The future is virtually here: We'll soon be on the information superhighway, wondering how we lived without it, says David Bowen

Click to follow
The Independent Online
It is 2008 and you are going into a meeting with your bosses. They are in San Francisco and Bavaria; you are in your house in the Scottish Highlands. You sit down in your office, put on a pair of dark glasses and a glove - both linked by wire to the computer on your desk. You find yourself in an electronic 'room', with a table and chairs.

You look round to see your American boss - or rather his hologram - sitting next to you. A moment later the German appears, and the meeting starts. Using your glove you can pass electronic documents around the room - a disembodied hand appears in front of you, to mimic your movements. This is a virtual conference: you found them disturbing at first, not least because you could put your arm through your colleages. Now you are used to them and feel almost as at ease as you would in a physical meeting.

Will this really become a part of daily life? It is always dangerous to predict the future. Twenty-five years ago next month, men landed on the Moon. It became a commonplace that people would soon be living there. But why would anyone want to live on the Moon? The Americans concluded that the time, trouble and expense of getting there were simply not worth it.

This is the point about prediction. New technology will go into widespread use only when the advantages clearly outweigh the bother. At first, they hardly ever do. Claud Cockburn's father, in about 1910, had no time for the motor car. 'He disliked them because they did not go fast enough,' Cockburn wrote in his autobiography. 'He believed that if people were to take the trouble to give up horses and carriages, it was only reasonable that they should get them to where they wanted to be in almost no time. The fact that you still took hours to get from London to Edinburgh struck him as more or less fraudulent.'

This was a common view in Edwardian times. Cars were expensive, difficult to handle and prone to malfunction. Later in the century, many people took the same view of the computer: the expense of buying and installing it and the trouble of learning to use it seemed to outweigh the advantages. Now, computers have become part of daily life for millions of people, if only as advanced typewriters. The advantages have finally outweighed the bother.

What, then, of the virtual conference, as outlined above? In the multimedia world, we are told, we will be able to shop, play, learn and even make love while sitting alone in the house. Working at home will become the norm, triggering the biggest social upheaval since the Industrial Revolution.

But will it? Haven't we been hearing this kind of thing for years? Why should we take any more notice now? The answer is simple. It was not possible before, now it is.

At present, we think of text, pictures, graphics, voice, music and film as separate 'media'. Once, when we dialled a telephone number, we expected merely to speak. Now, we are familiar with the idea that a telephone line also allows us to transmit text. Multimedia simply takes this several stages further. It allows the simultaneous production, on a computer or television screen, of several different media. This is made possible by digitalisation: all the media can be translated into a common language in binary code. They can then be mixed together and manipulated at will.

Three developments suggest that this new technology is about to reach the point where convenience outweighs bother. First, computers sufficiently powerful to digitalise have become available. A compact disc can store the equivalent of two digitalised editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Second, it is possible to pour the contents of these CDs down a telephone line. The virtual conference, for example, is a three-

dimensional computer graphic, transmitted by telephone. Combined with 3D spectacles it tricks the brain into believing that it is inside an electronically-created room.

So all we need is a third element: the 'information superhighway', a telephone line with the capacity to carry all this information. The present copper phone wire can carry only voice and a limited amount of text and data. Replace it with fibre-optic cable and its capacity increases 250,000 times over. The entire contents of Oxford's Bodleian Library could be transmitted in 42 seconds.

The important point is that we only get multimedia - and a truly significant impact on our lives - when all three developments are possible. Optical fibre has been available for 15 years. But why build great fibre networks just for telephone calls? It would, one telecoms man said, 'be like building a 20-lane motorway and only using two lanes'. Now, all the information available on CDs, and much more, can be used to fill up the motorway. And you will not just sit there receiving binary codes; you will also send some back.

So will we want to use all this technology? Will the convenience outweigh the bother? The trick for the futurologist is to consider the things that cause a lot of bother now. Suppose that you see strange spots on the baby's bottom. Can you get a doctor's appointment? Should you get someone to look after its siblings while you go to the surgery? Or is the baby too ill to take out? And suppose you discover the spots in the middle of the night. Can you get a doctor quickly?

Now imagine that you have some means of letting doctors examine the baby without even coming to the house. That you could get a diagnosis and order a prescription as easily as you can now ring your aunt. This is what multimedia can do, and the arguments for buying the equipment become overwhelming.

Much of the technology is still at an embryonic stage, and its limitations put us off. Crude videophones are on sale, but the pictures are jerky. Sure as eggs is eggs, though, a perfect picture is less than five years off, and videophones will become 'user-friendly', cheap and therefore com monplace. Gradually, we will be come used to the new 'thing in the corner': a hybrid computer, television and telephone, with a camera that can be pointed at documents, people, photos and much else.

Think too of shopping, of the drag of the supermarket visit, with the crowded car park, the checkout queues, the rows with the children who won't behave. When people talk of shopping from home, most of us think of sending an order by computer link, which doesn't sound much of an advance on an old-fashioned shopping list. But combine a virtual conference with a shop and you have a virtual Sainsbury's. You will be able to go into the shop, 'touch' the items you want, your account will be debited and the goods will be delivered in an hour or two. You can do it not just in Sainsbury's but up and down a virtual high street. Is it still too much trouble to get that 'thing in the corner' and learn how to operate it? There are many other possibilities such as educational courses that allow a real, human teacher to intervene.

There will be drawbacks and, just possibly, we shall decide that they outweigh the advantages. We may think that meeting people on the street and stopping for coffee are too important to lose for the convenience of shopping from home. We may not like videophones that stare at us when we would rather be anonymous. We may miss the drink after work more than we appreciate the release from commuter travel. And, perhaps most important, some people - those without work, without money - may be excluded from this new world.

But did anybody decide that the noise and pollution of the motor car outweighed its advantages? The odds must be that people in 2008, give or take a year or two, will live as I have suggested, that the information superhighway will gradually fill up with video-on-demand, home shopping and, unavoidably, streams of electronic junk mail. And that we will judge the advantages overwhelming and wonder how earlier generations managed without them. The virtual conference may sound bothersome and frightening now. So did the motor car in 1910.

The author's 'Multimedia: Now and Down the Line', is published by Bowerdean Publishing at pounds 9.95.

(Photograph omitted)