January 26, 1996
GEORGE GILDER ON THE EMERGENCE OF "SMART TV"
The author of "Life After Television" has said that "television is the tool of tyrants," and that viewers have had to tolerate whatever a network chief mandates. He believes that television will be replaced by the telecomputer - or "Smart TV" - that will give us endless choices, and the ability to control what we want to see. A positive and constructive move according to Gilder.
[Editor's Note: George Gilder also has a book out soon called, "Telecosm." It looks at how the "power of PCs and the bandwidth of the networks that serve them - are mismatched." A collision between microcosm and telecosm - a fascinating concept.]
A question from Kevin C. Hawkins of Atlanta, Georgia
There is not a lot of experience in my background, which may limit my ability to predict the future course of technology. However, my status as a recent graduate of a premier technical institution does give me a good view of the technological possibilities open to broadcast media.
The problem with Mr. Gilder's vision of the future of TV is not that his proposal is not desired by the public, but that the laws of physics do not allow individual video programs to be broadcast to each person's PC on demand.
The success of cable TV has relied on the ability to mass produce programming and send the same information to millions of viewers simultaneously. Sending millions of programs to one viewer each is several magnitudes more difficult.
Sadly, this idea belongs more to science fiction than science. Just as we would like for automobile transportation to advance from carrying people at 65 mph to 650 mph, we would like to be able to order entertainment and educational programs on demand. But the laws of physics prevent it.
Laws of Physics, eh? Demand your money back from that respected technical university. Or are those laws enacted by Vice President Gore, with the counsel of the FCC, as interpreted by the Supremes? All I'm talking about is the telephone system, which functions at 64 Kilobits per second, expanded by a factor of 100--6 Megabits per second, enough for ubiquitous high resolution teleconferencing. This is eminently possible. 100 fold improvements in bandwidth will occur every three years. Wait till later this year with cable modems. In early phases, there will be alot of mirroring, replication, caching, and mbone multicasting of popular material. But coax to most homes is capable of 8 gigabits per second of two way traffic.
By the turn of the century, fiber optics, wavelength division multiplexing, and passive optical switching will make bandwidth essentially unlimited, provided the politicians don't enact any new laws of physics.
A question from E. Higgins of Glens Falls, New York
There is increasing speculation that Internet "appliances" with limited technological "fire-power" will be the devices that lead to widespread expansion of the Internet throughout society. Does this mean that the digital world may end up similar to the television world, with technological "power" centralized? Will this inevitably limit the options available to individuals?
No, there are 1400 TV stations and six or seven significant networks. There are already 10 million server-level computers capable of handling administrative functions and Internet services for teleputers in homes. What will happen is the movement to homes of the same client server technology that dominates most offices.
A question from Andrew J. Glass of Washington, D.C.
As television sets and computer terminals merge into all-purpose units, will the networks disappear from the scene? Or rather, will they be subsumed in the new wide-band common culture as Internet sites which, given their real-time, full-motion capabilities, continue to offer valuable content to users?
Networks will mostly disappear from the scene as physical distributors of scheduled news and entertainment. They will persist as content providers, but will face scores of thousands of rivals. Newspapers will be much more effective as online vehicles than TV stations. TVs are already fine vessels for video. As displays improve to the degree that they can compete with paper for text communications, newspapers will tend to prevail.
A question from Daniel Kevin Hand of Los Angeles, California
Mr. Gilder fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the problem with television, because he fundamentally fails to grasp the natures of the mass media and the free-market. It is not the tyranny of network chiefs but the tyranny of the bad taste of the American public which controls what is on television.
When you have 500 channels or less, the broadcaster must constantly seek lowest common denominators--shocks, sensations, prurient interests. That's what I look for on TV; it's the nature of the medium. Compare that with a Borders Bookstore with 145,000 titles. There you can always get your first choice. Books are a first choice culture, with a bias toward excellence. That's why book culture is morally and esthetically and substantively superior in every way to TV and movie culture. Now broadcast technology is obsolete and video culture on the net can become a first choice culture--with lots of junk to be sure, but also with vast resources of value.
A question from Larry Rothfield of Chicago, IL
Gilder, perhaps because he writes for Forbes, seems bent on blaming the left for all efforts to regulate, denigrate, or sow fear about the computer revolution.This seems bizarre, given that a) no one has been more progressive than Gore on the superhighway-- remember Clinton's State of the Union urgency about getting all classrooms linked to the Internet by 2000; b) social conservatives, not liberals or luddite leftists, are the ones pushing most strongly for censorship of the Internet. Gilder, though, should be asked also about the metaphysical rubbish implicit in the non sequitur that choice produces quality. Why should this follow necessarily? If that were true, why don't more people watch PBS?
