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Looking Ahead Twenty Years at Communications and Civilization.

I would like to look ahead, well ahead, say at least 20 years, and speculate on how the overall structure and organization of telecommunications may have been affected by new technology and the demands placed on telecommunications by the information society.

In my mind there is no escaping the fact that the forthcoming information society will have a profound effect on civilization as we know it today.

The potential of the new combined telecommunication/data processing applications is so great and their impact will be so fundamental that we have to look at broad implications rather than concentrate on the possible effect of specific devices such as videoscopes, home computers, and so on, the design of which may change so that their detailed use might also change. Similarly, we have to recognize that civilization is a global concept which implies the existence of fundamental values and a long term stability of these values. The trends I shall therefore be trying to identify are those which are not likely to change with the coming or going of any particular device.

Before I go any further I wish to tell you that I take a resolutely positive view of the potential and usefulness of the new communication media and that I strongly believe in a sound middle-of-the road approach, in which both the innovative capacity of industry and the watch dog function of government have essential roles to play.

Having said this, I would now like to address the issue of the smooth long-term development of computer communications and its optimum application is a social, cultural and economic context.

The problem is to try and situate how human motivation and technological possibilities are going to shape the future communications environment. The first question we have to ask ourselves is "Are there any basic issues which we must not overlook?". In other words, "Do we run the risk of not seeing the wood for the sake of trees?" In Communications Revolution Now!

When I consider the interplay of technological progress and human motivation on the provision of telecommunication services in some 20 years time, I am struck by very basic things.

The first is the ease . . . and here we have to be very careful . . . with which we can overlook the extent and significance of the communications revolution which is taking place right now. We are in the middle of it all. Are we really aware of what is happening and drawing conclusions for the long term future? Do we realize the magnitude of the communications revolution and the sweeping changes it is likely to bring?

For years we have been used to a limited number of telecommunication services (telephone and sound broadcasting for example) and suddenly we find new services are coming into being which offer possibilities very different from what we have known so far.

It is of vital importance that we all recognize, at this turning point in the history of telecommunications, that the availability of a diversity of telecommunications facilities must not lead to a fragmentation of telecommunications. Fragmentation would be a most serious mistake.

We should keep in mind that the convergence of the technology used in the various branches of telecommunications . . . notably the much wider use of digital techniques . . . will bring together forms of telecommunication which have so far existed separate from one another.

Following on from what I have just said, is the need to be vigilant and ensure that diversity does not lead also to a cleavage between North and South as far as the broad long-term telecommunication planning goals and objectives are concerned.

Telecommunication technology development has reached a stage where planners, depending upon the level of development of an area, have already one of two main objectives: either providing basic or essential telecommunications . . . or installing the systems which will provide advanced integrated services (even if only at the level where new equipment has the potential to provide these facilities).

Consequently, there is a need for a long-term view of overall telecommunication development which provides, in a practical way, for an organic relationship between the most basic requirements of the have-nots and the most advanced applications now coming into use or foreseen in highly developed countries.

The development problems of the world are too great for us to suppose that the technical standards necessary to provide for the interconnectability of equipment of different degrees of sophistication will by themselves suffice to ensure, in many developing countries, the type of network development which we are witnessing in highly developed countries.

We should be able to apply the new communication tools to the development process and this to a sufficient degrees to make a satisfactory impact . . . that is in a highly targetted way . . . at the same time as basic telecommunications are being introduced and extended.

To have visual display terminals and their associated systems introduced in a developing country while the plain-old-telephone stil needs a great expansion is not a luxury. The administrative data needs of developing countries may seem simpler to some, but the need for precise and reliable transmission of information and data is just as great as it is in the highly developed countries. In fact, it might even be argued that the use of various types of data systems will increase business and government efficiency as they will bring about the use of more precise data for decision making.

I have particularly stressed this need to avoid any cleavage in the planning aims of the developing and developed world (which might result from the communications revolution) because we cannot envisage the future information society unless we are determined to see the world's telecommunications facilities as a global whole, notwithstanding the fact that the level of technology applied in highly developed countries will be much more sophisticated than that generally used in many developing countries.

To have some idea of what this future will look like, we need new working hypotheses.

May I suggest that one could analyse this matter from the point of view of human needs and motivation and from the kind of telecommunication environment we are likely to have in the future.

The wide variety of communication and computer communications applications either already available or becoming possible enables us to look at the question of civilization and the information society in a new way.

We can start by considering, in broad terms, what the needs will be in say 20 years time for various categories of communication usage as they derive from a balanced perspective of human motivation and technological possibilities.

In many developing countries the emphasis will continue to be on the basic or essential telecommunications required for simple economic and social needs. In other words, those communications which make the difference between total ignorance of events and knowing enough to be able to take the most elementary action required; these basic or essential telecommunications are, in effect, provided through the conventional telephone system and sound broadcasting. One must not overlook that considerable progress has been made in the last few years as far as the use of the two-way telephone circuit for the economic transmission of data and information is concerned.

