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Communications of the ACM


The World Is Small

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Microsoft Research Director Daniel Reed

As I write this, I am flying to a business meeting in Asia. In turn, this caused to me reflect on the changing nature of information flow, global business and 24x7 accessibility.

There was a time, not that many years ago, when international travel meant one was largely inaccessible to colleagues at home, wherever home might be. Yes, you could send a telegram or place a telephone call, but both were expensive and often required foresight and planning. Similarly, news from home came via the International Herald-Tribune, radio and newswires, or film that had been airlifted to a television network.

Slowly, we began entering the Internet age. I distinctly remember attending an international research conference on high-performance computing where all the attendees stood in line for email access on the single, Internet-connected terminal. The international bandwidth was so low that I could type faster than the characters could be echoed. Needless to say, one only scanned messages for deadline-driven events.

Today, when my plane lands, I will turn on my smart phone, connect to the local GSM network and download queued messages. By the time I am ensconced in a taxi to my hotel, I will be responding to electronic queries.  At the international hotel, I will connect my laptop to the local wireless network and work as productively as I would in my office or at home. Other than the delay due to time zone separation, most of my colleagues will not realize that I am traveling, and the inevitable late night wakefulness due to jet lag will ameliorate even that delay.

Inexpensive, global communication now allows distributed, international groups to work collaboratively and productively, with little regard to location. Computing research – in networks and protocols, servers and storage, devices and user interfaces – made all of this possible. The world may or may not be as flat as Thomas Friedman suggested, but it is certainly small. 

Now if I could just catch up on my email deluge.


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