The Internet is basically a data transmission infrastructure not unlike a telephone system. A conventional telephone system transmits data just as the Internet does. We interpret this data as audible sound (a voice) because the traditional end-user devices that are connected to a telephone network — the telephones themselves — were built to do just that: transform electrical signals to sound waves (that we perceive as voices) and vice versa. We became more conscious of telecommunication networks as data networks when we started connecting other kinds of signal-processing devices to it: teletype machines, facsimile machines and, yes, computers. These are devices that transform the signals transmitted across the network into forms of information comprehensible to humans other than voice and sound (text, static and moving images, etc.) and information comprehensible to other machines.
Different ways of packaging and modulating signals transmitted through networks have been developed to fit the nature and performance of the devices being connected to it. But the principle remains essentially the same.
So why is “high speed Internet” a big deal? According to a “declaration” issued jointly by “telecommunications and information ministers from the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum”…
“We recognize that enhancing opportunities to access information through initiatives such as infrastructure development need to be a priority.”
The ministers welcomed that APEC economies have “largely” achieved their goal of “universal Internet access by 2010” in terms of infrastructure, the document said. The goal was set in 2000.
“We reaffirm our commitment toward achieving the goal of universal access to (current-generation) broadband in the APEC region by 2015,” it added.
What exactly are the reasons used to justify making high-speed Internet access available to as many people as possible such a high priority? If we stop to think about it, there is no convincing answer. My opinion on this matter stems from this simple principle:
The only thing that is driving the demand for higher speed data transmission capability is the richness of the media that can be channeled through our devices.
Compared to telegraph machines, for example, telephones offer richer media to its users — because voice and sound is a richer form of medium for communicating information to human beings than the morse code to which telegraph machines are limited to. High-fidelity stereo (two-channel) sound is, in turn, a richer medium that goes well beyond the requirements for transmitting legible voice information. That capability is a demand placed on our networks by the music industry (which continues to push the envelope on our “entertainment systems” as we go into multiple channels required for “surround sound”). So on with static images, and then moving images (video), interactive media (Web 2.0 and networked games, video conferencing), and so on and so forth.
How much value to our quality of life does modern rich media transmission capability contribute? A lot. Whereas in the past, we delighted in merely conversing with our loved ones one at a time over the telephone, we are now able to simultaneously exchange photos, videos, text, and voice information with a huge number of family members, “friends”, and acquaintances using just one device. Indeed, we lead a “richer” — albeit technology-dependent — life because of all these advancements.
But let us alter the question a bit and ask ourselves this:
How much value to our productivity does every additional unit of speed with which we send and receive data add to our lives?
It seems to me that we are in the midst of that point of inflection in productivity growth relative to bandwidth available to us. Much of the phenomenal speed and scale at which we do business today (as well as the phenomenal speed and scale at which we manage to crash our financial markets) can be attributed directly to the immense progress in technologies that compress more and more data into less and less space and time.
This point of inflection, specifically, can be felt in the way bandwidth availability continues to grow, while significant gains in productivity start to taper off. Time wasted on checking Facebook and Twitter feeds, thanks to mobile technologies, has started to encroach on income-generating work — such as our office time — and much of the other real work that actually yields stuff with substance. Whereas we once felt the joy of having a 2,000-word article load onto our browsers within seconds compared to the two to five odd minutes it once took over a dial-up network, today that same 2000-word article loads even faster but this time it comes with an unsightly payload of unwanted rich media ads rendered in garish animated images and videos that compete for attention as we struggle to focus on the real content in the page. Some of today’s Web ads are so sophisticated that they are no longer content to sit on the fringes of the average Web page, going as far as splashing themselves on top of primary page content.
All that unwanted stuff because the mediium can.
So therefore I ask: Is there really a point of real substance around which these calls for more bandwidth accessible to more people are made?
Does richer media delivered necessarily translate to richer knowledge and richer meaning gained by the receiver?
These are the questions that are begging to be asked in the face of an almost universal inclination in society today to see more bandwidth and more technology available to more people as necessarily a good thing.
Perhaps those who stand to gain the most from the ability to put a moving picture of Ronald McDonald in front of our faces on as many devices we own as possible are not exactly keen on having those questions mulled over by insightful minds.