Computer Communications

Like most modern communication technologies, the computer had its origins in the military. However, the idea of a calculating machine had been around since the Chinese invented the abacus 2000 years ago, Blaise Pascal made an outline for a "digital calculating machine" in 1642 and Charles Babbage designed an automatic mechanical calculator in the early 19th century. Despite these early prototypes, it was not until WORLD WAR II and developments in the modern corporation and social welfare states in the early part of the 20th century that the first modern electronic computers were developed and used. Computers were first used in WWII, initially by the German military and shortly thereafter by the British and American militaries, as a means of breaking secret codes.

The military influence on computing continued after the war. The COLD WAR and "Space Race" between the United States and the former Soviet Union meant that the militaries in both countries continued to define the new technology. During the late 1960s, the Defense Administration Research Project Agency in the United States worked on ways to link computers to the national telecommunications system in order to develop a communication system capable of withstanding a nuclear attack. This project eventually evolved into the system that we now know as the INTERNET.

Prior to the development of the Internet and its model of distributing computing power and communications amongst millions of users, computing was seen in very narrow, utilitarian and centralized terms. IBM, the most important early manufacturer of computers, saw computers as tools for large businesses, the military and government. In its view, these users would connect to centrally located mainframes to access volumes of information stored in their data banks. According to IBM in the 1950s, the world would only need about five such mainframe computers, and perhaps only one massive computer system would serve the entire needs of the United States.

The "mainframe" view of computing was reflected in several experiments during the 1960s and 1970s. In Canada, the TELIDON project was an important early experiment involving the regional monopoly telephone companies and federal government. Telidon aimed to create "computer utilities," or central data and information banks, that could be accessed from remote terminals anywhere within the range of the telecommunications system - at the office, at home, on the farm. Although the Telidon experiment was not successful, these kinds of services did eventually become commercially available and allowed users to obtain access to central computers and data banks located across town or in other countries. The information service provider Informart/Dialog, a joint project of the GLOBE AND MAIL and the United States-based newspaper chain Knight-Ridder, was a good early example of the computer utility model. Another example was the computerized reservation service used by the airline industry.

The "computer utility" model was never very successful from a commercial or technical point of view. This lack of success was due as much to technical problems as to public concern regarding centralized data banks controlled by governments, monopoly telephone companies and other large organizations. A 1965 proposal in the United States to create a National Data Centre, for instance, triggered a great deal of anxiety regarding privacy, civil liberties and people's ability to control the collection and uses of personal information. Popular culture also associated the "computer utility" with dystopian images. George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and the movies Blade Runner and Brazil all anchored dystopian images of computers and Big Brother deeply in the public mind and did little to foster public support for this path of computer development.

Today, the vision of computing is no longer of centralized computer utilities but of distributed computing, personal computers (PCs) and computer communications. Computers have become distributed throughout society and linked to one another. Instead of connecting people to a limited number of mainframe computers, the interconnection of computers by way of the telecommunications network allows people and organizations to communicate with one another and to access information sources throughout the world. Perhaps the best example of the emerging model of distributed computer communications is the Internet. Canadians have embraced the Internet, and, with the lowest usage charges in the world, it is not surprising that they are among the biggest users of this new medium.

The diffusion of computer communications throughout Canadian society has been aided by declining prices for computers, huge reductions in the price of producing and storing information, and falling costs for distributing information over telecommunications networks. The adoption of fibre optic cables and digitalization of the telecommunications system now permit far greater volumes of information to be transmitted at much higher speeds. In addition, the greater number of technologies and companies available for distributing information have made it possible to send far more information at much greater speeds and lower prices than hitherto possible. Regulatory changes introduced by the CANADIAN RADIO-TELEVISION AND TELECOMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION (CRTC) during the 1980s also aimed to spur on the development of computer services and computer communications as part of competitive markets. Moreover, while digitalization and the convergence of computing and telecommunications have meant that telecommunications systems have been able to carry all types of communication - data, voice, facsimile and video - for some time now, regulations and communication laws were only changed in the mid-1990s to allow full-scale media convergence to take place. In essence, technological, economic and regulatory changes have transformed the telecommunications system into a giant computer system capable of carrying all kinds of information and media services.

