The (Preferred)

Future of Electronic Communications

by Dan Robinson

I consider good communications interfaces to be very important to all kinds of communities. I mostly like to exchange ideas on alternatives and social change and how to "save the world". But I'm rather dissatisfied with the available modes for any intellectual exchange, and for contacting people with whom to do it. The possible modes include, off-line: conversations, discussion groups, lectures, seminars, workshops, conventional mass media. On-line: bulletin boards, Internet chat lines, private e-mail, mailing lists, news groups, gopher sites, FTP sites, World Wide Web sites... (What did I leave out?) Some of these are one-to-one, others one-or-few-to-many, or few-to-few. Some are "spur of the moment", not-thought-out communications.

I feel privacy of many kinds is of greatest value to those who have something they need to hide. Of course we have to be cautious and make exceptions in a society that has come to depend on locks, passwords and secrets to protect us from the excess of mal-socialized people, including some in high positions of authority. But the best way to fight hypocrisy and over-judgmentalism is to "come out of the closet", state your position, and support those who think like you. That's the only way we can know our joint values. Privacy and secrets are the antithesis of advances in democracy and community. A major responsibility of governments should be to enhance communications and distribute information, rather than to hide it. (Of course whether we have equality of privacy and information access are really the main issues here.)

For intellectual exchange, I prefer written and on-line forms over spoken forms, especially the format of Internet mailing lists and news groups (though much improvement over them is possible). This means I never have a problem "getting published" or "getting the floor" and have plenty of time to finish my thought without being interrupted. Of course I do my actual writing off-line, and mainly log on to send what I've written. I like to think the added time and effort I take to write means that my intellectual creativity has more enduring meaning. In the Internet community, we can categorize ourselves according to subject of interest, or general interest, rather than just locality. At the same time, we can (potentially) look for references to our subject of interest elsewhere throughout the Internet. Also there's less postage and bother.

I'm not much into graphics. Some say "a picture is worth a thousand words". Others say a thousand words could include the the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address. However you may feel about these, where can you find a picture that would replace their meaning? Pictures are okay for entertainment and stimulating emotions, but when we get into deep and subjective meanings, pictures often come up short.

The Problems:

The information age is strangled into half-consciousness by the information glut because we don't use the full capability of computers to make it possible to find what we have. Instead of electronic democracy, we have electronic anarchy, which starts out as a soma (tranquilizer) for the counter-culture, but ends up as just another facet of the ongoing oligarchy. See The future of Electronic Democracy.

As documented, we have a lot of different kinds of discussion formats, a lot of places to look for information on the same subjects. Within those formats, we have many overlapping topics started by individuals, and inadequate means to search for references elsewhere. In many areas, there are very few standards, very little quality control, either in free-market or totalitarian modes, especially in "political" and social change discussions. We have no good means to get a summary of past thoughts, so we're likely to be repeating them over and over. "Past editions" are often available, but including both "wheat" and "chaff".

Audio hardware can be fairly compact, but to look at a video screen, you're expected to sit at a desk, hold a computer on your lap or hold it in one hand and type with the other. We can do much better.

The Solutions:

Here's what I'd like in hardware, user software, and on the 'Net of the "planetary brain" (preferred over "information superhighway"). A lot of it has to do with the need for agreed-upon standards, which industries of all kinds seem to want to avoid, and the patent system discourages. It's a especially hard to create standards for systems already developed without them. I talk somewhat in generalities, to avoid honoring inefficient systems already in place. Some features may be available in services I haven't explored yet. My programming and technical abilities are mostly undeveloped, but "I know what I like", and pretty well know what computers can do (much more meaningful things than what they're doing now). Are there others out there who like these ideas and have the complementary skills needed?

Hardware: Better "conventional" keyboards:

Conventional keyboards are the dinosaurs of the computer age, designed for the age of mechanical typewriters, possibly designed to slow down early typist so their keys wouldn't jam. Intensive use causes disabilities. There are many improvements to be made. We need more configurable keyboard hardware, for easier experimentation with alternatives, so we can more easily evolve better keyboards forms.

Hardware: The ultimate in portability of Computer/Communications terminal,
the "Electronic Hat and Gloves"

The "hat", or headset, might include:
1. LCD screens, (two for 3D displays), on the forehead or top of the head, viewed in two adjustable half-silvered mirrors on a visor, so one could view the screen and/or surroundings just by adjusting screen brightness. They might be used by technicians to overlap the view of a mechanism, circuit board etc. with a computer diagram. A hood on the visor would shield the screens to prevent reflections. The visor could swing up and out of the way, for eye-to-eye contact. With screens not directly in front of the eyes, they could be further from the eyes, and larger, with better resolution.

2. Stereo earphones and microphone, for complete capabilities of radio, cell-phone, TV, VCR/ACR (See below), lab instrument readout, computer screen, hearing aid etc., and maybe voice computer input. The final stage of amplification for the earphones would be frequency balancing for hearing capabilities of each ear.

