The Year in Preview
Curtain Call, 2001
In a matter of hours, the first year of the 21st century will come to a close. Sadly, fond memories were not the high point of the year. Year 2001 has not been a good year in many regards, even though fundamentally it was not much was different from previous years.
The tragedy at the World Trade Center was the biggest black mark of the year, and the date September 11th will live for a very long time in infamy. The effects of “9-11”, as this day has come to be known, includes worldwide economic problems, compounded with a war, fear, and disruption of everyday life.
At the beginning of the year there was the semi-smooth transition of power from one of the world’s most powerful men (Clinton) to another (Bush). These two men are from opposing ends of the political spectrum and yet the transition did not include any bullets or blood. The accusations of voting irregularities were rampant and the issue of electronic voting was discussed widely. Amidst controversy, George W. Bush Jr. took the rickety helm of a nation in turmoil and a world embroiled in problems.
Soon after the inauguration, the approaching economic storms started drench the party. The already weakened stock markets kept sliding downwards at an alarming pace. Layoffs at companies became business as usual. Much of this turmoil was blamed on the crash in the technology business. A looming energy crisis hit many parts of the world, particularly the Western coast of the United States. Adding insult to injury oil prices soared and Mr. Bush was roundly criticized for a mess that probably was not his doing. (Since then, oil prices have crashed).
While Mr. Bush dashed around frantically trying to stem a cracked dyke with tape, everything started to fall apart. An US submarine sunk a Japanese tourist ship. Europe got embroiled in the alarming “foot-and-mouth” disease. The peace process in the Middle East fell apart and Israel took a hard stand creating explosive Palestinian resentment. A US spy plane crashed into a Chinese fighter jet causing a horrible international incident. Earthquakes erupted all around causing death and mayhem. And the jobs kept tumbling, the stocks kept tumbling and the money seemed to disappear into thin air. Misery seemed to be news-du-jour. When was this horror going to end?
Of course things did not get better. The legendary Mr. Murphy had it right “If anything can go wrong, it will”. The huge twin towers of New York disappeared. Planes fell out of the sky. War erupted. Terrorism strikes kept going. The two emerging nuclear powers—India and Pakistan brought out the hibernating resentments to the front burner, sending fear amongst the rest of the world. In that state of trepidation, we come to the end of the year.
In spite of all the horror and tragedy, the hardship, the fighting, the enmity, the rhetoric and the chaos, 2001 has not been a really bad year after all. Things that were right are still right; they just don’t seem to be. It is partly a matter of pent up need for “corrections” partly a matter of perception.
This year we saw the same relentless march of technological penetration into the global citizenry that started about five years ago. Today, more people are cognizant and conversant with technology that ever before. Computers have continued to bring information, knowledge, awareness and democracy to the doorstep. Literacy and comfort-level of things scientific are at an all time high.
The crash of the technological business arena is sad but expected. In the late nineties, business was not driven by rationality but sheer craziness. Almost every useless idea to build something new or different was mined. The necessity or viability of the products ware not deemed to be important. The core of business is the marketability and profitability of products and services. When these considerations are laid by the wayside, the endeavor is not sustainable.
The push for oodles of gimmicks needed oodles workers. Hence aspiring youngsters were encouraged to drop everything and turn to some crash course in computers with the lure of high paying jobs. For a while that advice seemed to bear fruit. In reality, education in technology is complicated, long drawn and intense. Four to six years of college education cannot be usurped by a short course in programming, as was being touted. So when the speculative bubble burst, the jobs for the fast track technologists evaporated. A lot of innocent people got stranded in the gold rush, but reality has this way of raising its ugly head.
In the past, in history, technological innovation and technological business has the well-proven track record of slowly emerging and slowly growing. A huge and rapid expansion is not possible, and for a while people did not believe it was not possible. Today we have been taught the same lesson again.
In 2001, we have seen the same continued march of technological penetration as we have done for the past century. The computer processors have become faster, with the speeds topping out at over 2GHz. Consumer gadgets that were considered eclectic a year back are mainstream now. MP3 players and digital cameras are the new toys to play with and have reached levels of price where it is affordable.
A truly useful innovation is the digital video recorder that can pause and fast forward live television. In the middle of a broadcast movie if you need to take a break, you can pause it and then restart it later. Want to see a scene again? Press replay. You can even zap commercials by fast-forwarding live television—sounds impossible?
Wireless networking had been in the works for a while, 2001 brought it to fruition. A particularly popular version is called “802.11b”. Whew, that’s a horrible name, marketers wanted to call it “WiFi” but somehow the 802.11b name stuck. The 802.11b networking cuts the cord between a computer and a network, much like the cordless phone. It allows a laptop user to be connected to the Internet without wires. A base station is a small box that connects to the Internet using wires and then provides Internet connectivity for all computers within a 100ft-500ft area. It has proven to be an instant hit in large office buildings, hotels, airports, University campuses and even at coffee shops. Suddenly, there is not a need to physically connect a laptop to a wall socket in order to work. The price of the 803.11b interface card went from an astronomical $400 to a very affordable $40.
Wide-area wireless networking has not been as successful. Packet switched cellular data networks, known as CPDP or 3G have not taken off despite marketing hype. Ricochet is a company that built a nationwide network of wireless access points in the US but they are in bankruptcy. Too much, too fast; we will be surely seeing this service in the future, but it is too early for consumers yet. Similarly the Thin Client, the Internet Appliance, many a gimmicky Internet Service and a plethora of marginally useful gadgets have been dumped into the slagheap of innovation. Never to be seen again? Hope not.
In the fields of Medicine, progress has been relentless. Cloning research has yielded many a new way of synthesizing life. Stem cell research has been yielding remarkable results in curing diseases. Drugs for hitherto incurable maladies are appearing. The first self-contained artificial heart was successfully implanted. New results in RNA research are hailed as remarkable milestones. Cancer research has developed the “smart-bomb”—drugs targeted to precise biochemical defects that cause the growth of cancer cells. The race to map the human genome came to an end this year—the complete genome map has been defined. Surprisingly the total gene count is a very low 35,000.
Progress in Science has been unhindered. Scientists have cracked many a solar mystery (notably the case of the missing solar neutrino). New materials have been discovered that are super-conductive at temperatures higher than thought possible. Intense study of Global Warming has led to even more confusion. While it is quite provable that in the short term, Global Warming is reality, it is not clear that this phenomenon is expected to continue over the long term. The irony is that, now scientists agree that the worst source of greenhouse gasses—the United States—is also the largest sink. The world’s first space tourist went on a joy ride to outer space.
A column such as this would not have been a viable entity for a newspaper targeted for general circulation, a few years ago. Not many people were interested in bits and bytes and gadgets and networking. Today the world has changed and 2001 was yet another firm step on the ladder of change. Technical writing is appearing in much of the consumer media. This is a very welcome trend and is expected to continue and expand in the future.
Happy New Year.
Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at http://cactus.eas.asu.edu/partha