CYBERSPACE: FOR THE COMMON MAN -I

The conversation between David Bowman and HAL, the legendary computer, is one of the most important scenes in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was released way back in the late sixties. Those of us who saw the movie were held spellbound by the special effects of the movie and a talking computer! It was a fantasy thirty years ago when PCs were far away in the future much less a talking computer!

But then human ingenuity has proved that nothing is impossible. Three decades later we have speech recognition software and computer-synthesized voice which enables us to re-enact the HAL 9000 — David Bowman encounter in every home computer! Inventions and discoveries, accidental some of them might have been, would not have been possible but for imagination and vision on the part of mankind.

The word Cyberspace was coined by William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer. Neuromancer is far-reaching artificial intelligence that controlled the protagonist of the novel. Neuromancer drives home an important message that technology is powerful and it can control society without producing positive benefits.

By a strange coincidence, Neuromancer was published in the year 1984 which was the setting of the Orwellian classic 1984. The novel centers around Winston Smith a minor party functionary in one of the three warring States. Published in 1949, Orwell's 194 made a deep impact upon the readers because it highlighted the dangers of totalitarianism. The dangers portrayed by Orwell may be exaggerated but with the evolution of technology like clipper chip, Capstone and Carnivore if sufficient safeguards are not devised, the privacy of individuals is likely to be invaded by the State agencies.

Fantasy and fiction are set to become reality with the advent of the internet. Started as a US defense project in 1973 as a research program to devise interconnecting networks of various kinds to survive a nuclear attack that may destroy the monolithic central communication command in the early part of any war. It was made available in 1983 to select users.

Three technologies made the internet possible.

  1. First was packet switching which made transmission of information possible through the Internet
  2. The second was the development of a set of protocols known as TCP/IP, which enabled computers to exchange information regardless of their make, origin, or operating system.
  3. The third was the development of client-server technology, which allows a computer to access and utilize services and programs residing in another computer.

The Internet Protocol address consists of 4-sets of numbers between 1 to 255 separated by periods. These are unique numbers, which identify each computer on the Internet. Since it is difficult for human memory to remember large digit numbers, domain names were resorted to masking the numbers making it human-friendly to remember and key into the computer to log on.

Internet then is like bye lanes leading to lanes which in turn lead to streets then to roads and then ultimately into highways sprawling across the globe. Internet is connected through a series of computers each with a different role to play at every level. Had technology stopped with this, perhaps the Internet would have at best been another improved means of communication over Teletext or fax. But the invention of hypertext markup language by Tim Berners-Lee working at CERN Geneva popularly known as HTML dramatically altered the whole scenario. His hypertext link is an electronic embedded address that points to another Internet location on the Internet. To jump to that location all a user has to do is to click on the hyperlink and automatically he is taken to that site by the browser. A Markup language is a computer language that describes how a page should be formatted. A web page also contains HTML Tags that describe how the text should be formatted when the browser displays it on the screen.

Initially, the web consisted only of text but soon graphics took over with browsers like Mosaic, Netscape Navigator, and Internet Explorer adding sound, graphics, and other multimedia content to web pages With that the Cyberspace has blossomed into a medium of its own. The implications of this were not difficult to grasp. The prospect of sending messages of files across the continents with lightning speed and that too at a negligible cost was very appealing to most of us. It was only a question of time that the entertainment industry and commerce should migrate to Cyberspace and that happened sooner than expected resulting in a convergence of technologies leading to a blurring of the distinctions between broadcasting, the Internet, and mobile computing.

Dream and Reality

Cyberspace is the realization of the dreams and visions of many. Creativity always comes from women. One of the inspiring personalities behind the Babbage's analytical engine which is the precursor of the modern computer is Lady Ada Lovelace Byron. She predicted in 1863 that machines will compose complex music, produce graphics, and would be used for practical and scientific purposes. That prediction has come true. Tim Berners-Lee wanted a Common information space in which people can communicate and share information freely. The World Wide Web is the realization of that dream. He conceived Cyberspace as an abstract place where a knowledge-based economy happens. He also wanted the web to become a realistic mirror of the ways, in which we played and worked and socialized. He has predicted that the web will open up new forms of business opportunities and turn bureaucracy over to machines and let people get on with creativity. It will help people to work together more effectively, remove misunderstanding and bring about peace and harmony on a global scale. But according to him, we can only do these things if we learn to use it wisely and think carefully about both the technology and the laws we make or change around it.

Technology has always threatened to destroy Man if not controlled properly. Neuromancer describes the evils, which a society must suffer if it willingly allows itself to be directly controlled by technology. 2001: A Space Odyssey also conveys the same message. HAL in 2001 is, in fact, the ultimate tool, he is so advanced that in conversation, it is practically impossible to tell that he is a machine and not a human being. The similarity of man to his tools has reached its peak in HAL, a tool similar to a man. But, like all tools, HAL proved to be as dangerous as he was useful. The moral of the story is that if we create incredible technologies we should not use them for evil and material gain, but for improving a lot of mankind. We can do that only if we do not become slaves of technology. Technology is amoral and values neutral. It is for us to use them intelligently and wisely for the benefit of mankind. (PIB)

PIB
GOVERNMENT OF INDIA
Date: January 10, 2001