Am­bushed by Cy­berspace ...

Finweek English Edition - - Cover - ... and un­nerved by the Net

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 stephenm@fin­

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