Designing Research 2: Infrastructure – The Inter(Nets)


What are you looking at when you look at a computer that is not switched on? It is the world, black and promising, but what if that world were never switched off?

Sir Tim Berners Lee invented the first browser in 1990. It was called WorldWideWeb. Berners Lee wrote the code for what was then the only way to see an Internet on a NeXT computer, designed in California by Steve Jobs’ company of the same name. This computer was 12 inches wide and was supplied with 8MB of memory; the current iPhone is available with either 16GB or 32GB. Increasing speed and decreasing size dominate recent computing history.

It is hard to imagine life now without the Internet. It is less difficult to recall it. The important aspect of being aware of computing history, by which I mean remembering what we could not do before the web, is to consider what we might be able to do in the future.

There have been pitifully few times in our collective history when life has changed so fundamentally, and it could be said that never before has such a scale of change occurred so quickly as is happening now. As late as 1998 I was studying information science at Sheffield University, and we were still being taught how to request information in lines of code via the Dialog system from the US. This is no detriment to the department at Sheffield, which was and still is the UK’s leading research base in information science. Those bright green letters on a dull dialup screen provided, even then the best available resource discovery tool.

The future of the web is likely to be an entity that can no longer be switched off. In most of our homes there remains a desktop computer. This will very soon be regarded as a period piece, as wardrobes have replaced linen presses or enamel and then plastic replaced copper and tin in which to lie and dream of summer.

Eventually, the more beautiful and rarer desktop computers will appear on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow – viewed on paper-thin screens around our wrists.

In the nearer future, something like a desktop computer is likely to remain in people’s sitting rooms. It will also be something like a television. The battle between TV and the Internet is likely to end in a single, powerful and most probably 3D device. I suspect that, like fireplaces, and the wartime wireless families will continue to enjoy gathering around a focal point. That the radio and the TV will be streamed over the web via vastly strengthened wireless signals is surely inevitable. The wireless wireless is only a matter of time. Just like the web-watch, most technologies will succumb to the dominance of the Internet, either through blurred lines or extinction. Devices will change. Content will adapt.

There have been very few positive global interventions into people’s homes. The first may well have been fire. Secondly, a great length of time passed before electricity blew out the gas. For many years, the rest were not infrastructural but content-driven; radio, television and even the early web. Already, we are experiencing the third in the form of wireless technology. This is delivered of course by cable or satellite but performs for us in our siting rooms like fire and voltage. It is alive and magical. And it is becoming omnipresent, or to use a term in common professional usage: ubiquitous.

Wireless technology appears advanced to us, but we are only at the beginning. It enables inconceivable amounts of content to be transmitted and it will soon remove the walls of homes and the rules of copyright. The structures, which we have built to protect a particular way of life, will inevitably become irrelevant to the dominant and all-pervasive Internet.

Currently, there are Wi-Fi spots in most homes, on trains, in public spaces, in coffee houses and of course, across universities. Although this seems obvious, the growth of wireless technology is advancing at remarkable speed. But what is its destination?

One of the most advanced countries in the world in terms of wireless penetration is South Korea. In 2009, Forbes produced a report on the country that still reads in 2012 as a relatively advanced state when compared with most of the US and much of Western Europe. There is strong vision in South Korea that is derived from the government’s insistence that the country will be a leading technology nation. It should be noted that such fervour is likely to be as linked to a real military threat as it is to business opportunity. Whatever the incentive, South Korea remains a step ahead of most developed economies in the technology race.

The cultural advance, if you wish to perceive it as that, made by South Korea is that its population expect, indeed embrace, all-pervasive technology. There is no sign of people complaining of a lack of downtime. No one wishes to switch his or her Blackberry off. No one seems to want to switch anything off. This combination of consumer demand and cultural acceptance has created both a market and a test base for all kinds of devices supported by wireless technology. Two of the country’s biggest tech firms, LG and Samsung have been locked in perpetual battle over the hands and minds of the consumer for a number of years. Touchscreens and wireless is a match made in heaven.

In 2009 in South Korea there were already smartphones being worn as wristwatches. Time will tell.

The two drivers for what must be seen as a fundamental technology shift in Korean society are a significant investment in broadband wireless and taking TV mobile nationally. This has provided an infrastructure upon which Internet usage can grow and also delivered popular content using the web. It is an attractive recipe and one that Western governments could easily follow. South Korea has a population of 48 million people in a country smaller than the State of Virginia. It is also a mixed economy, common in Asia of high-tech cities and low-tech rural areas. It is a nation of techies and fishermen. Or is it?

Another fascinating aspect of the growth of technology in this (a)typical society is the importance placed on design by those leading the way. Samsung are well-known to regard their company has having undergone two ‘design revolutions,’ one in 1996 and another in 2005. LG have taken the concept of design even further into the corporate psyche and now use the word ‘tesign’ to describe tech-savvy design. Both companies have development processes that bring ideas to product launches in around two years and include investment in evaluating design from other industries such as fashion, art, furniture and cars. This openness to enquire into the ideology of other sectors is, for example, almost absent from discussion about customer service and experience in most universities.

Academia has an unfortunate tendency to consider itself superior.