Vice President Gore indeed likes the technology. As Esther Dyson puts it, he is in danger of hugging it to death. He has supported legislation that would give the FCC 80 new powers to regulate communications--a "deregulation" measure with 285 thousand words of new regulations. The surest way to slow the spread of information technology is to require premature extension of "universal service." It took 55 years to get 95 percent coverage for phones. Without mandates, TV spread more widely. Computers are the fastest moving technology in history.
The Internet censors are indeed a menace, but Gingrich understands the threat well, and the courts will throw out any requiremnt that Internet Service Providers take responsibility for any random flashers who infiltrate their hard drives.
Communications regulation, however, is beloved by politicians and other lawyers throughout the country. The dynamic of government is to extend its parasitic tentacles until it paralyzes its host. See Esther's comment above.
I also answered the question about choice above. Just compare books in print to TV guide, to get an idea of the superiority of choice.
A question Jock Gunter of St. Louis MO
I am as fascintated as anyone with new technology. But do really need more bandwidth above all else? Aren't today's pc's and dial-up modems good enough to get the country talking and participating in the public process?
A little less focus on the All-American gadgets, please Mr. Gilder, and a bit more focus on how to use them....
Bandwidth is vital for the computer to fill its manifest destiny to blow away TV and telephony. Video teleconferencing, for example, requires at least 100 fold more bandwidth than the current phone system offers.
A question from Brian B. Buchfink of Billings, Mt
After a lot of prodding I purchased a computer in November 1995. It cost a lot to get to the Internet and I think it's worth every penny. My question has to do with advice for the future. There will be new settop boxes coming out to interface with cable.
Do you think these boxes will turn into more than just doorkeepers to the net? Will software be devised to replace the computer I had to spend so much money on? By adding a printer etc. will the brains of a computer come over the cable?
Your expensive computer will give you good service for many applications long into the future. But you will need to buy more equipment to take advantage of a technology (computers) doubling its cost effectiveness every 18 months converging with a technology (networks) doubling cost effectiveness every 12 months or less. Enjoy!
Comments from our visitors, in addition to those answered by Mr.Gilder
Rick Whitney of New York,NY
I familiarized myself with Mr. Gilder's work in research for my graduate thesis. I agree with his position on the future of television and the future of specialized, individualized entertainment via computer aided communications systems. I would be interested in knowing what his opinions are on the subject television production, especially in regards to the major networks.
The big four (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX) have established themselves not only as social and cultural fixtures in American life, but as political and economic forces as well. Furthermore, they have developed a discreet system of inter- depence and symbiosis. How will their relationship with American communications and culture change? How will their mutual relationships change? Will trends in the centralization of information systems as outlined by Bagdekian guarantee them a place in the cyber-future, or will their role in information dissemination lessen (as it did with radio and print after the introduction of TV)?
Elaine Williams of Fayetteville, AR
When I was a kid and so was TV, the choice of what to watch was limited, very limited. There was Kate Smith and Gene Autry. For variety there was Roy Rogers with Trigger and a few moments with Clarabell the Clown. Hardly any of this compares to the 13 or 37 or 500 channels available today, depending upon the tier of service purchased. The one positive element of early day TV was that all of the choices were wholesome, whatever that word means to any one individual. No mass graves on the news, no questionable use of words on sitcoms, and no gory, unprecedented violence. When someone was shot on a Western, it was always the bad guy who died.
However, I personally am sick of my choices being made for me. Now at 50, I would like to do my own choosing. However, I can't say that the majority of Americans choose wisely. What happens when surfing the Web or choosing TV programs is that one only chooses, and thus is only exposed, to a unique set of interests. This is in contrast to reading a newspaper or watching what comes through a TV with limited channels in which one is exposed to a variety of issues and events. In other words, one might actually learn something useful by surprise!
So. Does being in control always prove to be the best possible route? Possibly not. I think "Smart TV" will only bring forth its own bundle of afflictions upon our society. What we really need are "Smart Citizens."
Henry Edward Hardy
Ann Arbor MI
What we need is to forget all this copper-age technology and go to fiber heading into each home and office. Then eveyone can be a publisher, or information service provider, or a library, music studio, or whatever... it will break the stranglehold of the government, religious, and monetary information elites it is to be hoped... Or, perhaps information technology will power a new techno-fascism as in Zamiatin's We and Orwell's 1984. Centralization of authority on the Net means the artificial oppression of artificially limited access. More bandwidth is more freedom.
More than a "capitalist commons," the Net today is the essential forum and guarentor of the free marketplace of ideas. Witness what happened this week when France tried to censor a book about the former President, Mitterand. Some guy in a bar transcribed the book and put it on the Net. And the people of France support him.
In the best case, the Net is the model for a new super-national and very flat kind of social organization which will supercede or compliment today's corporations, governments, and religions.
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