From Tog on Software Design

The Coming Decade

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All hell is about to break loose. The computer revolution that has come before is nothing compared to the cataclysmic tidal wave of change that we are about to visit on human society as phones, fiber, and computers converge. In the next ten years, the world will become wired. National boundaries will cease to exist as information--good, bad, legal, illegal, useful, trivial, hard science or soft porn--flashes around the world.

Governments are struggling valiantly to contain and control the beast, but it is far too late. Such muddle-headed ideas as the clipper chip are meaningless. Sure, the government can force its citizens to spend millions on encryption chips that the government alone can break into, but the bad guys will only pre-encrypt the information themselves so that when the government does break in, they will find nothing but gibberish.

For the next several years, individuals will enjoy the benefits of private encryption, while large banks and institutions, under the watchful eye of the government, will comply with a standard decipherable by talented children. Ultimately, the government will be forced to relent.

The government of Singapore banned Wired Magazine from their island after Wired had published a somewhat unflattering article by William Gibson entitled, "Disneyland with the Death Penalty." Almost immediately, HotWired, the augmented Internet version of Wired, appeared in its place. HotWired has been operating with impunity in Singapore ever since. Traffic on the Internet cannot be selectively stopped without stopping the Internet itself, and if anyone were to attempt to stop the Internet now, much of the world's economy would stop with it.

Intellectual property laws are being left in disarray as graphic designers and artists generate new art from old, snipping bits and pieces into a new creative whole, often without the niceties of royalty payment. Some of what is going on is outright thievery, but we are also seeing the emergence of a new and powerful form of expression, as works grow, change, and divide, with each new artist adding to these living collages of color, form, and action. If history repeats itself--and it will--we can expect a period of increasing repression as corporate intellectual property attorneys try desperately to hold onto the past.

Their efforts will finally wither as cyberspace becomes the money pump the corporations have dreamed of and the hackers fear. However, people will not be paying $1000 or $2000 dollars for the rights to a snippet of someone else's photograph. They will pay 1¢ or 2¢. The profit will come from several billion people snipping snippets, instead of the few dozen will deep enough pockets to afford today's enormous fees. As the revolution continues, our society will enjoy a blossoming of creative expression the likes of which the world has never seen.

While the news is filled with the antics of the young computer cat burglars on the FBI's Most Wanted list, some of America's largest software companies are sneaking across networks, rummaging through America's boardrooms and bedrooms, further renting the tattered curtain of America's illusion of privacy. Security is as much an illusion, as naïve, idealistic hackers automate their activities and release them, copyright-free, to an awaiting world of less talented thieves and charlatans. Orwell's prediction of intrusion is indeed coming true, but government is taking a back seat to the activities of both our largest corporations and our next-door neighbors. The trend will be reversed as the network is finally made safe, both for business and for individuals, but it will be accomplished by new technology, new social custom, and new approaches to law. The old will not work.

The last computer revolution, in the 1980's, produced a completely unexpected result: desktop publishing, the final chapter in the history of printing. Today, thousands of "zines"--magazines with an attitude,--struggle in the absence of any reasonable distribution system to carry their idiosyncratic messages to the world. Within a couple of years, this last flourish of the printer's art will have left the real world for the wonders of Cyberspace. Writers will no longer need to curry the favor of a publisher to be heard, and readers will be faced with a bewildering array of unrefereed, often inaccurate (to put it mildly), works.

Today, few people would want to read an entire book such as this on a 72 dot-per-inch, fuzzy computer screen, but within only a few more years, electronic readers thinner than this book, featuring high-definition, paper-white displays, will begin the slow death-knell for the tree mausoleums we call bookstores.

Bookstores are not the only social institution under threat from the growth of Cyberspace. Every retail business from small stores to shopping centers to even the large discount superstores will feel an increasing pinch from mail-order, as people shop comfortably and safely in the privacy of their own homes from electronic, interactive catalogs.

Our lives at work are beginning to undergo radical change. More and more corporations are embracing telecommuting, freeing their workers from the drudgery of the morning commute and society from the wear, tear, upkeep, and pollution of their physical vehicles. They will flit around Cyberspace instead, leaving in their wake only a trail of ones and zeros.

Even schools, by the turn of the century, will be dragged kicking and screaming into the present, finally coming to accept that their job is to help students learn how to research, how to organize, how to cooperate, create, and think. Dry-as-dust, committee-created and politically-safe textbooks will be swept away by the tide of rough, raw, real knowledge pouring forth from the Cyberspace spigot.

Information Superhighway

Saying "Information Superhighway" is no longer cool. And there's a good reason: It is not even close to accurate. Cyberspace is no more a highway than is the United States Interstate Highway System a choo-choo train. Cyberspace is an ephemeral web woven of glass and silicon, ether and ideas. It is at once the concrete reality of your nearest phone pole, the abstraction of an electromagnetic wave hurling itself from 22,300 miles in space, and the mysticism of the minds and spirits of millions of people scattered across the earth tied inextricably together through the power and expression of knowledge and wisdom.

