'Many-to-many' communication: the end of the Internet

November 20, 1995|By Robert Burruss

KENSINGTON -- In the olden days, before Johannes Gutenberg figured out an efficient means of broadcasting, most information moved from one mouth to one, or several, pairs of ears. Such a system of communication might be called ''one-to-one,'' since mostly that's what it was.

One-to-one communication has a high rate of error accumulation. Interesting or provocative information got buried under fast-growing, multi-branched trees of fable. One wonders how much history and religion have been twisted and deformed by such one-to-one communication. Did Moses really spend 40 years in the desert, or did 40 days only seem like 40 years, embellished as the story worked its way along?

The movie version starring Charlton Heston can qualify as few-to-many communication -- from the producer, director and writer and their hired hands, to us, the many. The Internet offers something new.

When I cruise the Internet, I can tie into places like ''Space Weather,'' where the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration gives the daily count of protons in the sun's ''wind'' and their velocities as they hit the earth's magnetic field or streak past to forever at a million miles an hour. I can also download pictures of the sun -- or of naked women, if that's my mood.

The Internet, in its present mode, is a few-to-few form of communication. The people at NOAA, for instance, broadcast to the few people who need or, like me, are simply interested in things like the speed and density of the solar wind and last month's accounting of daily solar X-ray energies.

As I was wandering cyberspace recently, I stumbled into Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. The address is http://hamp.hamsphire.edu. There I found a listing for ''Student Home Pages'' where I ''clicked on'' LAST NAME (in so-called hypertext, whose ''hot'' words can connect you to other, usually related, sources of information). From the list of student names, I chose, at random, Tara Morrison's home page, entitled, ''some girls wander by mistake.''

Near the top of Ms. Morrison's home page, she says, ''Imagine if you will a large TEMPLE [hypertext] in the middle of the Internet.'' I clicked on TEMPLE to see where it might lead, and suddenly I was in England, in the ''Temple Courtyard: (the address is: http://www.tardis.ed.ac.uk). I clicked on MAIN ENTRANCE, and then on CHARLIE'S PLACE.

''Charlie's Place'' belongs to Charlie Stross, who calls himself a ''UNIX oriented text mangler.'' He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, and he writes fiction and essays. The essay I copied is named ''Eating the States: The Political Implications of Cyberspace.''

''Much of the chatter about video and demand and maneuvering between networking companies,'' says Mr. Stross, ''has tended to conceal the fact that what [Albert] Gore was talking about -- and still is talking about -- is not simply a better cable TC system; it's a true many-to-many communications network, as fundamentally different from the existing TV system as the telephone network is from commercial radio.''

The ''many-to-many communications'' phrase describes a property, still latent, in the Internet: the ability for anyone to send message to everyone -- and for everyone to respond. Mr. Stross, when I asked (by e-mail) about the origin of the phrase, said it came from ''Nicholas Negroponte or Marshal McLuhan or one of their illustrious ilk, I think. I picked it up and ran with it.''

Whatever the original source, the Internet's proto ''many-to-many'' communications is rapidly infringing on the ''few-to-many'' systems such as television (four decades or so now), radio and movies (eight decades each), and the printed word (five centuries).

We're only at the beginning. The Internet conveys huge amounts of information to individuals and groups all over the world at the speed of light -- with layovers here and there as it jumps from computer to computer en route from sender(s) to receiver(s).

The apotheosis of many-to-many communications will be achieved when computers at least a thousand times faster than present ones will be readily available. We'll then have real-time, speed-of-light voice and video communication from any point on earth to any other point, in a true many-to-many system.

Imagine that you're in the middle of the Sahara Desert, or the Gobi, or somewhere in Antarctica. You spin through a billion channels from all over the world, categorized by subject matter. The audio portion might be delivered through a little speaker behind one ear, and the video might come through a ''heads-up'' projector on the inside of your glasses, so you can pay attention to either the video image or to the real scene at hand.

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