Multimedia and information highways : challenges and prospects for the year 2000


Conference Investment Forum, Hotel Beau Rivage, Lausanne, November 6th 1998

The explosive growth of multimedia networks is a major phenomenon of the end of this century. We are entering a new "space-time", in which durations and distances are shorter, and which brings with it fundamental change in political, ecomomic and industrial rules. The development of personal communication networks based on computers and the telephone has today become a booming technological sector. France led the way with Teletel and the Minitel ; the world followed with Internet, the network of networks. Challenging the power of the traditional pyramids of information distribution (television, radio channels and publishing houses), alternative, horizontal systems are gradually emerging, the hallmark of a society in which individual creativity has its place and all kinds of works can be disseminated and traded. The tremendous potential of the cyberworld has not yet been fully understood – especially in France, where most of the elites consider Internet merely as another new technology. But Internet is not a new technology : it is an integrated resource-sharing system, an information eco-system made up of numerous interdependent elements (computers, modems, networks, software, access and content providers…).

Internet is a protocol which enables computers to share resources at worldwide level using the 700 million lines of the telephone network. The question of being "for" or "against" Internet is no longer relevant. The real debate involves how successfully to enter this new economic, sociological and cultural world opened up by new communications systems. In order to enter it successfully, the networks used must be compatible, connectable and switchable. The strength of the Web – the multimedia fabric of the new cybernetic space-time – lies in individual switching power.


1. The new network economy


Traditional economic laws are no longer valid in the cyberworld, where international competitiveness is determined by three parameters : speed, intelligence and adaptability. Nations and companies which first conquer and occupy certain regions of the cyberworld benefit from an advantage over their competitors. In biology, it is very costly for a species to try and dislodge another species from an ecological niche which it has conquered and to which it has adjusted. Similarly, nations and firms which are the first to conquer and occupy cyberworld niches are able to keep others out. This is well-known to new-generation under the name of "lock-in effect". This lock-in effect forms a barrier to latecomers.


Changes in people, mentalities and social structures are being brought about not by the technologies at our disposal but by the new space-time, which is altering the environment in which human societies evolve. At the same time, the rapid expansion of the new space-time raises a fundamental question : that of the compatibility between economic models on the one hand and mankind's deepest aspirations and equal opportunity on the other. New constraints have appeared : their names are immaterial added-value chain and work-space.

For a long time, industry and the economy were based on material added-value chains ; the rapid growth of "immaterial" services, such as worldwide electronic trading through the Internet, has occurred only recently. The traditional, material added-value chain links employees to their employers in three classic ways : place (to ensure control) ; time (to quantify the salary base) ; and function (individual know-how implemented inside the company). The desynchronization, delocalization and dematerialization of work have led to the appearance of a new class of workers. After the farmer, the labourer and the employee, we now have the "knowledge worker", able to transform the raw materials of symbols and abstract data into higher-value products.


Alongside these developments, the fluidity of the economy has expanded first to financial products and then to manufactured products. Thanks to telecommunications, the financial marketplace has been superseded by the financial marketspace. The free flow of capital transfer, facilitated by the information society, has resulted in a single worldwide economy. With the arrival of electronic trading and secure transactions, the market-place has given way to a global market-space. This new world market raises problems of taxation, tariffs and intellectual property, in response to which the American administration has proposed non-taxation or the setting up of duty-free zones for Internet electronic trading. This is a clever card to play in view of the dominance of American businesses on the Net, and reinforces the lock-in effect.


But when it comes to replacing the workplace by a cyber-workspace, the system jams, and rightly so : the notions of home, employment, quality of life and culture all stand in the way of cyberworld deterritorialization. Cyberspace creates a more flexible labour market, and dematerializion of trade affects the creation of wealth. The best-performing companies have understood how important it is to use the leverage of the information society : by combining "material" and "immaterial" added-value chains, these firms are enjoying unprecedented rates of growth and job creation. Such chains are based on virtual communities of users and buyers, on the use of corporate Web sites by customers, on round-the-clock customer service and on secure transactions. These are the reasons behind the success of companies that are highly active on the Web, such as FedEx (freight logistics), Cisco (routers and network connection equipment), Amazon (on-line bookstore) or Auto By Tel (on-line car dealer). And these companies are preparing to conquer the world markets.

Such a radical change in the rules of the game could have a far-reaching impact on the economies of those countries still run according to the traditional rules of industrial society. In a world in which the new key to competitiveness is called speed, any delay in keeping up will lead to crises.


