Santo Domingo, 15/11/91

Article written by: Daniel Pimienta Cientifical Advisor UNION LATINA

What is the social impact of using research and academic networks as a tool for communication? Is this impact going to be transformed in a true human revolution or is it going to be reserved to a limited amount of people (somehow like the CB radio phenomenon)?

An intensive user of networks definitively knows the huge impact of that technology in his communicating patterns, and from there, in his profesional life, and, finally, in his personal life, since communicating is probably one of the fundamental aspect of being a human.

How could this intensive user try to explain to others, who ignore the technology, the dimension and the nature of that impact?

It is not an easy task. We, networkers, have all tried, with no real success, to convey the original reality of how "hyper communication" is modifying our lifes. We first mentionned the suppression of geographical barreers, the rapidity and security of the message flow as key assets. We were obliged, answering to the fax comparison questions, to explain the tariff advantage, and the factor of integration of the communication, from the mind to the computer to the network, and from the network to the computer back and to the mind again. That was not enough to make the novice user really understands our new reality.

Analizing furthermore, we were obliged to recognize the naturship of e.mail: something combining the unformality and the spontaneity of voice communication with the value of structuration of thought and perennity of the written one: a completely new modality in communication. "And so what?" said the person who has never experiment the network!

We oriented our analyze toward the human implications. We identified the "positive attitude" of the networker, the complicity and friendshipness of the exchanges, the solidarity among the networkers (again the CB radio analogy). But we came short every time to convey the whole message.

After a last effort explaining that the network materializes the famous "invisible college" and create a race of professionals so aware of the value of information that they are ready to share it without stupid jaleous attitudes, we concluded that it was a question of apprentiship to really understand the bonanza of networking. And we stuck to this mixed feeling: the frustration to be non understood and the glory to belong to the very few mutants of the information era...

Why is it so? What makes these finally simple functionnalities (the network is very complex, but the communication service is rather simple) so hard to communicate. Communicating about hyper-communication: are we reaching a profond barreer? Something like the mortal loops which decorate the mathematical world of strange and inspiring paradoxs? Do the networkers have all passed behind the Alice's mirror?


Not so! The difficulty have to do with information theory, not the aspect of it which deal with the nature and effect of the channel but the one which deal with negative entropy and system complexity. The very question is to explain how a QUANTITATIVE JUMP may in turn provoke a QUALITITATIVE GAP. A possible analogy is the building of a 32 bits computer compared to a 16 bits. The boolean logic required to perform operations is much more than two times complex: in fact, it requires so much more, than the architecture of the machine is completely different. Another closest intuition of were the problem lies is the understanding of the intimate relationship between life and complexity, redundance and security, order and disorder (the strange mechanism which makes a molecule, in its path to more complexity, cross a barreer where it starts to behave like something closer to life since it is able to reproduct itself).

A human being is used to exchange a "normal" amount of information with his/her counterparts. In our times the possibilities are by voice, by written text or by images. I am confident that some researchers on Communication Science have already measured and classified the statistical distribution of the messages a human being is "used to" exchanges with the other human beings.

If one considers the written message communication (the letter or the document), it is easy to guess that the distribution have its bulk between 0.1 to 1 messages per day. An average of several unity per day would be rather rare, and so would be a peak of several tenth.

Where the networker differs from the other human beings, is in the fact he exchanges an average of 1 to 10 messages per day; that is an order of magnitude more. Here comes the quantitative jump, and from here derives the social impact. The multiplication by 10 does provoke some profound change in the communication pattern and hence in the "communicating way of life".

Beside the jump in the number of messages exchanged, comes the multiplication of the level of integration: the messages are not only meaningful, they are correlated. The "correlation matrix" is the best instrument to characterize complex systems, it have something to do with the measurement of the level of complexity of a system. The networker communication correlation matrix is large and full of non zero values...

Now we feel much better! We still do not know how to make the novice network user understand what may happen to him, but, at least, we understand why HE cannot understand. For him, ten times one message just make ten messages! For us, the result of that multiplication is the explosion of our communication boundaries, the beginning of an addictive compulsion toward the hyper communication world, the jump of our power of comitment and realisation, the blurring of the limits of our possibility to convey tasks requiring group interaction toward an effective and efficient end.


