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Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University
Version of 25 November 1994
© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1994
This is the final part of a multi-part Monograph whose contents-page is at http://www.rogerclarke.com/II/NetNation.html
This document is at http://www.rogerclarke.com/II/NetN9.html
If Australia wishes to escape from its economic dependence on agricultural and pastoral products and minerals, it must pay more than lip-service to the aim of becoming a 'clever country'. The basis for intellectually-based industries is the emergent information infrastructure. Government and the private sector will, by intent or design, make decisions in the next few years which will largely determine the success with which Australia will participate in the global information economy.
A quarter-century ago, Drucker asserted that major discontinuities were already upon us, including genuinely new technologies and "knowledge as the central capital, the cost centre and the crucial resource of the economy" (1969, p.9). It is increasingly clear that the notion of discontinuity is inadequate, because it implies that, although the relationship between variables is anything but smooth, the situation can nonetheless be modelled as a set of relationships among the same old variables. Instead the factors which most strongly influence change are themselves changing, and notions such as quantum shift and structural revolution seem more apt.
This paper has provided a background to the nature and origins of the information infrastructure notion. The political process leading to its establishment has been reviewed, including consideration of alternative metaphors, and the various stakeholders and their interests. Particular attention has been paid to the public interest, because this is diffuse and poorly represented in Australian political processes. Alternative approaches to funding the information infrastructure have been canvassed, and suggestions made regarding the appropriate mix.
A networked nation is emerging. It is critical that the public's interest in the services, and in the underlying infrastructure, be reflected at all stages in its development and use. Specific, targetted government actions will contribute to the process. Excessive governmental involvement in activities which will develop satisfactorily anyway, would, on the other hand, retard and distort the available services and the underlying infrastructure. The government must recognise the importance of its multiple roles:
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The Australian Academic and Research Network (AARNet) is a means for inter-connecting the networks of the organisations making up the Australian research community. It uses the TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol) suite of standards, although it also supports smaller volumes of DECnet, Appletalk and X.25 transmissions. It functions as the Australian segment of the worldwide 'Internet', which is the set of networks inter-connected using TCP/IP.
TCP/IP networks use a connectionless, packet-switching mechanism. This means that there is no committed connection between the two end-points of a transmission, and that data does not travel in a single, unbroken stream from sender to receiver. Instead, the data is broken into packets (of about 200-2,000 bytes) and sent from node to node along the network.
Packet-switched networks are distinctly different from connection-based networks such as the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) and on-line sessions between workstations and servers. These dedicate a series of arcs to make up a connection, and commit them for the duration of a session or call, rather than just for the time it takes to send a single message. The packet-switching approach denies priority to messages within pre-arranged conversations, and as a result real-time transmissions such as voice and video are likely to sound and appear jerky to the receiver. In return, packet-switching makes much more efficient use of the arcs and nodes in the network, provides much greater total throughput, and is accordingly much cheaper for a given volume of traffic.
Each node on the inter-network (roughly speaking, that means the gateway processor on each organisation's internal network) co-operates with the remainder by acting as a switch or exchange, and passing data along towards its target. In order to do this, some of the nodes act as 'name-servers', and maintain a set of routing tables which determine where, depending on its ultimate objective, each packet has to be sent next.
The Internet emerged during the 1980s from the Defence Advanced Research Project Agency's ARPANet. Since AARNet was implemented in 1990, its growth has been dramatic, initially in terms of the number of networks it connected, and continuously in terms of the volume of data it carries. It is essentially a non-hierarchic network, i.e. there is no central controlling point (although there is a central service point for management and trouble-shooting). Its functioning depends on co-operation among many processors and hence also among the organisations which own them.
To the end-user, AARNet is almost transparent. It provides an extended address-space of machines and users, which comprises the entire worldwide Internet. It has high resilience to downtime on individual nodes and arcs, and very high reliability and efficiency. The delivery time for a message is well under a second anywhere within Australia, and usually under a second anywhere in the world. The speed and convenience of data transmission results in greater immediacy in human communications, and has unleashed an explosion of new ideas and services.
