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An Asturian View of Networking 2015

Build, share, and use the Internet to avoid the risk of your language, history, customs, literature, and laws being left out and forgotten.
  1. Introduction
  2. What's Next?
  3. A Darker Side, Too
  4. Conclusion
  5. Author
  6. Figures

The Internet, as we know it today, has only begun to affect human society. In many countries, its use is still minimal—even nonexistent; in others, it is used to support only internal government-approved communications, sometimes deliberately cut off from all external influences. However, we can be sure the Internet’s future development will involve not only a growing variety of services and devices but an increasing exchange of information originating in countries other than one’s own. How will we react to exotic, alien, even disrespectful or hostile, ideas, attitudes, and voices coming from sources we dislike, discount, or don’t trust?

My first experience with the Internet was in 1991 when two technicians delivered to the computer services unit of my faculty (the College of Engineering) an electronic component the size of a large shoebox; it turned out to be a popular commercial TCP/IP router. Within a few hours, our LAN, which at the time involved perhaps a half-dozen computers, was connected to the Internet, and a number of professors, researchers, and students became the university’s first users of this relatively new Net of Nets.

A vision of the whole planet eating hamburgers, drinking cola, wearing jeans, and listening to American popular music is often used as an excuse to prevent ‘foreign’ products, ideas, and communications from moving around the Net.

It was not the first international network we used; we were already connected to the High Energy Physics NETwork/Space Physics and Astronomy Network (HEPNET/SPAN) located mainly in Europe and North America, as well as to the popular European Academic Research Network (EARN/BITNET, run by the Corporation for Research and Educational Networking based in Washington, DC). These two networks provided such services as remote-terminal, file-transfer, and email to the few users using them at the time. We also had several connections to private and public X.25 packet-switching networks that, together with some low-speed, point-to-point lines and a few dial-up modems, took care of our communication needs, which rarely exceeded 19.2bps in external connections.

The Internet has since become a source of great changes in terms of commercial activity, entertainment, and personal information-sharing throughout the rest of society. Its use of open protocols has allowed machines from a variety of competing manufacturers to connect and communicate; introduction of Gopher information services on the Web in the early 1990s heralded a major increase in demand for increased bandwidth. Since 1996, my university has enjoyed a network based on a Synchronous Digital Hierarchy (SDH) ring with a data transfer rate of 2.5Gbps.

Nonusers worldwide were at first reluctant to invest in or even try using something they couldn’t imagine other people using. For example, a few months after our first connection in 1991, I was interviewed by a journalist for whom I demonstrated some of the things that could be done on a workstation running Mosaic, a forerunner of today’s Web browsers. He was interested but considered them mere curiosities. When I said we would someday read the daily newspaper through this system, he reacted with skepticism. I saw the same expression on a colleague when I introduced him to email and said we’d someday receive our meeting notifications by email instead of by ordinary paper mail.

My faculty’s initial half-dozen Internet-connected computers have now become 8,000, while the original few users have become tens of thousands, including many nonengineering and noncomputer-science students throughout the university.

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What’s Next?

Forecasting the immediate future of any technology, especially the Internet, involves complications and much speculation. The evolution of the Net has been quick and dramatic; early users who might have ceased their contact would probably be confused today if they approached it again and would be unable to associate their earlier experience with the technology now before them. Dynamic Web pages, videoconferencing, and radio and television reception on computers represent something utterly different from what they knew or could have imagined only a decade ago. The bandwidth and power of the computers now online has grown dramatically. It is common to employ LANs running at 100Mbps for permanently connected computers. Those with dynamic or semipermanent connections can achieve 2Mbps by means of ADSL technology (300Kb from the user to the network) or more (52Mb downstream and 6.4Mb upstream with VDSL), while any home computer is likely to have more power than the most potent supercomputer back then.

Therefore, when trying to anticipate the future, we should bear in mind that it is possible the Internet will shift toward something we are unable to imagine today. It is probable that current services will continue to be in use, just as, say, the early “telnet” remote terminal service continues to be in use today. But it is also possible that a large portion of the traffic will use some new kind of protocol not even proposed yet. In any case, these new protocols will probably be related to the availability of greater bandwidth, thus permitting practically unlimited access to multimedia information.

