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The Metaphors of the Net – Part III

Written By: Sam Vaknin

3. The Internet as a Collective Nervous System

Drawing a comparison from the development of a human infant – the human race has just commenced to develop its neural system.

The Internet fulfils all the functions of the Nervous System in the body and is, both functionally and structurally, pretty similar. It is decentralized, redundant (each part can serve as functional backup in case of malfunction). It hosts information which is accessible through various paths, it contains a memory function, it is multimodal (multimedia – textual, visual, audio and animation).

I believe that the comparison is not superficial and that studying the functions of the brain (from infancy to adulthood) is likely to shed light on the future of the Net itself. The Net – exactly like the nervous system – provides pathways for the transport of goods and services – but also of memes and information, their processing, modeling, and integration.

A. The Collective Computer

Carrying the metaphor of “a collective brain” further, we would expect the processing of information to take place on the Internet, rather than inside the end-users hardware (the same way that information is processed in the brain, not in the eyes). Desktops will receive results and communicate with the Net to receive additional clarifications and instructions and to convey information gathered from their environment (mostly, from the user).

Put differently:

In future, servers will contain not only information (as they do today) – but also software applications. The user of an application will not be forced to buy it. He will not be driven into hardware-related expenditures to accommodate the ever growing size of applications. He will not find himself wasting his scarce memory and computing resources on passive storage. Instead, he will use a browser to call a central computer. This computer will contain the needed software, broken to its elements (=applets, small applications). Anytime the user wishes to use one of the functions of the application, he will siphon it off the central computer. When finished – he will “return” it. Processing speeds and response times will be such that the user will not feel at all that he is not interacting with his own software (the question of ownership will be very blurred). This technology is available and it provoked a heated debated about the future shape of the computing industry as a whole (desktops – really power packs – or network computers, a little more than dumb terminals). Access to online applications are already offered to corporate users by ASPs (Application Service Providers).

In the last few years, scientists have harnessed the combined power of online PC’s to perform astounding feats of distributed parallel processing. Millions of PCs connected to the net co-process signals from outer space, meteorological data, and solve complex equations. This is a prime example of a collective brain in action.

B. The Intranet – a Logical Extension of the Collective Computer

LANs (Local Area Networks) are no longer a rarity in corporate offices. WANs (wide Area Networks) are used to connect geographically dispersed organs of the same legal entity (branches of a bank, daughter companies of a conglomerate, a sales force). Many LANs and WANs are going wireless.

The wireless intranet/extranet and LANs are the wave of the future. They will gradually eliminate their fixed line counterparts. The Internet offers equal, platform-independent, location-independent and time of day – independent access to corporate memory and nervous system. Sophisticated firewall security applications protect the privacy and confidentiality of the intranet from all but the most determined and savvy crackers.

The Intranet is an inter-organizational communication network, constructed on the platform of the Internet and it, therefore, enjoys all its advantages. The extranet is open to clients and suppliers as well.

The company’s server can be accessed by anyone authorized, from anywhere, at any time (with local – rather than international – communication costs). The user can leave messages (internal e-mail or v-mail), access information – proprietary or public – from it, and participate in “virtual teamwork” (see next chapter).

The development of measures to safeguard server routed inter-organizational communication (firewalls) is the solution to one of two obstacles to the institutionalization of Intranets. The second problem is the limited bandwidth which does not permit the efficient transfer of audio (not to mention video).

It is difficult to conduct video conferencing through the Internet. Even the voices of discussants who use internet phones (IP telephony) come out (though very slightly) distorted.

All this did not prevent 95% of the Fortune 1000 from installing intranet. 82% of the rest intend to install one by the end of this year. Medium to big size American firms have 50-100 intranet terminals per every internet one.

One of the greatest advantages of the intranet is the ability to transfer documents between the various parts of an organization. Consider Visa: it pushed 2 million documents per day internally in 1996.

An organization equipped with an intranet can (while protected by firewalls) give its clients or suppliers access to non-classified correspondence, or inventory systems. Many B2B exchanges and industry-specific purchasing management systems are based on extranets.

C. The Transport of Information – Mail and Chat

The Internet (its e-mail function) is eroding traditional mail. 90% of customers with on-line access use e-mail from time to time and 60% work with it regularly. More than 2 billion messages traverse the internet daily.

E-mail applications are available as freeware and are included in all browsers. Thus, the Internet has completely assimilated what used to be a separate service, to the extent that many people make the mistake of thinking that e-mail is a feature of the Internet.

The internet will do to phone calls what it has done to mail. Already there are applications (Intel’s, Vocaltec’s, Net2Phone) which enable the user to conduct a phone conversation through his computer. The voice quality has improved. The discussants can cut into each others words, argue and listen to tonal nuances. Today, the parties (two or more) engaging in the conversation must possess the same software and the same (computer) hardware. In the very near future, computer-to-regular phone applications will eliminate this requirement. And, again, simultaneous multi-modality: the user can talk over the phone, see his party, send e-mail, receive messages and transfer documents – without obstructing the flow of the conversation.

The cost of transferring voice will become so negligible that free voice traffic is conceivable in 3-5 years. Data traffic will overtake voice traffic by a wide margin.