In the very highly developed countries, on the other hand, we could possibly find the start of a new grouping of telecommunication services along the following lines: first, inter-personal communications in a sense where a person or group of persons is addressing one or more other persons in a social or cultural context; this will be the integrated telecommunication system as it will be available to private homes in highly developed countries once the effect of the impeding convergence of telecommunication technologies (telephone, cable-television systems, data transmission, optical fibres) is fully felt; and second, administrative communications which really cover all business and government transactions, including banking, commerce, transport, etc., in other words, the large-scale users of telecommunications.

I suppose your immediate reaction, when considering the above categories of communication, will be that they may overlap and that they do not correspond to grouping of applications or telecommunication services as we presently recognize these.

I concede this, but then today's categories and distinctions will not necessarily continue to apply indefinitely. To see why structural change is possible, we have to look back to find out what it is that has changed. Users Will Have Choice

Users of telecommunication services have had, until recently, to adapt their use of these services to what it was possible to do with them.

Future technology, on the other hand, will enable users to choose applications or systems which have inputs and outputs much closer to what these users would employ if they were in a face-to-face situation or if there were no need for telecommunication.

We have to keep in mind that the three basic forms of telecommunications: the telegram (record) service, the telephone service, and the sound broadcasting service. They formed the main infrastructure of telecommunication development until relatively recently, and represent communications media with quite distinct constraints if we consider future communication possibilities.

Indeed, we do not even have to project ourselves into the future.

The difference between what was possible in the sense of "communication" using the medium wave broadcasting say 1983 . . . when receivers were already quite good . . . and color television with stereophonic sound which we can have today, already illustrates this point quite clearly.

Of course, this does not mean to say that the original telecommunications services are fundamentally inadequate; they will continue to be essential.

Nevertheless already today . . . and this will become more so as the new applications and services come into use . . . there is substantial choice at the technological level.

This choice can furthermore have as a consquence that the user is less and less aware of the communication function as something constraining his action. Perhaps the most evident example is accessing a data base. In most cases the user need not be aware of whether the data base is physically in the room next door or thousands of kilometers away.

The fact that we have technological choice. . . which we have to weigh carefully against economic considerations . . . means that we can view progress and development along the three broad axes or categories of communication usage I have already outlined; technological choice has opened the possibility of a different telecommunication facilities structure to the one we know today.

To illustrate this point we can consider the kind of telecommunications which each of the three categories of communication usage are likely to need.

There is in my mind little doubt that basic or essential telecommunications will rely on the "plain old telephone" and sound broadcasting, the telephone circuit and its associated facilities meeting the demand for various kinds of two-way communications and information transfer.

I shall restrict my observations to the telephone.

The telephone has some very desirable features. It is easy to install and the subscriber equipment need not be too complex. It is easy to use as it requires no special training or skills to make a telephone call. Many countries are of sufficient size to warrant some indigenous telephone equipment production and what is more, there is still a tremendous need for telephones for this most basic purpose.

A very large part of the world's population is, for example, still not within reasonable walking distance (two hours there and two hours back) from even an ordinary telephone. Telephone circuits can furthermore be used for many data transmission purposes. The telephone networks can therefore be used to provide the backbone of a data transmission network in those parts of the world where integrated or specialized networks will, for economic reasons, have to wait.

We can see from this that the scope for social and economic good offered by even the most elementary telecommunications is tremendous and, last but by no means least, the telephone forms part of a world-wide network.

We can, I feel, safely say that only good can come from providing basic telecommunications wherever they are needed. They are a necessity and they provide the communication which, when required, make it possible to take at least the most elementary remedial action. Without such communications, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to request urgent help or assistance or to be warned of impending dangers or to provide essential infrastructures needed for national development objectives.

That is the essential issue when it comes to considering the merits of basic telecommunications.

In countries where the technology can be afforded, integrated interpersonal communications will become available. It is difficult to envisage the full range of these communications, especially when we consider the many cultural, social and economic aspects of personal communications in highly developed countries. One can furthermore assume that it will be the category of communication most likely to require the widest variety of techniques.

There would be many uses of interpersonal communications. These would range from the desire to get in touch with a member of the family or a friend to listening to and watching a play, concert or football match and it would include news and different levels of formal and informal education.

One can imagine the kind of system that we could ultimately have with either small individual terminals (combined with telephones) or large screen installations with stereo sound which could be used indifferently for person-to-person communications, inter-active applications and mass media entertainment. The whole system would be connected by optical fibre networks plus a certain input from satellites for material not available over the optical fibre system. The system would, for instance, allow and individual to have a videophone conversation with his family assembled as a whole, just like it would permit a subscriber watching a local news item to call his friend in a distant town or country and feed the item on to him for his information.

