The Third Connection

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
14 February, 2017
Editorial: 72
Fecha de publicación original: 20 mayo, 1997

Date of publication 20/05/1997. Editorial 72.

Every little bit helps

From the time of the Industrial Revolution, two services have entered most homes in the world forming part of them in the same way as windows and doors do. The presence of both of them clearly marks the division between pre-capitalist and industrial societies. Yet, their omnipresence has been so far-reaching that they are perceived as a natural and inherent part of the landscape of the dwellings we inhabit. At the same time, the lack of them is one of the clearest indications of poverty that exist. Both of them can be switched on and off, in the first case, by turning on a tap to get water, and in the second, electricity. Today we find ourselves on the brink of incorporating a third one: the tap or switch that supplies us with information and knowledge.

The information which we have allowed into our homes until now has been introduced fundamentally in two ways. On the one hand, via individual access: books, magazines, records, cassettes, diskettes, computers, etc., reflecting to a large extent the tastes, cultural upbringing, earnings, and information appetites of the people concerned. On the other, there is the information that comes via an electrical switch, the switch that turns on the radio and television and which, in addition, needs an antenna — external or internal– to pick up broadcast waves. The content of these two media are not, however, determined by the inhabitants of the home. The dissemination of information via radio and/or television is collective and beyond the control of the collective receivers (which could consist of just one individual). The same applies to the content of a newspaper, which might be consumed or rejected, but there is practically no chance of individuals influencing the nature of its message. The third switch is going to alter the terms of this relationship radically. Its emblematic name is “Cable TV”, but this does not describe its new character very well. It would be more accurate to talk about the cable network, which is about to open a window onto a very different landscape indeed. Within it, not even digital TV reigns, as it is, in fact, just one of the sub-products of the new lay-out of the information society.

The cable of the digital age is one of the cornerstones of the foundation of Telepolis, as defined by the philosopher Javier Echeverría. Foundations which are reinforced by constellations of satellites, networks of optical fibre, webs of cables and stations for the receiving and emitting of signals. It is the new framework which organises the re-urbanisation of cities, the integration of city and country and, potentially, establishes the bases for social equality by means of communicating. In order to achieve this, it is essential that it becomes an integral part of the home, just like water and electricity, without the need for inhabitants to know how exceptional the equipment needed to enjoy it is. To get to this point, the information “tap” must be open to everyone in the home. And cable network appears to be, for the moment anyway, the way to make it a completely natural part of our daily lives.

The recent evolution of cable TV has been profoundly tinged by the intangible colour of all things digital and, above all, by the explosion of the Internet. Both (while forming part of the same body) have, to a large extent, steered the technological development and the structure of the services that are beginning to take shape on the horizon. Although cable network is still advancing dispersedly, in fits and starts, depending on the regulations adopted by the different administrations concerned and the economic considerations that control its progress, prevailing tendencies are beginning to be sufficiently solid enough to substantiate the idea that, sooner than we imagine, the information switch will be installed in our homes. If we take what is going to happen in Catalonia as an example (its planning does not differ substantially from similar projects in other parts of the world), via the 10 Mb (minimum) bitpipe that is going to reach our homes we will be able to receive:

  • An undetermined number of TV channels (if the signal is compressed the offer multiplies). The cable’s broad band guarantees that it is bidirectional, so that it will not be necessary to occupy telephone lines in order to interact with broadcast emissions, whether it be to request a film, pay to see certain programmes or any of the other possibilities that will drive some people crazy.
  • Advanced telephone services, such as calls on hold, multi-conference, etc.
  • Digital music from dozens of music stations and distribution centres. A small liquid crystal screen (or a panel hanging on the wall) will tell us what we are listening to, the composer, the title of the album, and the year it was recorded. And all this via the most suitable system, in this case the music system, which will have a cable plugged into it from the mains of the cable network. The inhabitants of the home, without a crash course in modern technology, will begin to get an approximate idea of what multimedia is all about.
  • Internet. A double adaptor off the main cable network will allow another connection, in this case that of the computer. Users will get a modem from the net operator (in the case of Barcelona, this will be the latest built by Scientific Atlanta) and a card to convert the signal in the machine. From this moment on, they will receive Internet at 10 Mb by merely turning on the computer and opening the browser, e-mail software, etc. If the user is a company (interested in the telephone service and Internet but not necessarily in 50 TV channels) they will be able to rent a return of 10Mb with which they’ll have a server in their PCs where they can install their webs. If it is a private person, a return channel of 750Kb will be more than enough (all they want to do is click on webs, upload or download files and software and send and receive e-mail. At present, the ISDN works at 128Kb, and at what price!)
  • Intranet. All the territory covered by the cable network will function, in fact, like a giant Intranet. And in an Intranet lots of things can be done. For example, one that the operator (or subcontractor) stores in a memory (caché) the webs that users visit. Consequently, the next time access will be quicker because it won’t be necessary to leave the Intranet. In order to keep these pages up to date, the company could use as many “agents” as it wishes to constantly patrol the Internet and register the changes that have occurred on the most requested pages.
  • Dishes to suit the tastes of each consumer. For example, menus to make the internauts job easier. To start off with, a map of all the local webs shown on the screen (in this case, Catalan webs or those that have some bearing on Catalonia) to reinforce the Intranet through cable as a territorial service. From here, one might be able to visit:
  • Ad-hoc services. Apart from those which the City Councils and other groups may decide to feed in (museums, municipal information centres, lists of daily events, promotions, etc.), services of all kinds will spring up, from the most traditional (from the point of view of present news services) to those which are specifically designed to suit the needs of users (virtual communities). Services which could be on the Internet or specifically developed for cable networks. If the network spreads within an environment such as that of Catalonia, the rate of penetration in the next 4 or 5 years could be as much as one and a half million homes (the number of individual users will be irrelevant, just as it is in the case of water and electricity). An electronic newspaper distributed by the network as part of the Internet services, and brought up to the minute by local information supplied by the users themselves, etc., etc., would, in theory, triple the number of readers of the newspapers with the biggest circulation at present. And this would include the added value of user interactivity via the cable network.
  • Requests for videos, music, digitalised encyclopaedias, dictionaries, projects of all kinds, still and animated graphics, photographs, etc., either for consultation on-line (on the computer screen, TV or on the wall), or in order to print them. Homes are on their way to becoming veritable centres for the production, consumption and printing of information.
  • Many other things that it is not worth going in to greater detail about now as they would lead us to in other directions which deserve editorials of their own, like education, for example.

What is clear, though, is that the combination of Internet, specific electronic services, e-mail, updating agents for webs, analogue and interactive TV, etc., all through one plug, without the need for satellite dishes or tuning mechanisms, mean another giant leap in the spectacular field of digital communication. This is not WebTV, nor any propietary system like it. In other words, it’s as much privately owned as the water or electricity — any tap or switch can be used. Just sign up and you’ll receive streams of bits on tap. It also implies a fundamental difference with the networks sustained by digital systems via satellite: the cable network maintains a balance between the global and the local which the former cannot guarantee. The satellite network, for the moment, and by definition, is global. Its owner is more owner of the network and its contents than is the case with cable network.

Translation: Bridget King.