Ambushed by Cyberspace ...
GIVEN THE DEPREDATIONS of age, your correspondent’s grasp of matters electronic is sadly lacking. One manages to “get online” so as to earn a crust writing and exchanging messages with friends, but that’s about it.
However, it isn’t possible to escape the sense of what almost amounts to panic among the computer cognoscenti about the spectre of the Internet freezing up as it “runs out of capacity in cyberspace”, whatever that means.
The word cyberspace, one learns from – where else? – the Internet, was coined by a sci-fi writer, William Gibson. It was described in 1990 by an analyst, John Perry Barlow as follows: “In this silent world, all conversation is typed. To enter it, one forsakes both body and place and becomes a thing of words alone. You can see what your neighbours are saying (or recently said), but not what either they or their physical surroundings look like. Town meetings are continuous and discussions rage on everything from sexual kinks to depreciation schedules.
“Whether by one telephonic tendril or millions, they are all connected to one another. Collectively, they form what their inhabitants call the Net. It extends across that immense region of electron states, microwaves, magnetic fields, light pulses and thought which…Gibson…named Cyberspace.”
But hold on. Having had something known as Skype installed (by someone much younger) on or in or wherever, I recently had a phone call from someone in the UK whose picture appeared on the screen. Time and speed have multiplied capacity and thus overtaken Mr Barlow.
But there’s a cost to all of this and the strange part is that we do not pay anyone to use cyberspace. We pay our “service provider” to enable us to access it but it exists out there all free for anyone.
The Times informs us that one site (if that is what one calls it), YouTube, now generates more traffic in a month than was hosted by the entire Internet for the entire world for the whole of 2000.
An American think tank, Nemertes Research, has concluded, after exhaustive research, that the Net has reached a crisis. It predicts that innovations such as the ability to watch high-definition television via computer will eat up “bandwith” thus dramatically slowing down computer speed and even causing the damn things to stop working at all.
Now bandwidth sounds to me sort of like a road, you know those strips of melting tar with potholes all over, alongside which South African vagrants live. It seems as if, like our roads, the bandwidth just has too much traffic.
But the bandwidth is not between Pretoria and Naboomspruit, it’s in cyberspace where no one owns it, no one can toll it. But probably those “service providers” will find a way to justify increasing our costs so as to discourage our use, much like Amos Masondo, mayor of Johannesburg, justifies his exorbitant increases in our rates, water and electricity charges.
Net usage, driven by services such as the BBC’s iPlayer through which viewers watch the tube in HDTV and which quickly has become 5% of all UK Internet traffic, has been growing at 60% a year.
Ted Ritter, a Nemertes researcher, says this could rise to 100% in 2009. Internet traffic is known numerically as exabytes, each of which is a million trillion bytes. To try to put this into some context, it’s pointed out that one exabyte is equivalent to 50 000 years of DVD-quality data.
Ritter warns that, while he believes the Net will survive, should computers become slow and unreliable they would be rendered virtually useless for business and bureaucratic purposes. Now, for the mentally decrepit like yours truly, this appears to be truly unimaginable. It’s like contemplating an eternal deadlock on highways all over the world with no one being able to go anywhere.
So ubiquitous is the computer in our lives that Ritter’s fears should cause panic. He expects that “while the Net itself will ultimately survive… the waves of disruption would begin to emerge next year when computers would jitter and freeze.”
He adds that this would be followed by “brownouts” – “a combination of temporary freezing and computers being reduced to a slow speed”. Young folks tell me that when America wakes up, the speed of data flow slows down. Simple logic suggests that there’s cause and effect here.
Further evidence lies in the fact that in the US it slows down when the school kids get home. Ritter says that by 2012 this “traffic jam” could last all day long and “fracture” the system.
This is unlike climate change in which the tree huggers warn us that within a few generations we will all be either swimming or living on desert islands. It’s too late for me to do anything about all that. But I tremble with fear at the thought of having to dictate my scribbles over the phone or fight my way through the traffic to deliver hard copy.
Can someone please reassure an old man?
STEPHEN MULHOLLAND firstname.lastname@example.org