SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 24 NOVEMBER 2002
Winds of change
SITTING here in the wilds of rural Wicklow, the rain is coming from the south-east which usually means it's horizontal. With the wind gusting at more knots than I care to know about, I'm very concerned as I watch the long piece of black cable flutter in the storm like a clothes line that has lost its tether. If that line was to break then... .
In fact walking or driving around these here parts, and others like it, is a constant reminder of how Ireland's telephone communication system is only as strong as its weakest link. Judging by the state of some of the poles I've seen, it is probably a miracle that it manages to cope. And yet it does.
They're still called 'telegraph' poles, which is an apt name because they don't carry much more than they did in those days. The technical ability to transmit the human voice was well and truly mastered decades ago. Even the handsets haven't changed. Remove the fancy covers from a standard supply handset and what's inside has stayed pretty much the same over the years. It's a simple system and with modern technology, moving voice around the telephone network is now a no-brainer.
But my concern for my wind-lashed piece of black cable is caused because it has to carry these words and some images to the Sunday Tribune office in Baggot Street, Dublin. To compound matters, the black cable seems to swing with greater ferocity the nearer I get to my deadline. But it always stays connected. If it held up okay last week during the deluge then it has to hold this week.
And speaking of last week, I'm grateful to some readers who took the time to comment on what I wrote here about the so-called 'lack of demand' for broadband in Ireland. Among the messages was one that was wonderful in its brevity and arrow-like in its sharpness: "the internet is the killer application" for broadband.
I agree, but only in the same way that roads could be considered to be the 'killer app' for cars. It's so obvious now with hindsight, but consider the time when only a small minority of the population owned a car? Back then any demand for more and wider roads to be built was considered mad in theory and bad in practice. So much so that at one time cars were restricted to 5mph and had to have someone walking ahead with a red flag!
That the internet will be viewed historically as being one of the most significant enablers for change at the beginning of the 21st century is for the analysts of the future. Such is its impact in its short existence so far, that it doesn't take a glass ball to predict that its progress will bring fundamental changes in how society is shaped.
While historians may well look back and say that the "internet was the killer application" that transformed the world's information and communications' systems (and maybe much more than that) the reality at the moment is quite different. The most that can be said at present is that there is massive unrealised potential for the internet.
Leaving aside the appallingly bad state of connectivity in Ireland, how different people currently view or experience the internet has a very broad sweep of definition. And it's not hard to see why.
It's only a couple of years since the internet represented the cutting edge of technology. It was predicted to turn all of our lives upside down and inside out. The stock markets seemed to agree, creating one of the biggest economic bubbles since before the Wall Street crash in 1929.
The current downward slide of the stockmarket graph, whatever it's being called, is largely attributable to fall-out from the dotcom feeding frenzy. Not a great introduction to the merits of the internet. Technology sneezed and the internet got a very bad cold and struggles to emerge from the caution and mistrust toward technology in general.
Whether it's stalking, child abuse, email scams, spam, hoaxes or porn, the internet rarely gets mentioned in mainstream media without being accompanied by a combination of anger and contempt.
And it gets worse. For a large section of the population the first introduction to the internet came in the workplace. And it hasn't been a positive experience. Workers who were under pressure to adapt to new practices such as email, bowed to signing away privacy rights hard won by previous generations.
The right to private communications in work was something that might have been arguable in law, but existed on such a widespread scale as to make the law irrelevant. Workers were able to make and receive personal telephone calls (within reason) without being snooped on by their employers. Even the government or police had no such entitlement without a court order. The same applied to personal letters received in the workplace.
The arrival of email and the dawn of the 'information age' put an end to such practices amid many seemingly logical reasons why it was necessary to monitor personal communications in the workplace. What would have happened if previous generations had been handed a document to sign that gave permission for their telephone calls or their letters to be monitored?
This is what has happened to technology. The same old fears and associations that were not foreign to those who came before us are still there. When people have the feeling of being steamrolled into something, there is a natural fear and hesitancy which sometimes remains unsaid. What parent or guardian, for example, harbours a split personality when it comes to their children's use of the internet?
That exact same dilemma was around when television was introduced. And when central heating became widespread there were anxieties expressed over what the effects on the family would be, as there was no longer any need to gather in one room. When the roads started filling up with cars, the fact that children used those roads for playing on was not enough to stem the tide.
In both of those situations (and a lot more besides) the benefits of an adapted technology usually outweighed the negatives. Eventually. The kids could no longer play on the roads, but they didn't have to be put on the back of a bicycle and taken to hospital in an emergency either.
In all the angst generated by technology (and the net in particular), we have lost sight to a great extent of who is in control of all this. It can appear outside of our control with a momentum all of its own making.
But I think it's a healthy and very positive thing that society is hesitant or fearful about letting go of that sense of control.
As regards the future of the net and the need for broadband, certainly we must press on. But when the advantages and benefits are felt by people in their day-to-day lives, when the pros and cons are weighed up, the picture will probably be a very different one. En route, it gives us a chance to do something that, as a species, we are really good at. Adapting. Bringing technology around to our way of thinking and not the other way around.
My piece of black cable swaying furiously in the wind is not yet a lifeline. Maybe someday, but that is entirely up to me.