In order to impose a limited degree of order on a dynamic field, this section somewhat arbitrarily distinguishes between the tools and services which came to prominence during the decade of the 1980s, and those which have recently emerged or are presently emerging.
During the 1970s, computing had involved singular resources controlled by a priestly caste. During the 1980s, this evolved to a position in which large numbers of inexpensive standalone microcomputers (commonly but imprecisely called 'personal computers') were much more readily accessible by people who could directly benefit from them, in a much less controlled environment. Where 'dumb' terminals had previously offered, to approved users only, pre-defined and restricted functionality, these machines provided power for a modest investment to anyone who wished to capture, store, process and publish data.
What has been usually referred to as 'the marriage of computing and telecommunications' enabled hitherto independent micro-computers to talk with one another, and (by emulating dumb terminals) to talk to mainframe equipment. Progressively, users' own microcomputers were linked with centrally controlled macro-processors (mainframes, 'mini-computers' and mid-range machines) to perform cooperative tasks in networks of dispersed machine intelligence. The old hierarchy of a central mainframe with slave terminals was inverted, and the users' workstations became the primary focus, with local, corporate and wide area networks placing 'servers' at the 'client's' disposal.
Accompanying these developments were great improvements in the learnability and usability of software development tools, of utility software and of applications. Scrolling displays and exotic command languages which were inimical to convenient use by non-specialists were replaced by menu-driven and icon-based human-computer interfaces. For the arbitrariness of the old ideas has been substituted consistent machine behavior, enabling the intuition users develop from their experiences with the first few functions they meet to be generalised to the learning of the remainder. The combination of these various factors has brought about the dispersion and democratisation of computing.
A wide range of tools very important to research were delivered or significantly improved during this phase. The management and analysis of structured, numerical data were better supported, and access to databases was facilitated by the alternative technologies of on-line access to remote databases and directories, and local optical storage (CD-ROM). Within free-text databases, the navigability improved, through the growing availability of so-called 'hypertext', i.e. the ability to roam along the inherent multi-dimensional paths in a document, rather than being limited to the linear sequence of the text (Bolter 1991). The concept has since been generalised to 'hypermedia' for compound documents, i.e. those which contain data in more than one format (Marcus 1991).
Document preparation was facilitated and researchers became less dependent on document preparation staff, not only in the sense of word processing, but also in regard to the preparation of diagrams and the incorporation of diagrams and images into text. Even more emphatically, the scope for refinement and revision was increased, with outcomes whose quality (at least potentially) was higher in terms of both content and presentation.
The long-standing dependence of academics on professional and relatively expensive design, production-editing and printing services was demolished. Desk-top publishing enables a team of a lone academic and a single moderately skilled support staff-member to produce conference proceedings, journals and monographs of a quality and at a cost directly comparable to, and in many cases superior to, those of the traditional publishing houses, and to do so much more quickly. The functions in which publishers retain significant advantages have been reduced to such areas as marketing, distribution and capital access.
During this period, communications between researchers were greatly enhanced. The telefax was the most explosive single change during the 1980s, but there was a vast increase also in the number of people connected to national networks such as Bitnet (U.S.A.), JANet (U.K.), EARN (Continental Europe) and ACSnet (Australia). The various networks were then linked via what began as a domestic United States initiative, but has since become the world-wide Internet.
What was originally a very basic and at best semi-reliable email service for unformatted text, has been progressively enhanced. Mailing-lists enable multiple copies of messages to be transmitted to many recipients with a single command. Mailing-lists can be stored centrally, rather than copies being maintained on multiple machines. Updates may be undertaken centrally, or the power to insert or delete one's own address may be vested in the individual, using emailed commands and so-called 'list-server' software.
A complement to the mailing list is the bulletin-board or news group, which stores messages in a database, displays data about the date, time, sender and subject, and enables individuals to read such messages as they choose. Because of the explosion of mail and news-groups, posting to some of the more influential mailing-lists and news-groups is not freely accessible, but is moderated by kind souls who dedicate much time to encouraging a sufficient volume of useful traffic, and filtering out the less constructive messages.