The impact of the information society on the economy has now been recognized. Rather than a totally new society, it is a new form of industrial society. Above all, the information society is the lubricant that will allow the jammed cogwheels of our industrial societies to turn freely once again and generate new growth and employment. It acts as a lubricant by facilitating economic flows and making both people and ideas more mobile. It helps create new market niches that act in synergy with each other, and thus sparks mechanisms of increasing returns, those virtuous cycles that are so typical of the new network economy.


The question that remains to be answered is the following : how can the demands of this new economy be reconciled with the preservation of geographical, cultural and identity roots ? Equal opportunity, humanism, worker dignity, social protection, protection of employment, attachment to one's home place …. all these values correspond to deep-seeated needs and give meaning to life. They are the foundation on which the solidarity and sharing of an individual-respecting society are built ; how can they be preserved in a "cyberliberal" economy ?


The risks of entering the new space-time must be accepted. This is a condition for survival. We must endeavour to combine the positive elements from two social and economic models : the American model, which is supposed to promote growth and salaries rather than stability of employment, but which can make the strong wealthier and the weak poorer and lead to a violent society ; and the European model, which is supposed to give priority to social protection and employment rather than growth, but which in the long term increases the social cost of work and lags further and further behind in the international economic race.


A third route would promote a free flowing economy, growth and technology-based industrial dynamism ; yet at the same time ensure social protection, worker dignity and equal opportunity. This is not a utopian vision. France can successfully enter the information society and give itself the high-performance communication tools and the massive education and training resources that are needed in order to make this vital transition into the future. We must connect schools via the Internet ; promote the use of simple, low-cost terminals ; educate people from all walks of society, irrespective of age or social status ; foster the development of multimedia enterprises ; draw on the resources of the cyberworld using our own culture and our own language.


A strategy must be implemented urgently. As much is at stake as with, in the past, the railway, electricity and telephone networks. We must be careful to choose interconnection standards that are widespread on the current telephone, cable and satellite networks in order to evolve towards very high throughputs. The learning curve is essential : the earlier one enters, the higher the returns on the initial investment. Creating rich and original content is a far greater priority than the networks of "pipelines", whatever the engineers say. Maintaining diversity in technical developments and thus keeping many market options open will prove more fruitful in the long run than opting for any one specific technical standard.


What is essential at the present time is to be present. Being present means entering the fray and fighting on equal terms with the others. If we are not actively present in the cyberworld, how can we even imagine building the future ?


2. New interfaces between people and computers


The electronic networks, multimedia and information highways which prefigure cyberspace will require new interfaces between the human brain and the machines. Among these new interfaces, "smart agents", virtual reality and permanent computer links with the workplace will play a significant role.

Future cyberspaces will contain astronomical quantities of information : traffic on the electronic highways, numerous data banks and interactive networks. Finding one's way around, navigating and surfing these networks… accessing these services… having to use countless passwords, keys and codes…. all this will prove an impossible task. The user will need a "smart agent" able to find its way around the maze of interconnections, sort and select relevant information, propose strategies for accessing knowledge, and file and retrieve data from the mass generated by the computers. What will these "smart agents" be like ? The term refers to expert programmes providing permanent electronic assistance in handling all the functions available on computers and networks. "Smart agents" try to anticipate the user's most probable actions. After a period of "training" during which they share the user's experience, they learn to execute routine tasks automatically.


They will quickly become indispensable in reaching people when they are most needed. Studies have shown that, in emergencies, only one call in four actually results in a successful connection, the other three going astray and wasting time. Large telephone and software companies are developing smart messaging systems, which will link up different communication technologies in order to locate and contact a person, wherever he or she may be. Expressing themselves in near-human voice and language, "smart agents" will become true assistants, sometimes amusing, ironical or critical, always familiar and often indispensable.


In scarcely five years, virtual reality (VR) has taken the world of computers and media by surprise. This communication technique consists of creating, through the computer, virtual spaces in which the operator can move around and act on an environment built up from synthetic images. Sensors placed on the helmet detect movements of the head and enable the computer to change the viewing angle by calculating and synthesizing new images. By wearing special gloves similarly equipped with movement sensors, the operator sees fingers appear on the screen as if they were his or her own hands. In this way, the operator can pick up "electronic objects" identical to real objects, push switches on and off, start motors, pull levers, drive machines and operate on a virtual patient. Virtual reality is today applied in many different areas, and countless interface systems and tools are available from specialized suppliers.