Under these fluid circumstances, how can we predict the network’s future performance quality? And the kind of experience we’ll have using it? Could we have imagined 10 years ago the way things are today? In some respects, maybe yes, especially in matters concerning performance. But we certainly could not have imagined the new types of use that lay ahead.

Is it ever reasonable to try to forecast what will occur in human innovation and technology development over, say, the next 50 years? I would have to say no. I doubt that anyone back in 1950 would have been able to anticipate what would take place in 2000 in the technology of communications. For me, it is enough to extrapolate what the world will be like, say, 10 years out; one thing I can count on are at least some mistakes, and at least as many unexpected turning points.

To minimize inevitable forecasting mistakes, we should start from our most solid knowledge of today’s technological environment, as well as what we know about the Internet’s own historic evolution. Insofar as we stay aware of what’s happening in the research laboratories, we will be able to extrapolate the elements that are likely to reach hundreds of millions of ordinary consumers worldwide in the next 10 years. And insofar as we endeavor to learn the Internet’s technological and social innovations and influences, our assumptions about the next few years will be more reasonable. The rest consists of being profoundly imaginative; what each of us imagines today is likely to be made real by somebody else sooner or later.

The technological environment. It seems unlikely that the ongoing struggle for speed and performance quality will cease anytime soon. We can therefore assume that in approximately 10 years’ time, our computer memory capacity—both main memory and disk space—will be a thousand times greater than we have today. Meanwhile, our computers will likely be operating at several GHz and probably include several processor units, perhaps even thousands, if development continues on so-called fine-grain processors.

Our computers’ physical dimensions will keep shrinking; by 2015, what we call portable computers today will be the size of a wristwatch, store and update our personal information, and connect easily to other systems through wireless networks. Incidentally, our personal machines will identify each other’s “friendliness” by establishing the appropriate permissions needed to exchange information. Meanwhile, the personal-machine category will include all kinds of appliances we’ll be able to control by remote control. So, for example, our refrigerators will be able to order whatever they determine we need (as we’ve defined it) directly from grocery stores. Then again, perhaps instead of ordering from the stores we’re used to patronizing, they’ll do our shopping by casting around at many stores, both virtual and brick-and-mortar, for optimal price and highest quality at a given moment.

We can also expect dramatic changes in our software and what we do with it. As we continue moving from alphanumeric terminals to machines with graphical interfaces, we should expect a remarkable increase in the number of programs and systems incorporating recognition applications, along with speech and image-generation functions.

Mobile telephony and other innovations will allow us to improve the 30Mbps bandwidth of the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System, the next protocol for mobile phones, by several orders of magnitude over the next five years. Consequently, we’ll be able to selectively receive, as well as generate and publish, information from any point on Earth. If we soon have undersea fiber-optic networks with Tbps transmission capacity, then by, say, 2006, we’ll have multiplied this capacity by a factor of 1,000; anybody anywhere will be able to almost instantaneously transmit information to any other person and place. It will certainly be better than the delays the growing population of users endures today resulting from our underpowered transmission infrastructure and Web browsers.

Along with these personal resources, we should also expect much more powerful servers of all sorts functioning as enormous databases, search engines, and real-time transmission-traffic processors.

Let us imagine a human user with a relatively limited personal computer—but one that is inexpensive, easy to use, yet taps large bandwidth to send and receive any kind of information (textual and multimedia) from and to anywhere on Earth. How will such systems affect our work, leisure, and social lives?

Everybody’s a potential customer. It is not too speculative to imagine these communication facilities will make it possible for companies of all types in all markets worldwide to target all humanity as a potential customer base. However, the terms of competence will come only through a serious financial and training investment and in turn likely help increase the number of industries and companies specializing in very specific markets, products, and services. The employees of such companies will be scattered around the world, as physical distance is no longer an obstacle to the corporate teamwork required to design, manufacture, sell, and deliver a product.

Because such companies will operate globally, they will also have to offer 24-hour-a-day service, seven days a week, so we should expect to find more and more people working the night shift and other odd hours to satisfy the needs of potential customers worldwide. Most of the products they buy will have to be transported, so we should also expect a large increase in the number of physical shipments worldwide, along with the consequent lowering of costs associated with high-volume freight transportation.

Economic factors. For about the past five years, we’ve heard that e-commerce would soon be the dominant medium for commercial transactions, whether business-to-business, business-to-consumer, or even individual-to-individual. Despite the more recent souring of the dot-com business model, e-commerce might yet emerge as a preferred commercial medium, though there will be exceptions.