Remote login capabilities at local and distant servers enable access by pre-authorised users to specialised processing capabilities and databases. In addition, limited access is provided to all comers, to such openly accessible data as the catalogue systems of hundreds of university libraries, and the vast volume of material stored in areas which are labelled (less than clearly) 'anonymous ftp'. This is a form of publication which is at once very cheap and very open-ended, because anyone can use any form of computer-based aid to locate it, and copy from it.
By the beginning of the 1990s, the tools and services outlined in this section had been comprehensively prototyped by computer scientists and other devotees. The developments were by no means confined to the United States; for example, reflecting their deep-seated fear of isolation from the world mainstream and strong desire to overcome 'the tyranny of distance', Australians generate a significant volume of traffic over the Internet. For reviews of contemporary Internet services, see Benedikt (1989), Scientific American (1991), Kehoe (1992), Krol (1992) and LaQuey (1992).
No longer was information technology just about computing qua computation; it was about communication as well: "[an organisation] is constituted as a network of recurrent conversations ... computers are a tool for conducting the network of conversations" (Winograd and Flores 1985, pp.168, 172). The 1980s had seen the establishment of the basis for more widespread use of these tools, the development of more sophisticated services, and the customising of tools and services to the needs of particular disciplines, workgroups and individuals.
With many of the important breakthroughs in hardware and communications already achieved, developments in the early 1990's have been primarily in the software area. The implicit assumption of previous decades had been that individual users worked in isolation, or they cooperated with others but only by sharing the same database. A recurrent theme in the 1990s is the support of collaborative work between individuals, among members of localised workgroups, among widely dispersed workgroups, throughout organisations and even across organisational boundaries.
On-line access capabilities are now moving beyond library catalogues to full-text and image storage and retrieval. The data are increasingly available at the researcher's own workstation, rather than only on a specialised terminal in a library. Statistical databases and collections such as satellite images of weather and landforms are also becoming more widely available over the Internet. Meanwhile significant progress is being made in assisting researchers to locate material they need; in particular, Archie and Veronica provide centralised and frequently updated lists of files around the Internet; the Wide Area Information Service (WAIS) provides convenient but powerful search facilities, and a prototype distributed hypertext search product called World Wide Web (WWW) is also available.
Access to specialised computational capabilities on remote machines is also being facilitated through such initiatives as the U.S. supercomputer network, NFSnet. The emergent National Research and Education Network (NREN) in the United States and the Research Data Network (RDN) in Australia are preparing the ground for high-bandwidth telecommunications superhighways, and linkages across the oceans.
Weaknesses in worldwide email facilities are being quickly overcome. One of the greatest difficulties - finding the addresses of people you wish to communicate with, will be addressed during the next few years through what are commonly referred to as 'directories', both of the so-called white-pages variety (keyed by individuals' and institutions' names) and yellow-pages (organised by the class of service offered or research undertaken).
Beyond text-only mail is the ability to transmit formatted (so-called 'binary') documents. Provided that sender and recipient(s) have the same or compatible software, data can be sent in any format whatsoever (e.g. those of particular word processing, diagram-drawing, image-processing, desktop-publishing, or spreadsheet packages), and compound documents containing multiple media-forms can be supported. The products to produce and read these documents are increasingly including capabilities to attach annotations to any location within them, and thereby facilitate fast turnaround among co-authors, and among authors, referees and editors. Many discussions of these capabilities appear in the literature under the term 'computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW)', e.g. Grief (1988). Many documents will continue to be under the editorial control of one person, but conventional notions of document authorship and editorship are being complemented by alternative forms, some democratic and some intentionally anarchic.
Another emerging capability is workflow, which can be conceived as the creation of an intelligent virtual mailroom and file-register, such that documents route themselves between individuals' work-trays. Although this notion's primary applicability is in transaction-processing environments in business and government, it could be usefully applied to aspects of research work, including the receipt, editing, coding and analysis of data, and the management of conference papers and journal articles.
