Now for the hard part

If the focused thoughts of 200 people in Nelson last week bear fruit, the country can look forward to an abundance of new broadband internet applications.

If the focused thoughts of 200 people in Nelson last week bear fruit, the country can look forward to an abundance of new broadband internet applications.

The musings on how 10 sectors of the New Zealand community might make use of unlimited, free bandwidth gave rise to a picture of a thrilling – if sometimes disquieting – future. The musing, though, is the easy part. The whole exercise will have been nothing but an interesting sociological experiment unless the ideas are turned into something tangible.

The event was the brainchild of TUANZ, the organisation which somehow manages to represent the interests of telecomms users, while counting telcos among its members.

(The two biggest telcos were in evidence in Nelson, disappearing into a huddle when the telecommunications commissioner gave his verdict on how much interconnection between them should cost.) TUANZ can feel justifiably pleased with its efforts, even if all it’s done so far is create a forum for ideas. At the final session of the 48-hour event, the exhaustive list of potential new uses of the internet, and positive energy with which they were described, felt rewarding in itself. But there seemed an encouraging recognition of the need to take the ideas to the next stage.

The event itself was a bold concept. TUANZ divided the community into 10 sectors – government, education, retail, home and community, news media and information, culture and entertainment, health, agriculture and tourism – and assembled groups of 10 or more people under each heading. The groups were sealed away for a total of about eight hours with thinking caps on and orders to dream up ways that a high-speed internet could be applied to their sector. Each had a writer assigned to it to record the proceedings. Group members represented a range of interests in each sector. (News media and information, for example, included content creators, a broadcaster and infrastructure providers.)

There was impressive enthusiasm for the challenge and, initially, striking diversity of approach. To put it crudely, ivory tower dwellers had a slight tendency to emphasise social and cultural concerns. But they soon realised they were in the wrong place to be using terms like “Jungian consciousness” and “constructivist pedagogy” as the corporate tower dwellers started shifting in their seats. Representatives of small, young, innovative companies seemed to most comfortably slip into the brainstorming role, rattling off suggestions.

For inspiration, several “cameos” were presented of how the internet and related technology is already being deployed in innovative ways – typically by small organisations. From an IT journalist’s point of view, the event was worthwhile just for those glimpses. All, needless to say, were harnessing available products and services – videoconferencing in one example – but creatively. And in ways which could become widespread as simply as making broadband internet access readily available. (Event sponsors – of which there were many, including the state – also had speaking rights. The sales pitches were comparatively restrained but a couple of people remarked on the frequent use of the expression “actually available now”. Apparently, “available now” no longer carries its original meaning, having been abused so often in demonstrations of products that never arrived.)

The premise on which each group was to build its catalogue of applications was that bandwidth would be unlimited and universal. With such freedom, the ideas that came up might be thought wildly unconstrained. But that was the whole idea. So a common theme was the harnessing of the internet to create digital lifestyles. These would be personalised so that, for example, your day might begin with a news and information feed tailored to the day mapped out for you by your electronic assistant. This might include details of traffic and weather conditions along your route to work, automatically gleaned from vehicles that had already used those roads.

Heard it all before, you’re probably thinking. Well, that’s true. The IT industry’s “visionaries” have been inflicting their fantasies on us for decades. What’s different is that these fantasies are being conjured up by the people who’ll ultimately use the products of their imaginings. TUANZ believes that’s the key to getting them from fantasy to reality: if application creators can be shown there’s a demand, they’ll fill it (even if they have to find ways round the laws of physics for some of the wilder suggestions).

Not all the ideas put forward were so futuristic. New Zealand’s rural communities have very practical problems – isolation, most obviously – which high-speed internet access can help overcome. And state agencies visualise being able to aggregate and provide access to existing data on citizens much more effectively. Recognising the sinister connotations of that, the formation of a new government department – MoM, or Ministry of Monitoring -- was suggested.

But no more of the wacky ideas can be revealed here. TUANZ is compiling the whole lot into a book, due for release early next year (to which I’ll be contributing a chapter). I urge you to help make it a best-seller.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Phone him with editorial suggestions on 09 302 8763. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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