Telecommunication and Human Culture

I was told somewhere that near the famed Khufu’s Pyramid in Giza, Egypt, there is a Microwave Tower and in a desert evening, the shining star’s pale rays touch both the relics of human origin, some 2500 years apart in their construction. If Pyramids were constructs to connect the Dead to the Living, the Microwave Tower also connects, with a less spectacular ambition and more verifiable results. Both used Technologies available at their time and both are humanity’s constant endeavor to change the terra firma of our planet. The changed geometry of our planets surface (buildings, canals, bridges, roadways, runways, Microwave Towers, Antennas), of its upper atmosphere (satellites, probes, airplanes, jets), of its ocean beds (with Submarine Cables) and of its radio spectrum. If an extra-terrestrial observer is observing our planet in radio frequencies since the day Alexander conquered Persia, he will suddenly find tremendous activity in the radio-emission in our planet for last hundred years. The observer will wonder and if he/she can attribute this sudden spurt of radio emission to something to do with Intelligent Civilization, he/she will be one of our brothers in this vastness of space. The urge to connect beyond boundaries, to know, to experience and to understand is the hallmark of our species and Telecommunication is maturing to display this passion in diverse and different ways.

Human beings have a strange liking – they not only change the geometry of land, space and sea, but also of the ideas, thoughts and feelings. These two changes are interconnected in a very strange way. The resonance behind the working of human mind and the manifestation of the ideas can only be compared with the idea of a tree hidden in small seed, a complex genetic code in a double-stranded helix or a complete instruction set in a finger thin microchip. Human Culture or Cultural deposits are like sediments on a riverbed after intense and gradual activity for a long period of time. The ancient cultures were once modern just like a child is a child to his own age. The greatest and the shining offerings of Telecommunication to our Life & Times underline this fundamental facet of human culture worldwide – Connection is an experience.

Telecommunication was an idea. It first carried news, then information, then became broader in capacity and combined computing to create a low-cost and affordable network that is slowly covering the globe, however in quite a heterogeneous density worldwide. The TV took around 13 years to gather as much as viewer, which Internet made in half a decade. The combination of Computing and Communication Technologies had a dramatic long-term effect on cultural life. The most visible one is Email which coupled with Internet had a linguistics, lexicography and protocol of its own. Human beings for the first time in human history were forced to live culturally switched lives and identity also became switched – online and offline. It is tempting to compare the generic division in a Roman state – Slave or Freeman. Telecommunication has provided us with freedom hitherto unknown but also signals an age of digital slavery where – “there is no escape for anyone, anywhere.” Telecommunication was a thing to talk. It was an extension of our vocal chord and the elaborate bio-cultural process that creates language and phonetic symbols. The POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) would have seemed a miraculous way of the triumph of Oral Tradition over Written Codes to the ancient philosophers like Plato who says – “I told you so.” But with computing attached to Telecom, we use a keyboard that is almost the same one as used in Remington Typewriters. The Mouse was nothing but the stick of the teacher in the blackboard in high schools. The Hypertext was long back invented – in the narrative storytelling of Epics where inside a single narration there were more and more stories and myths, “linked” by some curse materializing or some prophecy fulfilling or something else. Ancient poets created labyrinth of an Epic in structure and design. Internet also created a labyrinth, spread globally, connected through generation of technologies, combining entities that are diverse, large and in a word – awful. Internet was the single largest triumph of “scripts” and “symbols” over spoken words and without telecommunication; this triumph would not have been a matter of global celebration as well as concern.

But Irony is a constituent or the very fabric of Life. Just like after TV when people were thinking that Radio (understood to be broadcasting radio) is a museum thing, Radio Technology metamorphosed into something very very different – Mobile phones. Similarly, we are witnessing another shift in man-machine interface. Speech or oral symbols are infinitely easier for us to deal in the everyday world rather than mathematical symbols or programming environment. In spite of mathematician’s refrain, there is always a fear associated with mathematics. I don’t think “Popular Mathematics” and more mathematicians writing easy and lucid texts will make this fear altogether disappear. I think this fear has a survival value and Evolution, eternally economical and without value judgment has designed the majority that way. Because, Life does not work in an exactly analytical way as mathematicians or computer scientists (or AI people) would love to think and preach but through a web of tentative, tottering, amorphous and ambiguous and contradictory network of Everything. Same with a common man’s response to Computers. Programmers are rare whereas intelligent people are many. This is not because people have some grudge against programming in general but of the same survival value. The overwhelming ease when Speech will be the interface is another watershed event for civilization. Because, it will be a full circle again. From Voice to Data. Again from Data to Voice. And Together.

The parting gift – a telephone story. Once a sleeping man was awakened by a long distance Telephone call in the early morning. He took the phone half-asleep and heard a woman’s voice. “..Sorry. I think I have disturbed your sleep.”. The man said – “Who’s this?” “It’s me, its me…Sleep. Sorry.” Before she could escape into the cold click of hanging-up the phone, the man shot back – “Do you think I am asleep? I am a Telephone Operator”. Click. Speech is such a strong personal asset of ours that in speaking we forget that this speech is passing through innumerable transformations and at multiple points others could hear it. Unless we all turn to be some spy, holders of state secret or of similar sort, we will speak over a phone, lay men and technical men alike – nothing exists but the caller, the called and the ring in the beinging.

In the Beginning was the Ring. Then He spoke. The Speech Continued. It went past neighborhood, the state, the country, the Continent, the Planet and we are waiting for the Ring from the Others, the Beyond of Us as well as the Within of Us.