Researchers in group decision support systems (GDSS) distinguish a 2x2 (place and time) matrix of multi-person discourse, negotiation and decision processes. The participants may meet in the same place or remain dispersed, and the interactions may occur in the same time-frame (synchronously) or at different times (asynchronously). Each of the four combinations requires different forms of electronic support. Many of the emerging tools are of potential benefit in research as well as in business and government; for example much faster development of ideas can be facilitated by electronic conferences (which support different-time / different-place communications, and enable sharing of text, tables, graphics and voice data), and video-conferences (which provide same-time / different-place communications, with 'real-time' sharing of the various kinds of data, plus synchronised moving image and sound).
Another potential application is to enable doctoral supervisors who are remote from one another to 'meet' from time to time as an interactive panel, rather than restricting their operations to multiple one-to-one interactions with the candidate. With the trend from entirely government-funded to dual-funded research programmes, the importance of interaction between programme sponsors, directors and staff is greater than ever before, and GDSS tools have much to offer in this area also. A more exciting contribution is the facilitation of brain-storming by, for example, electronically-supported anonymous delphi techniques.
A related development is 'visualisation' (McCormick et al 1987, Cox 1990). Initially, this is enabling solo and co-located researchers to impose alternative models on data through iterative attempts to explain and replicate patterns. With the increasing availability of high-bandwidth networking, same-time / different-place experiment-ation will be possible in what amounts to a high-tech/high-science 'jam session'.
A further emergent notion with potential research applications is the 'digital persona'. This is a person's data shadow, or image, as projected out into the net; for example, each individual may use multiple identities to reflect different aspects of their 'real' personality, such as the enthusiastic researcher, the social advocate, the sceptic and the 'angry young man'. Ideas and reactions which would be inappropriate in one role may therefore be given free rein via one of the other personae. This is therefore a means whereby members of a community can gain access to all of the varied and often mutually inconsistent thoughts of outstanding individuals.
There are many other applications of the notion, however. In its more active sense, a digital persona encompasses the idea of an 'agent', which was conceived by computer scientists to perform functions on a person's behalf on a local workstation, a local server, or elsewhere in the net. One simple application is a mail-filter which vets a person's incoming mail, classifies and prioritises it, and perhaps discards low-interest messages, or places them in a 'read-only-if-something's-missing' pile (Loch & Terry 1992).
A more interesting class of active persona or agent is the so-called 'knowbot'. Because no central directory exists for the Internet as a whole, it is necessary to search multiple directories when trying to find a particular user or a particular data-file. Prototype programs are in use which adopt modestly efficient search patterns in order to find desired data from anywhere in the net. A further development is the notion of a news-gatherer or environmental scanner, which wanders the net, browsing through accessible files, and sending back references to or copies of items which appear to satisfy search criteria nominated by the 'real' person. A more sophisticated persona could 'learn' criteria through feedback gathered about the usefulness of earlier dispatches from the individual, and perhaps also from his work-group or a wider reference group.
The richness of emergent ideas is so great that individual researchers, and even whole research teams, are unlikely to apply more than a few of them. Selection and use of those most appropriate to the needs of particular individuals, teams and disciplines will be facilitated by 'researcher workbenches'. These incorporate a user interface supporting access to the various services; tutorial, on-line help and reference material; significant customisability for particular disciplines, research areas and personal preferences; and extensibility to additional and new applications. The most important feature which a workbench offers is, however, integration, both between functions and among local and remote team-members. Prototype workbenches have been reported in the legal area (Greenleaf et al 1992), and exist on the Internet (e.g. gopher). Although there are signs that mature products will soon begin to be offered commercially, the new ideas will continue to emerge from collaborative efforts among researchers themselves.
The content and infrastructure for these community service pages are provided by Roger Clarke through his consultancy company, Xamax.
From the site's beginnings in August 1994 until February 2009, the infrastructure was provided by the Australian National University. During that time, the site accumulated close to 30 million hits. It passed 65 million in early 2021.
Sponsored by the Gallery, Bunhybee Grasslands, the extended Clarke Family, Knights of the Spatchcock and their drummer
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Created: 15 October 1995 - Last Amended: 28 October 1998 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
This document is at www.rogerclarke.com/II/NetN9.html