewhere, earlier during the week. I still don’t remember where. It was one of those interesting things you come across while chasing another subject, but have no time to look into it. It had something to do with MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and cultural convergence.

A little Googling got me to the site of the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium.

Cultural convergence, as the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium (C3) describes it, is a marketing-related phenomenon, “an emerging pattern of relations bringing together entertainment, advertising, brands, and consumers in creative and often surprising ways. These new relations are underpinned by three key concepts: transmedia entertainment, participatory culture, and experiential marketing”.

The site surprised me; MIT C3 site’s emphasis on marketing, branding and advertising surprised me.

I had expected MIT would have adopted a somewhat broader-based cultural/social/ political/economic approach to the question. They have identified a major technology-driven cultural trend, but are looking – or so it seems – only at the technology, techniques and business implications of this sociological revolution.

MIT has done some amazing work on language sciences, cognitive science, especially during the Steven Pinker era at MIT, and other more human-centred studies, including at its famous Media Laboratory. Despite this, MIT has always been better known as a technology and business (Sloan School of Management) centred institution, so the C3 emphasis might be a reflection of what is commonly perceived to be MIT’s traditional world view. Or is it?

I suspect that MIT’s investigations cover a much broader universe than its avowed marketing / advertising focus.

The political campaigns in the USA have shown the convergence between technologies, content and the de facto sort of social and political engineering, although just beginning, is a powerful force. The campaign inspired viral messaging also shows us that the C3 vision is correct, but very short-sighted; the convergence of technologies with media is much more than a marketing phenomenon, just as viral messaging is more than just a marketing tool. The convergence of technology with such socially manipulative tools as viral messaging has the potential to change the course of society, to change governments, to change the world.

Today, converged, viral, messaging is powerful, but still primitive. It uses social networks to spread commercial messages, political messages, spiritual messages and even the words of terrorist and hate groups. As primitive and inefficient as it is, it still gets the message across. It works well spreading messages about the supposed sins, foibles, weaknesses, questionable activities and questionable past of political candidates – the 3 – 11 rule. I expect that before long – and with the help of groups such as C3 – the effectiveness of technology-enhanced positive viral messaging will improve, although given human nature I doubt it will fully rival that of the negative.

I wonder if those studying media/technology convergence and the tools it enhances, such as viral messaging, are ‘in denial’ regarding its potentially broader impact, or are just trying to downplay the Orwellian overtones, the connotations of mind control, that hover over any use of technology to convince people, to instigate mass movements or to manipulate popular perceptions. I suspect C3 chose to speak only of advertising, branding and marketing for reasons such as these.

Perhaps C3 is right to be careful about the way it presents itself; when I first looked at their site this week, I was deeply suspicious about the possible exploitation and misuse of viral messaging. Sure, the potential exists, but closer examination of the danger took the edge off my worst fears. Unlike in the past, when the state or a few well-defined media groups controlled the means of mass communication, the Internet is open to all and notoriously hard to control. Even individuals can easily – at no cost – use their own Internet-powered messages to counter-attack malicious attempts to manipulate mass perceptions.

It seems that with the help of technology we have come full circle. Democrats and democracy are both words and concepts derived from the Greek demos – the people, the citizens, of the ancient Greek states that had equal privilege and voice in the public assemblies that ruled the state. Today, the Internet is the public assembly where we all have a voice, and when we all have a voice, tyrannies – political or marketing – find it harder to flourish.

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Our next Connect-World EMEA Issue will be published early next month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows such as: IBC Amsterdam (12-16 Sept) Carriers World (London, UK, 23-26 Sept) Broadband World Forum Europe (Brussels, Belgium, 29 Sept-2 Oct) and AfricaCom (18-19 Nov, Cape Town South Africa).

The theme for this issue will be Convergence and data – pushing the limits of the network.

The Internet has changed our world and the global economy. We are now entering a new stage in its growth. Web 2.0, collaboration, virtual worlds and mashups are all part of it. Also parts of the new Web are the evolutionary moves towards the semantic/ intelligent web, IPv6, the growth in enterprise services that are not a mere extension of existing services and financial services such as mobile cash and credit. The Web is also revolutionising education, healthcare, government and social services in general. The impact of this upon the world’s ICT infrastructure is hard to calculate, but you see and feel the effects wherever you are in the region – or the world.

EMEA 2008 Media Pack; Click here