Thanks to VR, people can now communicate with computers not only through voice, eye movements, and the position of the head, hands and limbs, but also through the whole body. We will soon be transmitting bioelectric impulses from various parts of the body through noninvasive lightweight sensors ; and further in the future, neurone activity will be picked up directly from the brain, measured by modifications in the brain's magnetic field.


Virtual reality is much more than a mere communication technique. It is a door that has opened onto new horizons. Mankind has always dreamed of travelling at high speeds, escaping gravity and communicating and seeing at great distances. All this has today been achieved in the shape of the automobile, the aeroplane, the telephone and television. Other goals such as ubiquity, telekinesis, telepresence, changing one's outward appearance, reversibly splitting the personality, cloning one's own body or ending isolation, seem to be forever inaccessible. But virtual reality gives rise to unprecedented possibilities for exploring these areas.


3. The "smart" company : a "knowledge refinery"


The cyberspace connection interfaces will undergo constant improvement and increasingly resemble those of biological networks. Hybrids will be formed from personal computers, telephones and television sets. Needing no cables to link them to the telephone or electricity networks, they will be mobile, portable and miniaturized. Their powerful batteries will last for days without charging. Communication with these machines will be by voice. We will speak to them in a natural way, without pausing between words. The machines will speak to us with a masculine or feminine voice, modulated according to our preference. Moving faces, in two or three dimensions, will appear on the screen in order to personalize the contact. They will even leave the screen in the form of small three-dimensional figures (virtual clones, holographic or projected by appropriate optical means). The machines will be able to read text written by hand, or even scribbled, on a flexible electronic panel resembling paper. They will recognize our faces and facial expressions, our gestures and our body movements, and will extract information from them in order better to understand us and communicate with us. They will also be able to pick up odours and scents and use them as an extra source of information.


The portable versions of these powerful machines will easily fit in a pocket, like a wallet. They will communicate with us discreetly, either by talking directly into our ear using cable-free induction or radio waves, or by displaying text and images which will seem to float in our field of vision on the virtual screen of lightweight goggles. The virtual reality interfaces will be simple and compact. VR helmets will be replaced by 3D spectacles incorporating wireless earphones. Gloves will give way to sensors, placed on the wrists or other parts of the body, that will detect bioelectric impulses transmitted by nerves to muscles. Return efforts will be transmitted by small, lightweight systems. Whenever we choose to do so, it will be possible, thanks to appropriate mind ergonomy, to immerse ourselves in the virtual world.


Networks will be permanently connected to these extensions of our brain. Powerful computers will thus be available at every instant, increasing many times over the processing capacity of our personal computers.

Laboratory work, joint experiments and huge virtual libraries will be accessible in cyberspace. Access will take place as though we were moving physically among shelves of books. We will consult books by clicking on their cover : their print and illustrations will be identical to real books. The same feeling of reality will be there when we look for products in virtual supermarkets and shops, consult catalogues, display objects, manipulate molecules and travel inside micro-spaces.


The interface with the network of networks will be radically changed by the generalization of voice control, the automatic connection of ubiquitous microphones and "smart agents". In the same way that we still use our personal pens in the era of disposable pens, we will continue to use micro-computers. But they will be depersonalized and integrated into the environment. Lower costs, power and miniaturization will means that dozens of them will be present in a single office, in the form of notepads, electronic badges and smart post-it notes. The computer will no longer need to be a nomad, it will be part of the décor. It will become a "ubicomp" : an ubiquitous, almost disposable computer. Present everywhere, it will recognize us by means of our interactive badges. It will communicate with network computers and other "ubicomps" in its immediate environment using cable-free radio or infra-red links. We will no longer need to dial in to find out if there is a message in our electronic mailbox : we will be kept informed of incoming messages by our "smart agent", who will also read them to us on request.


In organizations in which many people work, employees will wear active badges tracking their whereabouts. Cameras will record the movements of people and documents. Procedures will be set up in order to safeguard each person's privacy, and will undergo constant revision by users. The whole organization will thus function like an aid to memorizing facts, events, transactions and meetings, and will facilitate both usage and storage. During meetings, talks and seminars, computers will record and summarize everything that is said and make overviews constantly available on the network. Electronic notepads coupled with video cameras will also be used : by clicking on a sentence that we had previously noted down, we will gain immediate access to the whole digitalized sequence of that particular moment in time.


The goal of these collective communication and memorization techniques is to increase the intelligence of the organization as a whole. In former times, resources and tools focused only on enhancing the individual's efficiency and productivity. Today, they also concentrate on the organization itself in order to improve its overall intelligence. The organization is being transformed from a static information structure into a dynamic ecology of communication. In the phrase coined by John Selly Brown, the director of Xerox PARC, it is becoming a "knowledge refinery".


