Science

Getting a jump on the whole wired world

Anne Collins September 25 1978
Science

Getting a jump on the whole wired world

Anne Collins September 25 1978

Getting a jump on the whole wired world

Science

The sound of a few drumrolls, cymbal crashes and trumpet fanfares echoing out of the corridors of the department of communications in Ottawa would certainly seem justified. Unveiled on Aug. 15 was a new tool that will make all the prospective marvels of future communications possible: a two-way computerized TV dubbed Videotex that will convert each household into an electronic action central, from which a family can order new clothes, bank, attend university or summon special medical aid. “What it amounts to,” says Herbert Bown, manager of the department’s small Videotex Research Group, “is the communications media for the future information society.” But what the drumrolls should really celebrate are a few Ottawa scientists on a shoestring budget who, despite the national technological inferiority complex, have created a system that out-does all the present experimental two-way TV technologies—including systems from France, Germany and England, years in the testing and millions of dollars in the making. Because of their work, Canada,

despite its entrepreneurial inferiority complex, has a shot at cornering the world electronics information market.

Videotex came as something of a shock: even Bell Canada, Southam and Torstar, who announced an electronic information marketing scheme just a few days after the Videotex preview, had no idea that the department of communications had come up with so good a two-way TV system—they were planning to experiment with Britain’s Prestel. But as research projects go this one has been tiny. Eight to 10 researchers worked away for five years on a budget of $1 million (the British have spent £100 million so far) hardly money to keep Canada’s civil servants in socks. But Herbert Bown, Minister of Communications Jeanne Sauvé, and Alphonse Ouimet, chairman of the Communications Research Advisory Board, have been insisting that it will revolutionize

the electronics industry. Sauvé says vain efforts to compete with floods of cheaper products from electronics giants such as Japan and the U.S. have undermined Canada’s industry: twothirds of the $3 billion of electronics equipment sold here in 1977 were imports. “By the mid-1980s,” says Bown, “Videotex could create a phenomenal $1.4-billion market here, not to mention an estimated 30,000 jobs or the revenues from sales outside the country.” This fall the new technology will venture out into the international battlefield with the first of a series of International Telecommunications Union meetings to set the international standards for two-way TV technology. The conference is set for Paris Oct. 22 to 25. And the federal government is footing the bill for the Videotex researchers to present a paper at that meeting, a chance to compete with the other major systems, the British Prestel and France’s Titan for patents,

contracts, and financing from other countries interested in importing the technology. A good chance to become the exporter rather than the importer, says Dave Wright, information officer with the department of communications: “There’s always been the impression that Canadians can’t do technology, but we can. What we haven’t been able to do is leap at the financial opportunities to market our stuff. I don’t want to see us have the lead and blow it again.”

Videotex’s superiority to its European counterparts is unquestionable. Its graphic capabilities are much more impressive: Prestel’s version of a map of Canada has the squared-off look of a Leggo construction. The Videotex map looks like a map of Canada—which may not seem earthshaking but is a major advance in computer imaging. British and French technologies are closely tied to today’s TV receiver technology, a limitation Wright says will render them obsolete in a matter of a few years. But Videotex is built to handle all forseeable technical changes for the next 20 or 30 years. While the European systems must tie into a central data bank, one viewer hooked up Canadian-style can communicate with another directly— terminal to terminal. Which means that information marketing (an expected $700-million operation by 1985) won’t be the exclusive property of large corpo-

rations such as Torstar and Southam, though as A. Roy Megarry, a former vice-president of Torstar and the new publisher of The Globe and Mail, says, the print media deserve their share — they’ll be hard hit when information goes electronic.

The “wired city” is what the technologists call it—a community hung together by television sets. In Columbus, Ohio, Warner Communications has been running a 20,000-subscriber field test of a system called Qube since last December—a mere infant of two-way TV technology compared with Videotex. Yet Columbus viewers, via the five “response” buttons on their Qube control boxes, can “touch in” to the central data bank to compete in game shows, give local politicians the instant raspberry, vote on the talk show host’s new haircut. Adding the Videotex options of punching stuff in and pulling stuff out of data banks, the possibilities for information trading and surveying seem infinite.

The “information society” is another name for it. At this moment, Qube’s Columbus computer (relatively unsophisticated when compared with the new Canadian machinery) knows how many—and which—of its 20,000 subscribers are tuned in, whether they’re watching the soft-porn channel or the NBC news, which response button each is hitting—and it checks every six seconds. Though Warner protects the iden-

tities of its consumers and is aware of how carefully such gathered information must be guarded, the corporation does hope to make lucrative returns on its initial $15-million investment from the fine-honed market research a tool like Qube can provide. But when does invasion of privacy begin? “We have a time bomb here,” says Harlan Kleiman, Qube’s vice-president of programming. He knows that the spontaneous fun of pushing a response button to talk back to the television could result in an escalating record of behavior open to misinterpretation and abuse, and that the new utility will probably have to look to government for legal safeguards.

With Videotex field tests scheduled to begin in 50 Kitchener, Ontario, households in April, and the system expected to be fully commercial by 1985, there is little time left for the social dangers to be anticipated and legislated against. Even Roy Megarry, thrilled by the new opportunities for information exchange, not to mention profit—and definitely one of the wirees not the wired—has his reservations: “The prospect of 125 million North American adults expressing an immediate opinion on a major event or a major issue that has emerged within the space of a few hours has a frightening aspect to it.” Hello participatory democracy. Or is it Hello Mr. Orwell.

Allan Bailey

Anne Collins