On-line information systems:
current trends and future prospects
This paper summarises current approaches to the electronic distribution of information and looks ahead to where things might be going in the future.
This was written as a contribution to the CivicNet conference in 1997.
The current situation
Public information, as far as the Internet is concerned, tends to be passive – i.e. you have to go out and get it. Libraries are passive – you have to go there to find the books and take them out. Electronic information services give more scope for being proactive – like TV news broadcasts, they pump the content out to the user. Some electronic ticker-tape services present a constant flow of news, others are more episodic. The WWW requires the user to search for the desired content and then to type in a URL or link from the results of a search, get into the page, browse through the site, mark the page to get back to it again.
Newsgroups again are passive and required the users to go into them and browse. List servers however are proactive in that they fire e-mails at the users, usually in daily batches but some are more frequent.
Kiosks provide information at the touch of a screen – are always up and running and only require the users to be in the same place as they are to present their content. Some companies provide TV video to customers – like those queuing at the post office. They run their content on looped video tape or CD ROM.
The Internet is a world-wide public information system. One of its biggest components is the World Wide Web. The Internet is a network of several million computers all linked together via the world’s telephone and telecommunications links (including the high capacity ISDN lines). Information travels from one computer to another via the same telephone lines as the spoken word and by special channels called backbones. The Internet provides the capability of sending information, electronic mail, transfer of computers files and other electronic data packages.
World Wide Web
The web is a collection of some four million pages of information. A lot of these are linked together where there is related information and many of them are indexed in search engines. By typing keywords into these search engines, these web pages can be located. Web pages can present text, in full colour, still images, moving images and sounds (including speech and music). A variety of functions can be built into web pages such as the ability to send e-mail back to the authors, to fill in and send forms, purchase good or make orders of other kinds.
Sometimes organisations or groups want systems that are geared to their needs and will create intra-nets. These use similar technologies to the Internet and also involve linking together networks of computers, but they are limited to defined computers and users who are admitted to the system.
Current methods of distribution
There a several standard packages for transferring information on the Internet. One of the oldest methods is the electronic bulletin board. This enables simple text to be posted and browsed and is usually available to anyone who finds that particular bulletin board. Similar to these are the newsgroups (Usenet groups) on the Internet. There are probably around about 15,000 of these and they tend to be grouped together by broad subject areas. Text is posted to the group and everyone else can read it. Postings need to be read on a regular basis. Most newsgroups can be read using a web browser or by specialised news group readers.
A new method emerging is what are push clients. These send information to the user, as opposed to news groups which you have to go to read. Push clients make information appear on your computer screen in a variety of ways.
Somewhere, between passive newsgroups and highly dynamic push clients, live the list servers. These are systems to which the user subscribes and which send e-mail like postings to the user’s e-mail address box. These postings are written by the other subscribers to that list or by people who are using the list to push out information. The list servers are like electronic mailing lists. Lists can have any number of subscribers and some have hundreds of subscribers. The software needed is an e-mail reader. By and large only simple unformatted text can be sent although a more recently generation of e-mail packages can now handle colour, fonts and text emphasis, like most word processors.
Where the technology seems to be heading in the future
One important development in the field of public information is digital TV. This is a broadcast media which allows TV pictures to be transmitted in a digital format rather than the analogue format we are currently using for most of what we watch on the TV. The significance of digital TV is that a lot of it is likely to be interactive, allow the users to feedback information, have a control over the content of what is being broadcast.
What I think we will see is a convergence of the Internet with broadcast media. The Internet has become increasingly multi-media. It is likely that the world wide web or something like it will be broadcast in the same way that TV pictures are broadcast and will go out over high band width channels either by satellite or optic cable. But the user will have the same level of selection, control and feedback as people current have on the Internet.
The world wide web is still a rather text-based collected of pages even though the technology exists to create totally multimedia web sites. The web can deliver video, sound and three-dimensional images in full colour but this requires to user to have high specification multi-media computing equipment. This is becoming more common.