Buying theater and movie tickets through the Internet may be convenient, but how do you feel about remotely buying fresh fish? As consumers, we want to see and touch the merchandise. We want to feel and see how a given article of clothing fits before buying it. However, I’m certain these difficulties will be solved, so we’ll be able to look at real-time images of the seafood, alive. Meanwhile, we’ll also want it certified, so the pristine items we select are indeed the ones that eventually reach our homes.

The human factors involved in online shopping for clothing may be solved through virtual models of our bodies we’ll use—before buying—to view how the items we’re interested in look on us. Along with “virtual fitting rooms,” we’ll likely have specialized, customized software shopping agents designed to help us choose the things we like and that suit our bodies, complexions, and tastes. It will be possible to send the same software-based model to a hotel where we may soon be staying, enabling the hotel to provide our favorite brand of underwear or bathing suit, destined to be recycled when we depart.

Imagine, too, going to a restaurant to which our wrist computer has already discreetly sent our gastronomic preferences that are then listed on the restaurant’s e-menu. Meanwhile, also discreetly, the restaurant will check whether or not we have credit in our financial accounts to guarantee we can actually pay for the meal; the dishes we select from the menu will be charged directly to these accounts as we are served.

Leaving the restaurant, we might head for a show, and if it pleases us, our little machine—combining computer, telephone, and miniature television—will ask us whether we accept being charged a given sum of money to cross the theater’s entrance. Our option will be to confirm or reject, as we wish.

Confronting this seamless e-communications environment, some people might worry our identities are being monitored everywhere all the time. But our portable machines are more likely to function as credit cards or e-wallets we “recharge” with credit only as needed. The difference between such systems and their conventional counterparts is that they will have far more built-in intelligence, transmitting only the information we deliberately authorize them to transmit to other systems.

I don’t anticipate an increase in the number of devices we use. A telephone is a telephone whether or not it includes a Wireless Application Protocol. A television is a television whether or not it allows access to the Internet. A notebook or diary remains what it is whether or not it is computerized or consists exclusively of paper.

At work. The practically universal availability of information will change every aspect of our lives. Paperwork will be a memory; our information will travel through the generalized global network, which will function like the road network or the electric energy distribution system now used throughout the world (see Kleinrock’s “Breaking Loose” in this issue).

We’re likely to do a greater portion of our intellectual work from home, as practically all documents will be available to us wherever we may be. We’ll finally see less and less paper in our offices. A keyboard, mouse, and flat screen hung on the wall might be all we need. Eventually, we’ll use our voices or maybe just our eyesight as intuitive substitutes for mouse and keyboard to indicate what we want to do.

Those of us who perform intellectual work will take our offices with us on vacation; some hotels might even provide us with virtual offices. Some of us will do our work remotely in the morning, then be vacationers in the afternoon. Moreover, if work is performed from anywhere in the world, more and more of us might be motivated to move to paradisaical but remote places we now know only as tourists when vacationing.

Leisure. Our future society is likely to be increasingly leisure-oriented, at least in the Western industrialized world. People, probably Western at first, worldwide later, are likely to have more spare time, and the business of leisure will be a more important sector of the overall global economy. Being able to access any information anywhere anytime will make it possible to watch movies (many featuring synthetic actors) or read books without physically carrying them around. We’ll likely buy movies, videos, music, and books the same way we buy software today—through user licenses, without physical distribution. As the technology evolves, books could be transformed into a lightweight system similar to today’s personal digital assistants and include only a few buttons for turning pages on the screen, increasing and decreasing font sizes, or loading new content—as long as our access license is authenticated.

Online games will allow us to take part in car races, dragon hunts, and intergalactic warfare with other players around the world, as long as it is a reasonable hour of the day for each participant. We won’t need to go too far to find someone to play with. Lately, as I’ve witnessed on weekends in the major cities of the Asturies region of Spain where I live, when the cybercafes close at the end of the day, a group of friends might stay on to play deeply engrossing computer games into the night. In some places, these establishments may someday take the place of pubs as public gathering and socializing places. Incidentally, as recently as two years ago, my city Oviedo (population 200,000) had two cybercafes; now there are three less than 50 meters from my home, and most people have Internet access from home.

