In 1983 I wrote a paper at UT called “The wiring of America.” It was not so much about getting cable TV up (which was growing very rapidly then) but more about what would come after that. The deeper I researched, the more I began to read about a strange, mystical world that would emerge where people all over the country would have access, upon demand, to not only vast amounts of information but also to each other. What I was reading was mind-boggling.
The ideas were all based upon what would happen as cable, with its incredible capacity to carry huge amounts of digital information, was strung all over the country. Then following hard on the heels of coaxial cable would come fiber-optic cable, still in its infancy. It would would out-deliver anything imagined up to that time. Added to that were other digital broadcast technologies on the horizon at the time – satellite dishes only 24 inches wide (the normal dish then was 8 feet wide and you needed a farm to put it on) – top-secret high-frequency communications bandwidths that the government was considering turning over to the private sector (the very same bandwidths that most all modern cellphones use today, as well as wireless devices of all types) – and other digital delivery technologies that would soon appear. All would open up this unbelievable information stream to us.
With this ocean of digital flow looming before us would next come broad access to all sorts of stuff – video, audio, text, libraries, books, records, and much more.
As exciting as all of this sounded, what most caught my attention and turned me inside out was a lot of discussion about how this would change society. People would be able to communicate instantly with other people not only in this country but all over the world. Repressive governments would no longer be able to keep information from their people (the small satellite dishes could be hidden a lot easier). Businesses would be able to open up direct instant ordering, communications and customer service channels to customers, allowing instantaneous product knowledge and speedy delivery (UPS and FedEx were just beginning to transform the delivery channel for individual families). The world’s libraries would be opened up to people accessing them from their own homes, all over the world, in hundreds of languages.
Most importantly, life and society, which had been trending towards something more complex and sophisticated, might well take a turn towards something more primitive in essence – something Marshall McLuhan had called “a global village.” In his view, people would be returned to a grass-roots sort of communication, bypassing the gatekeepers and the traditional media organizations that dominated all communications beyond friends and family. People would be able to have their own discussions about everyday life, problems, sorrows and dreams with others of the same mind they had never met, living in places they had never been.
This was not a huge paper I was writing – it was supposed to be about 10 pages but I believe I wrote 20. I still have it somewhere, buried deep in some box of old notes and things. The effect of the research on me was more than huge, however.
After that month of research I could never return to the same way of thinking I had had before. All around me were people going about life much like they always had. They watched TV on 3 or 4 channels a day. Some had cable with around 10 channels to watch. They talked on one telephone, connected to the wall of their room. Ma Bell had just been broken up the year before so now a person had the freedom to wire their own phone jacks and move the phone around as much as they wanted – from room to room. (Whoopie!!)
For me to call my friends back in Germany (where I had lived a number of years) I could now do it for a lot less, because there were other long distance companies coming into the game and prices were falling. Long distance calls within the US were plummeting – from $1 a minute to 50 cents, then to 25 cents.
If I wanted to communicate much, however, I still needed to send a letter – and photos – and maybe a cassette tape (videos were still too new and very few people had them – until 2 years later when the VCR boom exploded). It took about 2 weeks for round trip mail to Europe (a lot better than the one month of 10 years before that). In the states it still took at least a week. Regular first class mail had just begun to be put on airplanes, even without an airmail stamp.
In 1983 all of the people around me still lived in that world. But here I was, suddenly transplanted into a vision of a totally different way of communicating with people far and near, and the picture of it would not let me go. When I tried to tell people about it, they simply stared at me.
Strangely, though, I could see it. I was really into computers and had started a computer club. (I even got involved in a nascent form of online communications, a computer BBS in Knoxville, TN). But to most people around, this was all really strange stuff, and most believed it would never affect more than a small group of enthusiasts.
It made perfect sense to me. Even the ‘global village’ part. That part didn’t really depend so much on technology as it did on a presumption that there was a pent up demand in humankind for more basic communications with each other. Along with that was an assumption that the state of alienation we were living in, where public communications of all sorts were tightly controlled by media, institutions and companies who could afford to print or broadcast messages, was distasteful to a lot of people. I know it had been so to me. But then, I was an ‘entrepreneurial type’ and also loved to communicate. The question was: were there enough other people like me out there to make this thing big?
It was going to be interesting to watch and see how it all unfolded.
(More coming in the next post).