3. Miniature video camera(s), for transmission, recording, or remote viewing through the LCD screens (when the camera is detached from the headset). Two cameras could also give enhanced 3D stereo viewing, by placing the cameras further apart than the eyes, and aligning them on the same view. Getting exact alignment might be done electronically. Regular video cameras could be replaced by night vision cameras.

4. "Headlights" in the form of the small "Maglight" bulbs, which take up little space or power.

"Gloves", something like "Datagloves" of virtual reality, would be the new "keyboard" or digital input mode. Keyboarding might take the form of a table-top becoming a "virtual" conventional keyboard, with the gloves recognizing finger movements and furnishing tactile feedback. The more advanced form would be a glove version of "chord keyboard", where keyswitches are closed in combinations to produce many more possible meanings, with fewer switches, than with conventional keyboards. Three-position switches at each knuckle, two at each wrist, 24 on two hands, give over 282 BILLION discrete possible meanings by closing switches in different simultaneous combinations. Of course, for the foreseeable future, only a small percent of combinations would be used. Not all would be easy, perhaps unless one began learning as a baby, and tactile feedback would definitely be necessary. It's been said nobody could learn to use such a device for text, but also that nobody would be able to control a "sail-board", (wind-surfing board).

The "hat and gloves" themselves would carry minimal electronics. More electronics, batteries, cassette recorders etc. might be carried in a belt pack, purse or back pack.

See a few more details in "The Future of Human to Computer and Communications Hardware Interfaces", www.efn.org/~danrob/comm/keyboards.htm

Media Hardware:
"Radio Guide" program listings,
"ACR" (programmable Audio Cassette Recorder for radio),
Computer-VCR/ACR Interface

Software, maybe 'Net service, to go with the above:
Add the ability to download computer-readable TV and radio programming listings, complete with "keywords", (which would preferably come "over the air", directly from the stations we receive). The computer would then sort them by type of program, subject, and keywords. Programs could be filtered according to our choice. The time and station/channel of programs we choose could then be transmitted to the VCR/ACR, which hopefully would have "magazines" to hold several cassettes. Then we wouldn't be constrained by their schedules. I think when we can know about and freely choose what we want to watch and hear, media quality will improve.

Software economics:

One function of governments should be to set standards for all kinds of interfaces. We put excessive energy and computer technology into adapters of various kinds to deal with the lack of standards. The patent system encourages variety instead of standards. Good communication interfaces require standard formats. In all advertising, we should begin to expect the format of first telling how a product, different, including how it diverges from standards, then how it's better and "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the (pertinent) truth".

Software:

Programs of all kinds should be maximally configurable, down to redefining keycodes, and in each program, redefining key-command relationships. Programmers should create algorithms, and default and alternate command sets, and allow the user to customize from there. I've just been reading that the next computer revolution will be in software which can be more fully customized.

I'd like one Internet access (etc.) program, to do all the things I want to do online, and be competitive with the best programs for each purpose. For instance one editor should have all the pertinent features of the best word-processor, and be able to send it all as email. I should be able to install it to not take up extra disk space, require extra on-screen menus and unreadable documentation, or create unending unidentifiable files, for functions I don't want in the first place.

GEnie's Aladdin was good as an all-around communications program (but GEnie had a primitive Internet interface, was slow to upgrade, and eventually sold out, got more expensive, and probably went out of business). It could automatically log on, do about everything you could think of to tell it (on the GEnie system) and log off. I now use Net Tamer (in DOS) which has similar possibilities for Internet. (It's good for automatically logging on, email, probably for news groups, telnet etc., but not so good for web browsing). I appreciate that both GEnie and Net Tamer (only) had/have non-Windows and mostly non-graphic interfaces.

We need software that doesn't need Windows, GUIs or mouse. For most computer functions, using ten fingers for keyboard input is faster than using one hand and a mouse to push "virtual keys". The latter only give us more labeled "keys", instead of encouraging us to learn expanded touch-typing. Using a mouse may be quicker to learn, but not quicker to use on an ongoing basis. (Intelligently designed keyboards, getting away from the flat, QWERTY, newer-keys-at-far-ends standard, would also help here.)

Instead of mice, we need menus, including file menus and web hyperlinks, which allow, a hotkey, or at most, sub-menus, for every option. We need menus (those that remain the same) that can be separately disabled, or made less prominent as I learn them. We need less emphasis on leading edge technology - bigger programs that do little more, but need bigger hard drives which "deserve" still bigger programs. More emphasis on that which allows at least the great majority to at least have email access. Web sites and many other 'Net features can be accessed through conventional email.

Local Electronic Communities

For all this to happen might require a "revolution", at least in the Internet. As it is now, many Internet Service Providers have have local phone numbers around the country, and around the world. I can send email to someone in Afghanistan as easily as locally, or often never even know the location of the person to whom I'm writing. I could influence politics on a local issue there, about as easily as I could with one here in Eugene, Oregon. This is no doubt doing great things for global community, but not for helping to create communities in our own neighborhoods. The global aspect of the Internet is probably a big factor in why, today, many people are finding it necessary to fight globalization of corporations.