Computers continue to be seen as key tools in the administration of modern businesses and government affairs. Businesses now invest small fortunes in information technology, computers and communications infrastructure to tie together various parts of their organization, to provide specialized information (eg, credit information and business intelligence) and commercial information to consumers (eg, web pages, consumer help lines, automated answering and call routing services) and to monitor and obtain information on the habits of workers and consumers alike. Rather than computer communications having the unmitigated effect of decentralizing power and control, however, there is a tension between decentralization and centralization. Computers decentralize access to informational resources and communications capabilities, but simultaneously allow companies to extend their markets to larger areas, centralize control over units lower in the organizational hierarchy, and enhance the surveillance of workers, consumers and citizens.

Moreover, although access to more information was initially seen as leading to more informed decision making and improved efficiency, these expectations have been tempered by experience. While companies continue to pour money into information and communication technologies (ICTs), there is little evidence that the impact on productivity and efficiency is commensurate with the amount of money spent. In addition, more information has not led to better decision making and to reduced uncertainty but instead to regular bouts of volatility as huge global flows of financial capital make some spectacularly rich while contributing to regular stock market crashes and economic crises, eg, Black Monday in 1987 and the Asian Crisis in 1998.

Nonetheless, the diffusion of computers throughout Canadian society has dramatically altered people's perceptions and uses of these new technologies. No longer are computers perceived in narrow utilitarian terms. They are now seen as effective tools for accessing information on health, educational, personal and financial matters, as vehicles of expression and, increasingly, as sources of entertainment rivalling the conventional fare offered by the "old mass media" of television, radio and newspapers. Although more and more Canadians are going "online," there are several factors affecting who does and does not have access to the emerging interactive media as well as to people's experience of computer communications.

First, modernizing the telecommunications system and making regulatory changes have meant higher costs for telephone use, the basic means of accessing the Internet for those with a computer and a modem. Regulatory changes that helped foster new information markets also narrowed the government's commitment to making communication technologies and services universally available to all Canadians. As a result, an emerging gap between the information rich and information poor now defines the communications landscape, as only about 40% of Canadians have a computer in the home and less than one in five have access to the Internet. In fact, Canadians with the highest income are five to seven times more likely than those at the bottom of the income scale to have computers and Internet access in the home. Similar gaps prevail on a global scale as well. Globally, 90% of all Internet hosts are located in North America, Europe and Japan, although these regions account for only 15% of the world's population. The remaining 85% of the world's population account for the remaining Internet hosts. In order to insure that gaps between the information rich and poor are narrowed, communication policies will need to consider reducing the costs of local telephone service and expanding the definition of universal service to include new media such as the Internet.

Computers are now also associated witih freedom of expression issues and the control of information. This takes two principle forms: censorship and excessive information property rights. With respect to the first issue, the greater capacity for people to communicate with one another has increased the availability of pornographic material, hate literature and other kinds of information that some individuals and governments find subversive. Although some of these concerns may be warranted, the rush to impose restrictive standards and censorship on the Internet by the United States, China, Germany and Singapore, among others, has been hasty and ill-conceived. An equal threat to the free flow of information comes from national governments and international organizations eager to grant excessive property rights to information. Revisions to copyright laws have extended the rights of information owners, recognized new kinds of information property and decisively redefined information as a commodity rather than a public good. If the Internet and new forms of computer communication are to flourish, these efforts to curb the free flow of information need to be restrained.

Finally, trust and privacy have become key issues shaping people's uses and experiences of the Internet. The fall of Big Brother has not eliminated surveillance but distributed it widely throughout communication networks, a factor that has caused many Canadians to be wary of cyberspace. This issue is connected to freedom of expression and access as well, since both depend on people feeling secure and willing to express themselves in an environment where the collection and uses of personal information are strictly limited and transparent. A lack of trust in public spaces too easily chills public speech and needs to be dealt with urgently if the Internet and other forms of computer communication are to thrive and contribute to people's sense of well-being in the Information Age.

Computer communications are flourishing in Canada. This is due to technological changes, the erosion of communication monopolies and regulatory changes. However, the contribution that computer communications makes to Canadian society in the long-term will require communication policies that ensure that the evolving INFORMATION SOCIETY benefits all citizens and not simply a few at the expense of the many.