4. Interactive marketing, electronic trading and democracy


Interactive marketing is a new market form in which the direction of the usual arrow, from producer supply to consumer demand, is reversed. Today, manufacturers mass-produce consumer goods. These products are stored in exchange and transaction zones (wholesalers', shops, markets, supermarkets) to which consumers go in order to obtain the products they want. Only a small proportion of purchases take place electronically at a distance. In order to attract part of the mass of potential customers to their products, companies spend large amounts of money on market studies, advertising and marketing. But the system is blind : the market is known only in the form of statistical segments of potential customers, market share percentages and growth rates expressed over relatively long periods of time.


All this changes with real-time retroaction, which can take place, for example, in personal communication networks using computers or interactive TV. Here, the arrow points in the opposite direction, from demand towards supply. Customers express their wishes continuously and in detail. They vote constantly, using the remote controls, micro-computers, television sets or smart telephones in their homes. By integrating this flow of direct information, manufacturers can regulate their stocks more precisely, adjust their production and increase their profitability, thanks in particular to the flexibility of automation.


Interactive marketing is going to lead to an explosion of diversity in some fields and to much greater conformity in others. An infinite number of market niches will spring up, each matching the needs and desires of a few only. The transformation of the mass market into a customized market will reach an unprecedented degree. The information feedback loop, from purchase by the consumer to order of materials and production by the manufacturer, will be shortened even further. In this way, firms will be able to respond in a few weeks, or even a few days, to sudden surges or fads in the market. The combination of interactive marketing networks (providing information feedback) and flexible plant (using computer-operated production systems) highlights the quasi-biological nature of this type of production, in which supply is continuously adapted to match demand.


Coordinated or collaborative forms of collective action cannot take place without real-time information feedback. Suppliers must be able to measure the effects of their actions and compare with competitors. Communication and processing tools and systems are today emerging which carry information from the base of an organization or society up to decision-taking level. Current forms of "society retroaction" are still rudimentary : the vote gives only an approximate reflection of voters' choices. Various indirect forms of retroaction however have been generated by the development of mass media. When filmed, for example, a street demonstration takes on an emotional force of expression that can exert considerable influence. Another, more subtle form of retroaction is that of opinion polls published by the press : they represent a constant mirror and regulation mechanism that lead to revised standpoints, readjusted opinions and reconversions. Indirectly, they wield considerable influence in democracies where majority and opposition each represent about 50% of the vote and elections are lost and won by a few percent. The market also represents a form of real-time "society retroaction" : the incalculable number of buyers' and sellers' decisions, advertising, word of mouth and occasional boycotts act as regulators, the combined effect of which is difficult to predict because these actions are chaotic, simultaneous and often irrational.


As electronic interactivity grows in coming years, it will amplify the role of these societal retroaction loops. The telephone and the Minitel are already widely used in radio and television broadcasting to gain direct feedback from listeners and viewers. With the advent of the videophone, a new dimension will be introduced : "videostations" in public places will enable viewers to participate directly in TV programmes.


The vast worldwide personal communication networks based on computers bring disturbing new possibilities. Internet pioneers have suggested setting up a kind of "electronic parliament" in which citizens could constantly vote on a series of topics. Ross Perot, American billionnaire and former White House candidate, promised in his election programme to install an electronic ballot box in every American household. This form of global "society retroaction" is particularly dangerous and could produce fearsome perverse effects. Giving instantaneous answers to questions posed by the highest authorities could lead to fashion trends in opinion : fleeting, irrational fads that would rapidly be made obsolete by subsequent events. Such a societal "short circuit" would not conform with the response times that are intrinsic to the special dynamics of social systems. It would correspond well to the short-term, emotional responses favoured by the media, but would have no real capacity to lay the foundation for future years by operating in the longer-term. Intermediate relays such as local councillors, representatives, personalities and members of parliament play a vital role in the upward flow of information from the electorate : they create a buffer effect, absorbing social oscillations and dampening the effect of amplification by the media. The friction, filtering, delays and constraints in the social system indirectly ensure its protection. They flatten the amplitude of social oscillations, reduce "parasite" noise and reveal, over a longer period of time, the basic opinion trends on which policy can be built.


The new challengers to traditional power that interactive networks have given birth to must now find their modes of expression. Still seeking their way, they nevertheless represent one of the major opportunities for the regulation of society in the democracies of the third millennium.


Joël de Rosnay 
Director of Strategy

Cité des Sciences et de l'Insdustrie – La Villette – Paris – France 

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