The number of networking users is said to be close of the 2 millions figure for the whole planet. Last few years have seen the integration of the various networks (by means of gateways) in a huge meta network ("The Matrix", ref 2). Is that exponential growth going to keep on? Is the network phenomena going to extend toward all the layers of the earth population? Is the telephone going to be replaced/extended by a network access in every home?

The question, in fact, is to forecast wether or not this technology will reach a mass market acceptance.

Let's provide a tool to analyze the situation. What are the key elements of decision which makes a technology reach or not wide acceptance? We could have a look to some technologies which have reached this level and create a real social impact in the world. We could consider the fire, the wheel, the antibiotics, the pills, the TV, the refrigerator or the computer, but let's concentrate in transportation technology, being persons, goods or information.

-the airline industry exists since few tenth of years but only recently appears a social revolution: the vacation mass market. -the train have more years of existence, but it's true social impact is to be found in goods transportation, -the car have an inquestionnable deep social impact, -the telephone have probably, more than the automobile, provoked the more discrete and implacable social revolution which have been experimented in the world;
-the more recent example of market acceleration and beginning of social impact (in the office) is the fax. Strange phenomenon, since the technology existed since many years and have a recent strong revival.


What are the strengths behind these phenomena?

We recognize a set of barreers which succesively allow, when they are crossed, a technology to go from a first growth to a mass market growth and hence to a social revolution.

Spatio-temporal barreers: transportation means reduces, by definition, geographical barreers, and subsequently time barreers.

This is a necessary but not sufficent condition. Then comes the economic barreer: if the price to access the technology decreases at a level of user acceptation (at least for a market segment), the growth starts and subsequent path is allowed. Note that the phone revolution have effects (for the home user) at the city level more than at a world level: the only reason is price scheme! Note also than the creation of the international turism market is a social revolution resulting mainly from the price decreases offerred by the airline companies (to that very market segment, not to the bussines traveller!).

But the price is not the last barreer: the market itself could be a barreer. This is typical of information transportation products (telex, fax, teletex, commercial e.mail): why should I pay the access price if I cannot communicate with much counterparts. The market needs a first base to be able to grow. The telephone have completely broken the market barreer but other technologies have only found some market segment to develop themselves: telex for instance. The fax is a fascinating example of a technology which pretend to get out from the office and reach the home. There is a lot to learn from the french videotex market creation as a result of offering Minitel terminals to huge number of home users.

Last, not least, but too often forgotten barreer: the ease of use! Again the simplicity of the telephone usage explains, as much than the price, its success (note that the reluctance in the marketing in advances PBX type sophisticated features is probably due to low user acceptance in front of confused interfaces). One of the first and more important technology known by humanity, the fire, has been so long to become so natural, because of the poorness of it ease of use until came the matches!!!


The networking technology have crossed without problem the spatio-temporal barreer, it has no true economic barrer, the market barreer is starting to weaken: the last real barreer is the ease of use which conditions the user acceptance.

The networking technology have created market segments (the big computer and telecom companies, first, then, the research and academic world) where the economical barreer has been (artificially) suppressed. Anyway, the economical analysis demonstrates than the price is not the real barreer: it is 10 times cheaper to convey, internationally, with the actual tarriff patterns, information by data networks than by voice or telex networks. What have allowed these sub-market to grow was more to be found in the fact the users were more or less specialists than casuals (technology driven market).

The market barreer have started to be weakened, thanks to the gateways, by the emergence of a solid user's base. The price barreer is not relevant. Only remains the user interface barreer. What have made the fax (although, an economically and logically inapropiate technology to transmit texts toward international boundaries) have a better start-up than the commercial e.mail is its real facility of use. Networkers have to work very hard to become a market driven market. Probably the first necessary move is to balance the power of the tecnologists (the networking specialists) by the power of the mass users (the end-users). Some psicological barreers may as well appear in that move...