Life without the internet

Current Canadian Yellow Pages logo.

Current Canadian Yellow Pages logo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thirty years ago, most people shopped in the town in which they lived. They might have made the occasional foray further afield and they might have made use of mail order catalogues, but the chances are that the goods that were available to them were limited to what was in the local vicinity. If they wanted to find something, they would reach for the yellow pages that sat under the phone and look for suppliers of that product or service. Once located, they would “let their fingers do the walking” and phone the number listed using their landline.

Taking out a loan or a mortgage meant hopping on a bus into town to visit your not so friendly bank manager. Rates weren’t advertised like they are today so unless you had seen a comparison article in a recent newspaper, the chances of the being clued up about the market were minimal. Besides which, people tended to be very loyal to their bank.

Credit cards were not common so the majority of transactions would be paid by cash or by using a cheque backed by a cheque guarantee card. Cashpoint machines or ATMs were still relatively rare and you were limited to the machines in your bank’s network (which often ran out of money). Most people still went into the branch to withdraw money. The teller would not have a computer, but they would have a naughty list. If your name was on the list, you were unlikely to get your money and were often invited for a bit of friendly financial advice from the bank manager.

Social networks tended to revolve around churches, pubs or places of education. Social interactions would be face to face or over the telephone. For friends and relatives lying further afield, a handwritten letter was the order of the day and everyone allowed 28 days for delivery of anything delivered through the postal system.

If you wanted to know what was going on in the world, you read a newspaper. Booking a holiday meant visiting a shop called a travel agent where you looked through brochures and selected your ideal destination. The assistant would then book it using the phone. Avid readers would pack a stack of paper backs. Music enthusiasts would pack a Walkman together with a pile of cassette tapes.

Schools were unlikely to have computers and if they did, they would not be connected up to other computers. Computer science was a niche subject. Most computing was done overnight. The results would be printed off onto huge piles of paper which would then be processed manually the following day.

It’s fair to say that the Internet has revolutionised the way we socialise. It has also fundamentally changed the way we research and buy products and services. There is a downside to this. Many traditional bricks and mortar businesses have crumbled as the internet as rendered their business model quickly obsolete. The upsides though are hard to ignore. Within seconds, any product or service can be located and purchased no matter how obscure or where it is made. Individuals can start companies, raise capital, publish books, form friendships and find the answer to just about any question in the world.

In my view, we are only scratching the surface. As more open data initiatives take off and the semantic web takes shape, the online possibilities are likely to explode and I for one can’t wait.

Information overload

Big Data: water wordscape

Big Data: water wordscape (Photo credit: Marius B)

Information is the most valuable tool we have. Without reliable information, decisions can only be made on hunches. One of the main benefits of computers was that they were supposed to help us deal with information, but there are some unfortunate side effects. Partly because of our hunger for ever more power and partly because of progress in making bigger and better computers, they have steadily grown ever since they were invented in a phenomenon is widely referred to as Moore’s law.

Not only that, but devices have become cheaper and cheaper. The Sinclair Spectrum was priced at £179 at launch 30 years ago, a sum probably equivalent to double that now. That was a machine with no screen, 48K of memory and no storage. Nowadays you could have a tablet, or a phone or even a couple of netbooks all with power that would completely dwarf the humble spectrum. As computers have become more affordable, they have proliferated.

And not just consumer devices. It now makes perfect sense to use computational devices in almost every setting thanks to the cheapness and the ingenuity of the Chinese. IBM told me at impact that there are 9.5Bn connected devices in the world today growing to 20Bn in 2015. All of these devices are producing data at an alarming rate. Storage companies fall over themselves to tell you how fast this data is growing, but take it from me – it’s exponential.

The other side effect of computers is that the average human being now has the attention span of a hyperactive goldfish. Because the answer is available from Google in 0.2 nanoseconds, why would you want to read a report or a book? Twitter delivers a constant stream of news in 140 character long chunks. This means that we are no longer happy to do lots of analysis to get our answers, we want to know instantly.

So how do we make sense of this muddle?

I have always been a fan of infographics as a mechanism for presenting complex information. Ingeniously through pictures, infographics helps the reader to understand the big picture. Spatial and relative relationships are easily picked out, but detail is not. Newspapers use info graphics to great effect – especially when trying to explain concepts like exactly how much money we all owe thanks to the financial meltdown. This is a great site to see some really good examples; http://www.coolinfographics.com/

Big Data was a much vaunted concept at IBM Impact too. If you want to process the huge amount of data available today, then traditional methods are just not going to work. Reading all the data into a relational database and then running a query will mean you need a huge building to house the storage, a power station to feed the computers and half a century to wait for the result. The only way to process this data is as a stream – a bit like the water coming out of a firehose. Then you need to use something called complex events processing to look for relationships between the data.

One of the most interesting concepts in dealing with the information overload is the semantic web. The idea is that computers need to make sense of all this data themselves and answer any questions we have. This is the technology behind the Siri voice response software in the latest iPhone. There is even a search engine. It’s not perfect by any means – try searching for “Who is the richest man in France” or my personal favourite “Who is the sexiest woman” 🙂 But what is interesting is how often it does get it right.

One day – the characters in Star Trek the next generation talking to their computers will look positively antiquated – and I for one can’t wait.