(How to Avoid Being Roadkill on
the Information Superhighway)

1996 All Rights Reserved
Richard R. Orsinger


A. Communicating Across Distance. For most of human history, to communicate instantaneously the sender and the receiver had to be in the same location. Persons who wished to communicate over a distance had to accept a delay between sending and receiving, and this delay impaired or destroyed the interactive aspect of communicating. For example, a messenger could carry a communication across distance, but only at the expense of time passing. It took the same amount of time to receive the reply back.

Humans have long tried to transmit information faster than a person could carry it. Reportedly word of the fall of Troy was transmitted quickly from Asia to Greece by a series of fire signal towers. The Mongols used carrier pigeons to transmit information across history's largest empire. American Indians used smoke signals to transmit information. Africans used drum signals to pass messages. Flags were used to send signals between ships at sea.

At the time our country was founded, communication across distances was available to the general public through the postal system. But the postal system was limited to the speed of a ship, a horse, and delivery-man on foot. As a practical matter, most of people's activities were based on immediate communications in their immediate vicinity.

Electricity transformed communications, by greatly increasing the speed of sending information over a distance. Some methods of electrical transmission of information have been for public communication, and some for private. With the successive development of the telegraph (public), the radio (public), the telephone (private), the television (public), and the internet (private and public), people could communicate over distances without the delay that beset their ancestors.

We are now very close to the maximum speed for transmitting sound messages. With television, the public transmission of visual images is instantaneous. We are now on the verge of instantaneous private video communications ("telepresence"). The electronic equivalent to face-to-face meetings is almost a reality for the average person, from his or her office or home, or even in a vehicle. When instantaneous voice and visual communications become available for private communication, technology will have closed the time lapse for communication over a distance. Travelling to a meeting will be a conscious choice, not a necessity. The great inefficiency of travel time will evaporate, and that much more time will be added to the work day or the personal day. The ramifications of having that added time will be significant.

The limitation on communications now is not speed but bandwidth--the amount of information that can be transmitted at one time (64,000 bits per second is needed for voice, 45 million bps for video, but after compression video needs only 1.2 million bps). While digital telephone technology has increased bandwidth, the true revolution will occur when the information superhighway (National Information Infrastructure) is connected. The information superhighway, consisting of fiberoptic cable, will be able to transfer digital information at the rate of one billion bits per second. At this rate, fiberoptic cable would be a minimum of 500 times faster than the coaxial cable used by cable television companies. In 1993, AT&T researchers succeeded in simultaneously sending four different wave-length laser beams through fiberoptic cable, raising transmission capacity to 6.8 billion bits per second. Unlimited amounts of information can be transferred instantly, in this fashion.

Before long, the bottleneck in communication will be entirely human--the age-old problem of people's reluctance to take advantage of new ways of doing things.

B. Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Communication. Another aspect of communication involves the simultaneous nature of the communication. "Synchronous" communication occurs when the receiver is receiving information at the same time that the sender is sending it. "Asynchronous" communication occurs when the message is sent at one time but received at another. Some comparisons:

1. Examples

Synchronous Asynchronous

Group ritual Cave painting

Conversation Letter/fax/e-mail

Speech/Lecture Newspaper/books

Concerts Tapes, CD's

Plays Movies/Video tape

Talking on the phone Voice mail message

Chat room on AOL Reading pages

Internet Relay Chat on WWW

Dictating to a sec- Using a dictating machine retary

Live trial testimony Deposition testimony

Live trial testimony Reviewing statement of


Appellate oral Appellate brief


2. Eliminates "Telephone Tag." Attempting to connect with another person to have synchronous communication can be a huge time-waster--a big delay factor. People play "telephone tag." Entire days are lost while parties attempt to synchronize their communication. Asynchronous communication can reduce this time wasted in attempting to synchronize communication. The sender sends when (s)he wants; the receiver receives when (s)he wants. The communication is often completed much sooner when the parties are willing to accept asynchronous communications.

