Always On: Living in a Networked World

IEEE Spectrum special report

3 min read

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: Always On: Living in a Networked World.

The year of IEEE Spectrum's first issue, 1964, was the year Vannevar Bush received the U.S. National Medal of Science and a celebrated New York World's Fair took place. Optimism about technology abounded, tempered only slightly by the lessons of Hiroshima. There was hope and belief that technological advances would improve the human condition, not just in terms of labor-saving devices and productivity, but also the social good.

Bush, an important figure in U.S. science policy (and an electrical engineer educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) understood early on that computers would be useful for more than number-crunching. He saw that they would be an integral part of information management. In his famous 1945 article "As We May Think," Bush anticipated the notion of "hypertext"—the idea at the core of the Internet of randomly linking information so that it can be accessed and searched in novel ways by a user other than the one who put it there. However, even Bush could not have anticipated the amount of information being generated today and the need to move it around the planet for many to use and share.

The 1964 New York's World Fair was a science and technology extravaganza, a precursor to Disneyland. The fair's theme, "Man in a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe," in a sense presaged the always-on theme of this 2001 Spectrum issue. For as we become increasingly networked, our worlds will grow smaller and bigger simultaneously.

What we can see now is just the beginning of a deep connectivity, and the possibility of a pervasive data and information sharing that will stimulate many new ideas about how networks are used. As in 1964, the vision is one of hope for human betterment. Here's our take on where we have been and where we may be headed.

The first section "Bursting at the Seams" looks at how the growth of the Internet is driving improvements to its underlying telecommunications network. Optical nets and wireless nets are central to these improvements. The foldout maps out the relationships of the physical underpinnings of the infrastructure. The growth of the Internet is also forcing the resolution of numerous Net management, testing, and security issues, all of which have been with us for some time now, but are taking on new urgency as the Net gets bigger and more valuable.

In the second section, "Elements of a Well-Oiled Machine," we look at how network growth is leading to better network components and ways of simulating and testing them once they are in place. Zero tolerance for failure is the goal as more and more critical services move to the Net.

The third section "An Energy Crunch Worsens"] examines the power needs of our technologies. In 1964, nuclear energy was the answer, intended to provide electricity that was "too cheap to meter." Now interest centers on electric grid deregulation, natural gas, green power, and the new business opportunities these present. We also ask whether the Internet is an energy hog or an environmental friend.

Improved transportation makes the world smaller too. Today, we are much more concerned with how many hours it takes to get somewhere than with how far it is. In "Gridlocks and Stopgaps", we look at transportation network congestion, efforts to do automotive "traffic forecasting," and a project to ease runway congestion at airports. We also look at vehicles powered by fuel cells and at efforts to put the Internet and a lot of other electronic goodies into your car—so you have something to do while you wait.

Finally, in "Networked Living", we look at the application of networks in everything from consumer electronics to hospitals to factories to supercomputers and the impact of these systems on our lives.

Our networks will change how we work and live in ways that Vannevar Bush and Spectrum could not have imagined. Technology has a capacity for the unexpected. In 1964, one of the predictions about today was that we would be living under the ocean in great cities or on the surface of the moon. But now we project ourselves vicariously through the Web. As we continue to build our networks, will everything turn into a Disneyland, an experience of simulated experience? Perhaps we will be able to tell you that in 2010.

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