Such a system would have few if any limitations in terms of what it could do. It could store texts, sounds and images and recall them on distant command. Just how we would use such a system and what new uses we would find will of course remain to be seen, but I am convinced that it would have a profound effect on our daily lives. It would change our life styles.

Finally, I wish to come to what I have called administrative communications.

We have, I believe, to recognize that the large-scale use of telecommunications--such as by industry, banking, etc.--will, in due course, lead to specific operating patterns and service requirements different to those of private users.

This separation between administrative and private communications of course does not imply the existence of separate or distinct networks. It is far more a conceptual issue of operating practices and possibly protecting specific user interests and needs. Standards Protective, Not Restrictive

A very important point I want to make here is that standards, recommnended practices and, where applicable, regulations, need not necessarily be seen as having "restrictive" functions. Such regulations, standards and recommended practices can be "protective" of user interests. They provide an environment which assures, among other things, the long-term availability of telecommunications services. This is an aspect of the matter which will become more and more evident as telecommunications play an increasingly vital part in modern business and once they stand out as a key element in the achievement of economic and social development.

As we look to the future and the information society we have to recognize that this society will to some extent be shaped, not only by technological advances, but also by the recommended practices and legislative texts which will form the framework in which the communication process takes place.

The telecommunication facilities of the future will, like those of today, be the subject of standard setting, recommended practices and regulations. Wholly independently of the extent to which, and the instruments by which, governments will wish to adopt standards for or regulate telecommunications, two things should be kept in mind: first, national telecommunication sovereignty. No country immaterial of whether it has state-run or privately operated telecommunications, can afford to abandon its telecommunication sovereignty: and, second, no country can ignore the social, economic, administrative and cultural impact telecommunications will have, so much so that contingencies will arise for which it will be necessary in some way to legislate or regulate the use of telecommunications. Individual Versus Group

One of the basic problems with any kind of recommended practice, standard or regulation is that the standard setting or legislative authorities have to reconcile the interests of the individual with those of the group or society as a whole.

It could happen that countries might therefore wish to ensure that the citizen . . . as the user of inter-personal communications . . . is not restricted in his use of telecommunications by precautions which might become desirable or necessary with respect to administrative communications.

I do not want to sound as if I anticipate difficulties with administrative communications, but as you all know this is an area of great sensitivity about which a certain number of governments are concerned and which is already the subject of significant legislations in some countries.

Personally, I feel it is still somewhat too early for clear patterns to emerge because system operators do not yet have enough experience with administrative data entered from the home. Nevertheless it is a matter which has to be mentioned if we want to consider possible formative influences related to the future information society.

Looking ahead and speaking in general terms, we may assume that regulatory structures for telecommunications will shift from the regulation of telecommunication services as we have understood them so far, for example, the public telegram service, broadcasting, etc. to the regulation . . . not necessarily by mandatory regulations, recommendations and standards may suffice in many cases . . . of data flows.

The practical basis for this trend becomes apparent when we consider the Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) in which it will no longer be possible to distinguish between speech and data.

We do not as yet know what the detailed operational and administrative consequences of this technical progress will be. Future ITU telecommunication texts will, however, have to provide for the specificity of inter-active applications. We have also to consider that quite a number of countries already have digital services of one kind or another. Trend Will Be to Open Systems

The main driving force behind such a reorientation of our perspective of public correspondence telecommunications regulations will probably be that the communication systems, such as of banks, airlines, etc. are going to become more and more open in that customers will be able to make payments or book flights from their home terminal. The trend towards more open systems is bound to increase if we are all to benefit fully from the new technology.

Open systems give rise to new questions of responsibility, especially when the persons entering and receiving data for action are no longer the agents or paid employees of the system operators. This will be particularly the case for international correspondence between countries with different legal regimes.

It is only a matter of time until we shall have to address such questions and the issue is one of great importance to users and telecommunication authorities alike if civilization is to reap the full benefit of the information society. In fact, if it is not effectively resolved, it could stunt the development of the facilities to which we are all looking forward.

I sincerely hope to have given you food for thought in this rather very short survey of a possible broad structure for telecommunications in the future in the context of the social, economic, administrative and cultural environments which they should serve.

In any field of endeavour, the practical solutions which are the most effective and lasting are those which have a sound theoretical basis and he who wants to go far must have good maps based on a detailed survey of the terrain to be covered.

I therefore consider it particularly appropriate to initiate thinking about some of these problems intimately linked with the subject "Civilization and the Information Society".

The technical trend which is evident before us is that the equipment which we have been used to . . . the telephone, data terminals and home entertainment installations . . . will blend into something new. We have to think about this future and be ready to plan and work for it.
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Author:Butler, R.E.
Publication:Communications News
Date:Sep 1, 1984
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