Sunday, May 12, 2013

Why the computer will impact humanity more than any other communication technology

Photograph of a young girl listening to the ra...
Photograph of a young girl listening to the radio during the Great Depression. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I believe several factors contribute to the Internet having a far broader and deeper impact on the world than the telephone, radio or television had or have now.

The telephone, radio and television all required equipment which had to be provided by large companies and industry.

Telephone poles and wires had to be strung all across the nation before Bess in New York could call Fred in California. There was no peer-to-peer alternative, no personal phone service unless you were able to use a wireless telegraph.

Radio required broadcasters within range of the audience's receivers. In the early days AM broadcasts were frequently interrupted by storms or other electrical devices.

Both radio and television required professional content providers. For the average family there was no station-to-station radio or television. They relied on major studios and corporations to provide content. Would those media have become popular without radio shows and television programs? And the content was all pushed to the consumer. There was no interaction with the listener or viewer. They were simply passive receivers for content provided by the emerging entertainment industry.

In stark contrast the Internet was envisioned and implemented as an interactive medium. Its core functionality relied on the content provided from both, or all, ends of the communication links.

Early computer modems piggybacked on the technology already in place for the telephone. No one had to wait for a corporation to string new wires or build new transmitters. No one had to rely on a network to provide content or build fancy receivers. Kit computers were on the scene almost as soon as this new technology became popular.

Radio was developed on principles that emerged from research into telephony, and television shared the same origins. Both relied on a fairly narrow spectrum of radio waves. While television overshadowed radio by providing similar content in a more advanced form, neither could replace the functionality of the telephone.

But computers quickly exploited wavelengths unusable by either radio or television, allowing them to become wireless devices free of interference from their electronic ancestors. Within a few short years of their adoption computers offered applications that replicated the telephone, the radio and television. You could make calls from your computer, listen to music or voice broadcasts, even watch videos and commercial broadcasts. Computers and the Internet didn't just advance the technology of their predecessors, they incorporated and replaced them.

Perhaps the greatest difference between radio and television and the Internet is the democratic nature of the content. Anyone can get online and produce content or collaborate with others. It's what the telephone could have become if cell service had been offered alongside wired telephony at its advent. But the need for wires and expensive central hubs kept the phone from becoming what the Internet has, a nearly ubiquitous means of personal and global communications.

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