Some will find that definition just a bit nausea-provoking in its romantic lyricism, but let me assure you that my only failing is in capturing the full majesty of what Cyberspace will soon become. It will be an alternate universe that will be just as sensory, just as real, just as compelling as the physical universe to which we have until now been bound.

Today's legislatures still dream of setting up a highway patrol and tollbooths along the Information Superhighway's length, ready to keep their citizens in line and extract taxes from them. How disappointed they will be when they eventually discover the truth, for a new electronic economy will likely soon rise, based on a system of barter and anonymous electronic currency that not even the finest nets of government intrusion will be able to sieve.

The Haves and Have Nots

In 1994, several important meetings of important people were held to discuss the crushing problem of those poor unfortunates who will be excluded from Cyberspace. The usual band of people representing the have-nots of the past, the poor and minorities, showed up to demand special relief (money) for their constituencies, and the politicians made their usual impassioned speeches about how much they care. Then everyone went home.

We were once again applying old thinking to a new problem. When electronic calculators first came out and cost $500, "rich" children were not allowed to use them at school because it might give them an advantage in their education that other students might not have. Those objections soon collapsed as calculators began showing up as prizes in cereal boxes. Cybercerial is just around the corner. The poor and minorities will not long be excluded from Cyberspace. Short-term, it's a problem. Long-term, it will become a non-issue, as programmers might say.

We do face the real prospect of millions, perhaps billions, of have-nots shut out of cyberspace, and this threat has little to do with economic status, country of origin, race, creed, or color. Instead, it has everything to do with age, gender, education, culture, and attitude. If Cyberspace today were to have a dead-honest advertising slogan, it would read:

Built by Boys, for Boys!

Wylie: "Far from offering a millennial new world of democracy and equal opportunity, the coming web of information systems could turn the clock back 50 years for women." The 18 to 39 year-old males of above average intelligence and education who have built today's cyberspace have built it for themselves. Large parts of it reflect the delicate ambiance of a automobile junkyard. We must make fundamental changes in the direction of computer design if the true have-nots of cyberspace are not to be those rare individuals who do not feel instantly comfortable clattering over mounds of metallic twisted wreckage. In other words, most people.

People today want to embrace all manner of new technology, if only we will provide an easier, softer way. The first direct broadcast satellite system was launched in mid-1994. Its first-year sales exceeded one million units, easily outpacing the first-year volume of radio, television, VCRs, music Compact Disk players, and personal computers combined. The cable companies dubbed it the "Deathstar" as their customers fled from forty years of high prices, mediocre technology, and cavalier service.

The direct broadcast satellite industry did more business in their first six months than the older, large-dish satellite industry did in their first decade. Why? The new systems are simple and approachable. Even more people edged out onto the World Wide Web in its debut year, escaping a similar tyranny of technological complexity and confusion.

We are now poised to embark on a new chapter in computer science. The three major operating systems in use today, DOS/Windows, Macintosh, and Unix, were all launched in the seventies. They are old, tired, and creaking under the weight of today's tasks and opportunities. A new generation of object-oriented systems is waiting in the wings.

The industry will have a choice of porting over the same tired, limited applications and interface technologies, or taking advantage of the powers that object-oriented systems will bring. We have some reason for concern. When the industry moved from Teletype printers to video displays, the designers mimicked every drawback and defect in the original mechanical technology. Today, more than 15 years after the wide-spread availability of bit-mapped displays, the tired, old Teletype look of MS DOS is only now fading from the scene. If North America is to remain the world's leading economy, we cannot afford to allow fifteen years to pass before fulfilling the promise of object-oriented technology.

Careening Toward the Future

A hook-and-ladder fire truck has two steering wheels. The one in front is used to set direction. The one in back is used to avoid killing and maiming people along the way. In my last book, Tog on Interface, I was speaking only to software designers. I have come to realize that they are too often at the back of the truck, personing the tiller. In front is a committee--high-level managers, low-level system engineers, government policy makers, marketers, buyers, and users--all grasping at the wheel of a vehicle that is hurtling toward the future.

If we are to achieve the promise of the future, we must stop using the front steering wheel of our fire truck like the floating pointer of a Ouija board, as we all fight to steer at once. We need to replace random twists and turns with long-term strategies and coordinated directions.

The convergence of phone, fiber, and computer is providing us with the opportunity to design and develop the most powerful machine in human history, a network of tightly-integrated computing environments. This machine will be built by hundreds of thousands of people working at tens of thousands of companies around the world.

Today, you can hardly pick up a newspaper without reading about a new industry alliance with the aim of building a proprietary communications structure, be it on land, sea, air, or outer space. They must not be built in isolation. These structures, both hardware and software, must be tied together, if we are not to be doomed to babble.

As our fire truck speeds along, we may want to consult the occasional road map. This book is just such a map. Like the maps of antiquity, it will eventually prove incomplete, inaccurate, and crude, but I offer it in hopes it might help us to stay the course until we catch sight of the fiery blaze ahead.

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