The Internet will add a new dimension to many other activities as well. For instance, I recently found that the area I live in was faithfully reproduced in a popular flight simulation game; most of the important local mountain ranges, roads, and rivers were included, even a reservoir, all in fairly accurate detail. If such realism and completeness is possible today for an area of the world not widely known beyond its own borders and inhabitants, what will be possible with future far more powerful systems? I can imagine the globe divided into several zones, each supported by one or more geographical information systems generating 3D images of every part of the Earth in vivid detail; the images would be updated continuously with the help of high-resolution Earthbound and satellite-based cameras. They’ll be indispensable for driving cars, as well as for tracking trucks, planes, and other mobile systems, and recognizing and offering previews of the areas we’re about to enter. Individually, we might all be easy to find (assuming we’ve deliberately made ourselves available) through beacons not unlike today’s mobile telephones. My family at home might be able to “see” me climbing my favorite mountain or sitting in a traffic jam by means of realistic 3D simulation technology delivered through the Net (see the figure here).

In the same way individuals have historically joined others based on geographical closeness, joining might now be voluntary, lacking geographical affiliation with any particular group.

Sociological consequences. An argument often used against the globalization of everything being made possible by the Internet is that the disappearance of distances, therefore of boundaries, also means the end of local or regional cultures. That is, the American culture will eventually impose itself on the rest of the world, doing away with other languages, customs, mythologies, and cultural heritages. This worrisome vision of the whole human population eating hamburgers, drinking cola, wearing jeans, and listening to American popular music is often used as an excuse by some countries to prevent “foreign” products, ideas, and communications from moving through the network. In other countries with rather harsh political regimes, it sometimes means the practically absolute denial of free access to information other than approved information sources and content.

While it might be true that the U.S., due to its technological development and being the world’s only remaining superpower, has managed to impose its primacy on some aspects of the common culture, such as the use of the English language in scientific communication. But it’s just as possible that an innovation like the Internet, born in America, has served and continues to serve the purpose of uniting cultures that are or were on their way to extinction. Examples abound. One involves the relatively unknown culture of the Eskimo people that due to the recent intensive use of information servers has managed to establish a place in our common collective awareness and memory. Another involves the Gypsies or “Roma,” a people now found throughout the world, whose cultural characteristics were poorly studied but, thanks to the Internet, have generated thousands of references and interest worldwide.

The Internet has had the same effect in the Asturies region of Spain. The Asturian language, which has had an uncertain future due to the migration of its speakers, as well as heavy linguistic pressure from the Spanish-speaking society around it, has found in the Internet an instrument for survival. Anybody who keys into a browser the word “Asturies” (local form for the name Asturias in Spanish) will find plenty of references to servers offering news sources, chats, debate forums, advertising, and other content in the Asturian language. The result is that Asturian emigrants abroad have the means to maintain their cultural memory, even when there are no other Asturian people nearby. Today, these resources are mostly in written form. Tomorrow, when the Net’s bandwidth allows, these resources may be available in the form of radio, spoken information, and video.

The Internet will also allow practically any kind of virtual community to evolve as social organization. Any group of people, as well as its individual members, will eventually come across others with similar interests and establish virtual meeting places to exchange ideas and experience. Moreover, there is no limit on the number of virtual communities a person can belong to; we might find someone who belongs to a thoroughbred horse-breeding community simultaneously belonging to a science fiction community.

Worth remembering is that the information on the Internet is being classified spontaneously, so pages concerning a given subject tend to add links to other pages on the same subject, that is, the information tends to form clusters. Someone interested in a specific subject need not look up hundreds of pages and dozens of servers to find information but simply use a search engine to find one related site, then follow the links to other sites with analogous content (see Adamic’s and Huberman’s “The Web’s Hidden Order” in this issue).

Such self-organization promoted by virtual communities makes it easier for nonmembers to join in. So, in the same way individuals have historically joined others of the same tribe or people based on common characteristics or criteria, including religion, ritual, ethnicity, language, or custom based on geographical closeness, such characteristics might now be voluntary, lacking any geographical affiliation with any particular group.