Since the early to mid-2000′s there has been considerable effort to deliver information in attractive ways. Priority has for some time been given to how websites look as opposed to how they might be used. This has produced some great work but it has also, when scaled up through national funding, resulted in huge amounts of content that are unsupported by leading-edge infrastructure. The growth of the web as an organism, separate to people’s lives, or at best as an addition to them has been the story of a lack of vision. The web in the future should not be an entity people have to go to. It should be there anyway. The words associated with web usage; ‘click here;’ ‘visit www…;’ ‘Surf;’ ‘site visitors,’ are all too submissive for the future. The web’s true prospect is pervasive almost to the point of invisibility. And in the design of research environments there is potential for intuition to be carried to new levels of service quality. Scholars should be presented with paths less travelled without having to grapple with metacartography. It is likely that such developments will occur outside of universities, as despite the achievements of great institutions there is no doubt that the current driving force of the information age is to be found in commerce. The key for those of us designing research environments in universities is partnership with leading design and technology companies.

Presented in the right way, this could be mutually beneficial. Universities have, in huge numbers, precisely what these companies want – a user base to develop products with. Additionally, in the best institutions there are genuinely innovative intra-departmental research teams at senior levels that only exist in the academic sector. We need to be far more confident about approaching potential colleagues in industry.

Infrastructure-first services are rarely developed without content. For example, fibre-optic cables are not laid in cities without reason. They themselves cannot be sold, but TV content can be. The reverse is often the case with content-first services. How many digitisation projects are completed regardless of the absence of a preservation infrastructure? How many websites are built for the short-term? How many decisions are taken on corporate IT provision without accurate predictions on bandwidth demand?

We are working now at a critical point in the information revolution. There is the possibility of a wireless world; indeed it is a reality in many places. So much of our thinking though, in designing research environments is formed of old technology models. The important aspect of wireless technology is not the absence of cables. It is the inevitable shift from providing institutional hardware to providing infrastructure to support personally owned hardware. Touchscreens and wireless is a match made in heaven.

At the present time, wireless infrastructure in most countries, (and in most libraries), is constantly playing catch-up with hardware innovation. Few libraries are prepared each September for the uplift in bandwidth demand as greater numbers of iPads and other devices arrive. This is no longer a trend. It is a certain future. Addressing this will not be successful by scrabbling for funds to upgrade campuses building-by-building, node-by-node. To work more cleverly with the global shift in computing away from static devices, will require national engagement with international companies.

In South Korea no one has been omitted from this change. The Korea Agency for Digital Opportunity and Promotion, (KADO) is the country’s national body with responsibility for Internet penetration. Unlike many other developed nations, Korea has placed an equal importance on rural and underdeveloped areas’ bandwidth as it has for the large cities. As far back as 2007 over 55% of rural fishermen were online. There is a large national programme for those with disabilities too. KADO has cost the Korean government hundreds of millions of dollars but it is believed to be a good investment. In Korea, access to the web is regarded as definitive of quality of life. This is an ongoing process and is one being pursued in parallel with UK, (for example), public library closures.

The West has an unfortunate tendency to consider itself superior.

The infrastructure under continual development in South Korea is indeed breathtaking. The country already has the world’s fastest broadband connections, integrated into the vast majority of its domestic properties. According to a recent report in The New York Times, by the end of 2012 the Korean government intends to provide every home with I gigabit per second broadband. That will be a tenfold increase on the already world-leading speeds and average 200 times faster than web connections in US homes.

The domestic web policy is of course strategically linked to wireless technology. The cabling may for many, be delivering access via desktops but for as many it is not, and the near future is being prepared for mobile devices. This is the case in people’s homes but also in public and corporate environments. The future for Korea is, eventually going to be echoed in Europe and the US. In December 2011, President Obama unveiled an $18billion dollar wireless broadband plan for the US.

The man in charge of South Korea’s broadband wireless expansion is a 28 year-old government engineer, Choi Gwang-gi. As the NYT report says, he is preparing the country for how the Internet is likely to behave over the next few years. The word ‘behave’ almost personifies the web, and this is the key. It is going to be more and more personal and less and less visible. It is never going to be switched off. “A lot of Koreans are early adopters,” Mr. Choi says, “and we thought we needed to be prepared for things like 3-D TV, Internet protocol TV, high-definition multimedia, gaming and videoconferencing, ultra-high-definition TV, cloud computing.”

Cloud computing only works if you are always connected. Cloud computing is at its most powerful when delivered to mobile devices. Mobile devices demand wireless connectivity. The future of the web will operate and develop in this circle.

In South Korea, one of the highest uses of the superfast bandwidth is multi-player gaming. This is a country that likes to work hard and play hard – each on computer screens. However, there are enormous business benefits too, particularly in high-end videoconferencing and perhaps too, in business practices that cannot yet even develop until I gigabit per second wireless becomes common.

The risk for us, as designers and providers of research environments through library and IT services is that we lose sight of how far ahead others are thinking. In common parlance, this really is not a threat but an opportunity. The poorly designed web interfaces to token-gesture digital collections frequently seen in universities and national libraries are at risk, not just from a lack of preservation infrastructure. Academic research in the West is in danger of trailing commercial development in Asia. This is a moment for honest, even humble requests for new partners.

Sir Tim Berners Lee created the web in 1990. Apple still dominate the mobile devices market, but it is in visionary and socially inclusive countries such as South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan that the real next stage of the Internet revolution is now happening – a serious and well-funded focus on wireless infrastructure. This is an urgent priority for all research libraries in the West. Presently, the great university and national libraries of Europe and America provide slower bandwidth to researchers than South Korea does to its isolated fishermen.

One thought on “Designing Research 2: Infrastructure – The Inter(Nets)

  1. Chris, a thought provoking article on the present and the future. Your example of South Korea is one of vision and investment. Will we learn how important the two of these are together? Your closing sentence should shame and stimulate. “Presently, the great universities and national libraries of Europe and America provide slower bandwidth to researchers than South Korea does to its isolated fishermen”. I hope that your observations will be taken on board.

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