The next phase will probably involve virtual reality. Each of the parties will be represented by an “avatar”, a 3-D figurine generated by the application (or the user’s likeness mapped and superimposed on the the avatar). These figurines will be multi-dimensional: they will possess their own communication patterns, special habits, history, preferences – in short: their own “personality”.

Thus, they will be able to maintain an “identity” and a consistent pattern of communication which they will develop over time.

Such a figure could host a site, accept, welcome and guide visitors, all the time bearing their preferences in its electronic “mind”. It could narrate the news, like the digital anchor “Ananova” does. Visiting sites in the future is bound to be a much more pleasant affair.

D. The Transport of Value – E-cash

In 1996, four corporate giants (Visa, MasterCard, Netscape and Microsoft) agreed on a standard for effecting secure payments through the Internet: SET. Internet commerce is supposed to mushroom to $25 billion by 2003. Site owners will be able to collect rent from passing visitors – or fees for services provided within the site. Amazon instituted an honour system to collect donations from visitors. PayPal provides millions of users with cash substitutes. Gradually, the Internet will compete with central banks and banking systems in money creation and transfer.

E. The Transport of Interactions – The Virtual Organization

The Internet allows for simultaneous communication and the efficient transfer of multimedia (video included) files between an unlimited number of users. This opens up a vista of mind boggling opportunities which are the real core of the Internet revolution: the virtual collaborative (“Follow the Sun”) modes.

Examples:

A group of musicians is able to compose music or play it – while spatially and temporally separated;

Advertising agencies are able to co-produce ad campaigns in a real time interaction;

Cinema and TV films are produced from disparate geographical spots through the teamwork of people who never meet, except through the Net.

These examples illustrate the concept of the “virtual community”. Space and time will no longer hinder team collaboration, be it scientific, artistic, cultural, or an ad hoc arrangement for the provision of a service (a virtual law firm, or accounting office, or a virtual consultancy network). The intranet can also be thought of as a “virtual organization”, or a “virtual business”.

The virtual mall and the virtual catalogue are prime examples of spatial and temporal liberation.

In 1998, there were well over 300 active virtual malls on the Internet. In 2000, they were frequented by 46 million shoppers, who shopped in them for goods and services.

The virtual mall is an Internet “space” (pages) wherein “shops” are located. These shops offer their wares using visual, audio and textual means. The visitor passes through a virtual “gate” or storefront and examines the merchandise on offer, until he reaches a buying decision. Then he engages in a feedback process: he pays (with a credit card), buys the product, and waits for it to arrive by mail (or downloads it).

The manufacturers of digital products (intellectual property such as e-books or software) have begun selling their merchandise on-line, as file downloads. Yet, slow communications speeds, competing file formats and reader standards, and limited bandwidth – constrain the growth potential of this mode of sale. Once resolved – intellectual property will be sold directly from the Net, on-line. Until such time, the mediation of the Post Office is still required. As long as this is the state of the art, the virtual mall is nothing but a glorified computerized mail catalogue or Buying Channel, the only difference being the exceptionally varied inventory.

Websites which started as “specialty stores” are fast transforming themselves into multi-purpose virtual malls. Amazon.com, for instance, has bought into a virtual pharmacy and into other virtual businesses. It is now selling music, video, electronics and many other products. It started as a bookstore.

This contrasts with a much more creative idea: the virtual catalogue. It is a form of narrowcasting (as opposed to broadcasting): a surgically accurate targeting of potential consumer audiences. Each group of profiled consumers (no matter how small) is fitted with their own – digitally generated – catalogue. This is updated daily: the variety of wares on offer (adjusted to reflect inventory levels, consumer preferences, and goods in transit) – and prices (sales, discounts, package deals) change in real time. Amazon has incorporated many of these features on its web site. The user enters its web site and there delineates his consumption profile and his preferences. A customized catalogue is immediately generated for him including specific recommendations. The history of his purchases, preferences and responses to feedback questionnaires is accumulated in a database. This intellectual property may well be Amazon’s main asset.

There is no technological obstacles to implementing this vision today – only administrative and legal (patent) ones. Big brick and mortar retail stores are not up to processing the flood of data expected to result. They also remain highly sceptical regarding the feasibility of the new medium. And privacy issues prevent data mining or the effective collection and usage of personal data (remember the case of Amazon’s “Readers’ Circles”).

The virtual catalogue is a private case of a new internet off-shoot: the “smart (shopping) agents”. These are AI applications with “long memories”.

They draw detailed profiles of consumers and users and then suggest purchases and refer to the appropriate sites, catalogues, or virtual malls.

They also provide price comparisons and the new generation cannot be blocked or fooled by using differing product categories.

In the future, these agents will cover also brick and mortar retail chains and, in conjunction with wireless, location-specific services, issue a map of the branch or store closest to an address specified by the user (the default being his residence), or yielded by his GPS enabled wireless mobile or PDA. This technology can be seen in action in a few music sites on the web and is likely to be dominant with wireless internet appliances. The owner of an internet enabled (third generation) mobile phone is likely to be the target of geographically-specific marketing campaigns, ads and special offers pertaining to his current location (as reported by his GPS – satellite Geographic Positioning System).

(continued)

About the Author

Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love – Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain – How the West Lost the East. He is a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, and eBookWeb , a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent, and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory Bellaonline, and Suite101 .

Visit Sam’s Web site at http://samvak.tripod.com

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