However, I think there will be major changes in the hardware. the most common piece of electronic equipment in the world is the television. I think that the Internet will migrate over to TV and will put much of the processing power of a standard PC into the television and give people something like the existing remote control pad to navigate around the content. There might be an optional keyboard for those who feel they want it. But for the domestic users, they want to buy a TV and then be able to use the one box for everything – leisure, domestic information, education and games. It is possible that the same equipment will also be integrated with telephone – the Internet phone – and e-mail – ability to send text over the telephone network.
Broadcast media at national or European level might also be complemented by local networks – providing much more localised content rather like local radio does now. This is where the future of the community network lies. Community Networks (CNs) started out on the Internet, allowing small geographic communities to connect together. As the technical specification of the CNs increases, it is likely that they will merge into local broadcasting and information services. Other CNs will serve communities of interest rather geographical communities and this already happens a lot on the Internet. There is little difference between the two: a geographical community is a community of interest where people share information about their locality.
Community Networks and work
Work is about economic, educational or social activities. Being employed, having a job is part of work but so is being self employed, long term volunteering, studying for a qualification. Work has a variety of forms not just or only economic. Hence in the future we need not be concerned with people who are employed or unemployed – that is just a technicality. Most employed people will be on short term contracts, probably working for one or more employers. More and more people will work flexibly so that the public policy concern is about access to work – having the skills to do work, ensuring that there are effective skills registers (equivalent to yesterday’s employment exchanges or job centres), that people who wish to work have access to training, skills enhancement and the means of production – more and more of which needs to be either in the public sector or publicly available from commercial suppliers. As we move more and more into the information age, the means of production will be distributed on public infrastructures. In industrial societies capital was located in places – factories. The capital of the information age is software and that we be accessed through telecommunications channels.
In the past, work was limited by location: people went to work, they traveling from their homes to their factories, workshops, offices. They still have to do this in large numbers but the world has witnessed a growth in remote working or work that is mobile and not dependent on location. Teleworkers now work at home either as small businesses or employees. Home workers using telecommunications as an aid to their work.
In the past, the exchange or transfer of information was slow compared to today’s capacity for fast (almost instantaneous) communication of information and data. There is a danger of information overload and people need to develop information management skills from school age – start teaching kids information skills in primary schools and updating those skills goes on throughout life. I’m offering courses in effective communications and information management skills for people working in charities, community groups and teleworkers. They are proving to be popular.
In the past, the over-riding adage was ‘it is not what you know but who you know that counts.’ Now, in the information age, the converse it true: it very much is what you know that matters. And it’s about know where to find things out, how to get information, where to put information that make people effective communicators.
So, community networks supply the infrastructures for a range of social, political and economic functions – work, leisure, civic activities, voluntary work and activism, education, training, enterprise, family history, LETS schemes, community banking, credit unions, kids clubs… a great long list of things that become possible once the technologies are made available.
Networks versus stand alone tools
The old work place was a location with tools on site. The trend now is towards networks where the tools are available in the network or are held centrally. The power of the computer is in the network. There is a battle going on between those who want to build ever more powerful stand alone computers and those who want to put all the processing power and tool kits into the networks so that all the user needs is a simple devise for getting into the network and working on-line.
I think the networkers will win. I think that desk top computers will amalgamate with televisions as far as the domestic user is concerned but that there will be a growing emphasis on the power of the network and that people will need computers that will open up the network and provide its facilities. The computer on our desk will need relatively little power.
The old tool box was one that houses tools. The new tool box is one that opens the door to tools that are distributed around a network and that are picked up and used when needed and then put back when that task has been completed.
The commercial challenge for software houses is that traditionally they have relied on selling large numbers of free-standing packages – or site licences. Now a lot of software is available over the Internet with people paying a registration fee to download it and use it. A new approach is for the software package to be houses on a central server and for a number of users to dial in and use it. But that is not any different from a network (LAN) server providing software to clients.
More and more people are working flexibly – from home – from other offices – mobile workers working from hotel rooms. People have begun to carry laptops around but they tend to be more expensive than desk tops. I favour the idea of the Network Computer – with lots of them being publicly available, in Libraries, in schools, colleges, community centres – places where people might want to work in the public arena and with the servers being dialled up from home. Computing power in the network and widely available through relatively cheap hardware and no personal software costs. Community printer banks mean people can get hard copy printed from high quality, high capacity machines and delivered to them by couriers.
Trevor Locke, © 2nd June 1997