3. E-Mail. A letter is a medium for asynchronous communication. Traditionally 1 to 3 days is lost in sending a letter. However, telefaxing a letter permits asynchronous communication with no transmission delay. But, the process of faxing is slow and labor intensive. Phone calls may be faster than mailed letters but faxed letters may be faster than phone calls, because of asynchronousity. E-mail is easier for asynchronous communication because e-mail has very little set-up time and very little production time. By dispensing with the formalities of a letter in favor of something more akin to a memo, a communication can be sent by e-mail with a minimum of trouble--by those who can type. E-mail is especially effective where the message needs to be broadcast to a large number of recipients. If the recipients are all on the e-mail system, simultaneous broadcast of one e-mail message to many recipients is effortless and instantaneous (from the sender's point-of-view), by use of "mailing lists" that permit broadcast of an e-mail message to a group of recipients, all at one time. It is not necessary in such a situation to send the e-mail message to each recipient, one-by-one, as would be the case with a letter. Services exist that can "broadcast" a fax to multiple recipients. However, the cost is 35 cents/page. An e-mail message costs 1/10th the cost of a fax. E-mail will supplant fax broadcast, once everyone has an e-mail address.

4. Voice Mail. The increasing acceptance of voice mail has made asynchronous telephone communications more prevalent. When a caller leaves a message with a receptionist or secretary, the process of leaving a content-related message is slow and prone to error. With voice mail, the caller can easily leave an extended message without fear that the message will be changed in transmission. In many instances, accepting this asynchronous alternative to getting someone on the line at the same time is a great timesaver.

C. Unilateral vs. Interactive Communication; "Inter-creativity." One of the big advantages of synchronous communication is the possibility of interactive communication. This is why historically face-to-face meetings have been essential to tasks requiring the cooperation of several people. People can interact, and respond to one-another's comments, look at the same chalk board or flip chart, etc. Satellite conversations that are ancillary to the main discussion can occur among people in the room.

Technology now exists that will permit people to interact in a "meeting" that occurs on-line. The faces of all participants in the on-line discussion are presented as "windows" on your computer screen, and you can hear every person's comments through the speakers attached to your computer, even when they are talking simultaneously. The software can project documents, and even show "edits" to the documents created by using a John-Madden-style computerized pen which creates electronic "marks" on the document.

Normally, leaving messages or sending letters or e-mail is a unilateral communication, except in the most delayed fashion. However, if members of a group accept the idea of checking a particular location in "cyberspace," and reading messages that other people have left, and leaving their own responses, then a form of interactivity occurs, albeit stretched a little bit over time. The unilateral communications (each e-mail message) take on an interactive nature as time passes.

New collaborative software is being developed that will permit persons in different places to work together on the creation of a single document, each accessing the document at different times. See Structured Cooperative Authoring on the World Wide Web,

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, in an interview in The World Wide Web Journal (Summer 1996), made the following comments about interactive projects on the World Wide Web:

"Q. From the start of the Web, you've been promoting interactivity as the ideal. Do you feel that we're any closer to that? If not, what's it going to take to make the Web more interactive, more collaborative?

[T. B-L] The word "interactive" is terrible in a way, because people mean different things by it. To really be able to work at a distance, to use a knowledge space, you need all of it. So when some people say "interactive," they mean taking real-time audio and video and integrating it with the Web so you can create a meeting document and talk to people in it. Another form of interactivity is to be able to make a comment on somebody's paper, to put a yellow sticky on it and say, "This is really important," with a link to why it is. Yet the real-time video problems, and the annotation problems are totally different, and they're both big problems.

Q. How do you sort them out?

[T. B-L] Well, I've recently started using the term "intercreativity" instead of interactivity. By this I mean something like building things together, which is more than filling out a form and hitting "submit." Imagine, for example, a heap of objects--a compass, a magnet, and some iron filings. You come across them in a 3-D virtual world, and you can use them to learn something about magnetic fields. Suppose you can take these magnets and their properties to another virtual world and with them create a little tower of magnets and discuss it with your friends. Suppose you can build with other people within the virtual space. That will be much more satisfying and more productive than any of the current forms of interactivity. Yet that sort of thing will also need a lot of engineering; you will have to roll in a lot of things.

Q. So how would you define "intercreativity" succinctly?

[T. B-L] Building together, being creative together.

Q. Are we getting any closer to that ideal?

[T. B-L] As usual, interface technologies are always further ahead on the viewing than on the creation. Intercreativity happens when you are able to build, make something, express yourself while you are in the same mode as when you are reading, absorbing, surfing. In other words there's no difference. When you have something that you need to express, the threshold is so low that you can move it out into the communal space. . . ."

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Created August 28, 1996
Last updated August 28, 1996