I'd like to see a system emphasizing local nodes connected to central nodes. Instead a miriad of Internet providers such as AOL that have global connections, emphasize one major local Internet provider for each community, and communities of communities, perhaps run by the public libraries. Local publicizing, for instance of local events (with appropriate sorting, and keywords as below) would encourage local community.

Standard Keywords:

In all areas and levels of electronic communications, a standardized, regularly updated, set of keywords could be very useful. As it is, we can often miss the information we're looking for by using the wrong synonym, or get swamped with the wrong information if our search is too general. Perhaps the categories of the Dewey Decimal System could be a model for a good search structure. Assuming authors want their writings to be found by many people, appropriate keywords would be included at the beginning of each significant text, maybe in the form of newspaper headlines when possible. Search engines could look at the keywords first, instead of searching the whole text and finding words that happened to be used by chance, but that don't relate to the main subject. By standardizing the list, we can avoid using synonyms in keywords and searches, and missing the ideas we're looking for. A more advanced version of search engine might include a thesaurus. General topics, such as science, would be listed first in the keywords, so that search engines could could also use specialized lists. All this would make electronic searching easier and more likely to succeed in finding what we want, and less of what we don't want.

Integrated Communications Modes:

This starts with expansion of ASCII to include standardizing control codes, format codes etc. for operating systems, word-processors, editors, text readers, Internet providers, Web sites etc. Most programs, systems and protocols (such as Internet protocols and HTML) patch around lack of standards, and may even encourage it, rather than trying to create and update standards. For instance, DOS, Mac and Unix can't even agree on how to end a line, so HTML ignores normal line endings and has it's own codes to indicate "hard" endings.

The Web could be much simpler, and text could look the same no matter how we read it. Standards could lead to a communication mode which combines several modes into one. For instance we could be able to easily quote a web page in email replies. Word processors would automatically save files in "super-ASCII", which would look the same in print, email or web mode, to the extent you could tell the difference in modes. Web source files could be much more readable as email, or printed as normal text, without confusion from imbedded HTML codes. I wouldn't need to edit a file three different ways for three different modes of dispersal. New subscribers to a mailing list would be introduced to the subject by a web page, which would include a summary of the best of what had already been said. All "popular" mailing list discussions etc. should be archived as "Web sites". ("Popular" defined as below.)

The "Electronic Magazine"

Readers and authors pay a small fee (perhaps someday through their Internet providers), but readers become the "editors", and popular authors get paid back. Nothing "new" would be rejected. Readers would vote on what and who deserves prominence and remuneration, thereby reducing the prominence of "noise" and "chaff". "Spectrum" votes (rating 1-10) could be broken down into level of originality , how well the keywords fit the text, how much general interest it would have, whether it expresses "verifiable truth", whether "I" agree with it, etc. Authors and articles could get "stars", for each of the above, or in general, proportional to votes. We could filter what we read accordingly (and by author, keywords, length of article and other criteria). Then anyone could publish their diatribe, propaganda, advertisement etc., and it would be appropriately "reviewed", and get the prominence it deserves.

When we can vote on originality (and those in the know give references to sources), and when any writing is easily available by a keyword search, we reduce the need for copyrights. The same ideas, written to appeal to a different audience, should not be considered plagiarism.

When I read an archived article, it should also direct me to feedback from other readers, which I could also filter as above, which would in effect start a "mailing list" (primitive version of electronic magazine) around each article. Popular feedback would in turn be incorporated into archived summaries, which I could filter as above.

Off-line Web Browsers, Telnet Etc.

I just have one phone line and like to keep it free as much as possible. I prefer to not use unnecessary services and "bandwidth", and thereby perhaps keep phone and other costs down and services more available for everyone. I assume lots of other feel the same. In my web browser, I should be able to click on several links and have the linked pages go directly to my hard disk, then go off line and read the pages, click on more links while off-line, fill out forms etc., so they would be automatically processed the next time I log on, or immediately, similar to what I do with email.

I should be able to easily write a script for Telnet (FTP etc.) offline, telling it what files to automatically transfer and any other commands to give when I log on. I should be able to easily tell the computer in advance to do any tasks I have in mind in advance. (Are any of these functions available in programs I don't know about?)

Log-ins to Commercial Services

We need the option of remote log-ins to, for instance, the Dialog database service (out of date?), or Compuserve, though we may not have an account there. Our time there would be paid for through our Internet provider. (I know Internet started out as a "free" service, but that's changing as it gets more popular and crowded, as it should.)

Conclusions:

I think all of these ideas could be integrated into one system which would greatly enhance evolution of communications. A main problem with bringing these changes about is that they require cooperation of many different factions of the "information superhighway", the users, Internet Service Provider, software producers, maybe even the governments.

Also, I feel the lack of such features indicate the inefficiency of the Capitalist system (the part where the rich get richer), and the present, unmoderated free-enterprise system (the part that, with some government help, could self-regulate the economy). Private concerns put priority of short-term profits first. Most economic systems (GNP, GDP, profits, employment) are enhanced, in the short term, by inefficiency and waste, including lack of standards.


Send me your thoughts.
Dan Robinson, danrob@efn.org, Eugene, Oregon
My home page: http://www.efn.org/~danrob/