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A Darker Side, Too

This view of the Internet’s future is, perhaps, overly optimistic. A darker side will also reveal itself as new forms of crime emerge based on e-fraud, impersonation, identity theft, violent virtual communities, and groups with terrorist motivations and objectives. Net-based crime committed remotely from foreign countries will make it necessary to incorporate into the laws between countries the new criminal options made possible by the emerging mass-market global Internet and require governments to cooperate in legal investigations and law enforcement while preventing crime havens from establishing themselves, on, say, isolated islands. Barring such cooperation, the Net could render useless a particular country’s legislation concerning, say, child pornography, drug smuggling, or indentured servitude. The participation of all countries is imperative; the necessary measures are impossible to implement without commonly recognized international laws. We might have no choice but to reconsider the very idea of a “state” or at least reinforce our support of associations of states, including the United Nations.

Viruses and spam. We already suffer two common Net security problems: the growing number of viruses and worms propagating through the network and the rising tide of unsolicited commercial email. As for viruses and worms in the next decade, operating systems will be increasingly robust enough to render themselves immune to viruses, and home computers will increasingly incorporate user-password systems that prevent the reception and running of external programs that could damage a system’s integrity. At worst, we’ll risk losing personal data, but viruses designed to format hard disks will be anecdotes in the history of computing.

The rising tide of unsolicited commercial email, or spam, is somewhat more serious, as even laws that could soon be passed in Europe lack preventive measures, due either to outright neglect or the ignorance of the politicians. Nevertheless, individual initiatives, such as those at,, and, represent some degree of success in resisting it. Meanwhile, prevention is sometimes a matter of raising our personal awareness of the problem of receiving this stuff. Other times, we have to deliberately gather and publicize the IP addresses of ISP hosts that send or allow others to send spam, only nominally reject it, or suffer security breaches that, allowing third-party users to trigger their mail-relay functions, to spread it. It certainly seems that as far as emailing is concerned, the Internet is being divided into two types of systems: those that allow and those that prevent spam, making it impossible, or at least difficult, for the users of the first type to send email to their counterparts of the second type.

The dissatisfaction of tens of millions of Web users may yet prompt development of a hierarchical structuring of the entire Internet whereby even the casual surfer would be able to recognize the difference between information that is safe, secure, and reliable and information that is unsafe, insecure, and unreliable to be discounted or avoided altogether. In the same way some current browsers, include locks that tell us when we are in a safe area, they might also include a window with indicators showing the area’s degree of safety, security, or reliability. In the end, this notion of authenticated reliability and safety shouldn’t be viewed as novel; consider the difference between an article in, say, Scientific American and graffiti on a wall. We therefore have to establish personal methods, as well as automated mechanisms built into our browser tools, to authenticate the reliability of information we’re being offered through the network.

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Will the Internet be everywhere? Will society be more egalitarian due to its vast reach? Will it help narrow the enormous gap between the first and the third worlds? I may not know all the answers, but I’d like to be optimistic. The Net will not be the cause of the disappearance of local cultures. Any culture that confines itself to a specific geographic area risks becoming extinct if it fails to interact with the outside world. The Internet might function as a catalyst or accelerator of this process but never, in my opinion, as its cause. It can thus help revitalize a culture’s more interesting aspects that, due to the difficulties of communication, have been confined and can now expand and find a receptive audience worldwide.

On the other hand, cultural diffusion is not a one-way process. Just as a country or a people exports its culture and learning, it also receives contributions from the outside, thus enriching itself. In a few years’ time, the whole world—probably more so for the average American—will be surprised by the amount and diversity of the cultural elements that will be available through the Internet, yet that were relatively unknown before beyond their historical borders. These elements will contribute to the richness of our common human culture.

But this cultural communication, enlightenment, and enrichment depends on our use of the Internet. In this sense, it represents a cultural revolution combining writing and publishing. Countries and communities failing to use it extensively will see their cultural identities threatened, even vanish, as countless others have through the ages, especially those lacking writing written languages.

The key to it all cultural survival in the information age is to use the Internet. For manufacturers, the Internet means you can sell your products to the world. If you belong to a people with an endangered language, it means you can write or speak it to those who understand it and teach it to those who don’t. Above all, whoever you are, keep up with the changes in technology and thought because many will certainly take place, and your ability to adapt to them is critical.

The Internet may not be a magical talisman conjuring business or cultural success, but whoever fails to use it will find their chances of survival and their ability to compete considerably diminished.

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UF1 Figure. Using a combination of GPS-based services and mobile phones acting as beacons, we’ll be able to know and see where a person is anywhere on the Earth’s surface. (Digital elevation model data generated at the Instituto de Recursos Naturales, University of Oviedo, Asturias, Spain)

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