of the American Society for Information Science and Technology          Vol. 28, No. 4          April / May 2002


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Life in the E-Sphere
by Joseph N. Pelton

Joseph N. Pelton is executive director of the Sir Arthur Clarke Institute for Telecommunications and Information (CITI) and deputy director of the Institute for Applied Space Research at George Washington University. He can be reached by e-mail at ecjpelton@aol.com

"There is only one evil, ignorance and only one good, knowledge" Socrates

The so-called Third Millennium (at least as reckoned in the Western chronology) will be a time of enormous challenge and change. Simply put, how well we meet these challenges will decide how long the species Homo sapiens might survive. These potential challenges to survival today seem almost endless and suggest to some that even a thousand more years may be difficult for our species to sustain, much less an eon another billion years.

The problems for humans to overcome range widely. They span a spectrum of environmental issues that start with global warming, carbon dioxide and methane buildup and include the darkening albedo of the polar ice caps. They also include global pollution, desertification, loss of the rain forests and arable land, and the depletion of petrochemical energy sources. Since September 11, 2001, we all now know that we must also cope with techno-terrorism and man-made destruction on a planetary scale.

Thus the problems to cope with are more than environmental or natural in cause. We must find out if we will ultimately be able to achieve a steady-state global population and sustain it economically and socially as well as strive to attain universal access to global education and health care. The 21st century certainly will be a time in which we must address such human-bred dangers as techno-terrorism, nuclear proliferation, abuses that stem from bio-engineering and cloning, and much more. At the same time we could also unlock wonderful medical breakthroughs from the fruits of stem cell research. We also seem to have an endless array of new biological and computer viruses (now numbered at 5000 and growing rapidly) attacking the health of our global society. Ironically we have made little substantial progress in overcoming known dangers even as new technologically generated challenges are emerging at an exponentially increasing pace.

It seems, therefore, that the next century and most certainly the next millennium hold the key to whether humanity can survive as a species. To do this we will have to shift from a maximized economic growth mentality to a maximized human development and survival mentality. This means developing more wisdom rather than blindly developing more information or more technology or more material wealth.

Goal number one must be to sustain a livable biosphere. This is not something we can do quickly. The objective must be to improve the environment at least gradually over the few centuries a task easier said than done. If our global population hits 12 billion within the next century the challenge will become ever so much larger.

Consider this: So far we have lived at best some small fraction of the time that the giant dinosaurs survived. To date humanity has been around, at most, about 5 million years, which is much, much less than the nearly 200 million years that represented the Golden Age of the Dinosaurs when they were the masters of the world. They reigned supreme until a huge meteorite that struck earth during the Jurassic Age apparently wiped them out a fact that should put our current environmental dilemmas in clear perspective. As Sir Arthur Clarke once said: "The dinosaurs failed to survive due to the lack of a space program." To pursue a space program is not the lesson to be learned from Sir Arthur's observation, although this is certainly a good idea, but rather that we need to plan ahead.

It is possible that we may fail to survive because we developed high technology but failed to derive from it systems that are designed to grow our species rather than simply to expand economic production.

The 21st century may thus spell "Do or die" for humanity. Here are some of the issues to consider with regard to our aspirations not only to survive another millennium but also to thrive and continue to evolve for another billion years.

Coping with the Challenge of Future Compression

The rate of technological change is not so much accelerating but in a state of "jerk" an increasing rate of acceleration. The future is approaching us much faster than the past is receding. Technology is a one-way gate. We cannot easily "un-invent" our technology. Human civilization cannot go back to earlier conditions without catastrophic results.

In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan forecast the development of the so-called "Global Village" based on television and satellite distribution that allowed billions of people to experience world-wide events like the Olympics. Today, in the age of modern digital information systems and the Internet, the global broadcast mode that allowed us to listen in common is giving way to a new paradigm: the Global Brain or what I call in my latest book the E-Sphere. Now we do not "listen" in common, but "think and interact" in common. This amazing new capability is also growing at an amazing rate. The cumulative aggregate growth of Internet usage is 80% in Africa, 85% in North America, 90% in Europe, 110 % in Asia and 125% in Latin America. The problem is using this amazing ability to "think in tandem" to aid the progress and survival of our species rather than using it to expand commerce and entertainment. It is a subtle but important distinction. The spiral of technological advancement is both an opportunity and a threat.

Using the E-Sphere as a Survival Tool

Most of the great challenges to preserving a livable biosphere on our fragile planet will require not only new and enlightened social, economic, political and cultural policies, but technological innovation as well. Significantly, most of the great global challenges, such as pollution, global warming, clean energy, improved education and health care, depend not only on technology but also on software and application by "wise" people. Social and economic challenges, recessions, trade conflicts, personal liberties, labor disputes, ethnic and religious differences these will complicate the problems even more.

Our greatest challenges to survival will likely come in the course of the 21st century. The threats and opportunities are everywhere. As Barbara Tuchman, the historian, has observed: "The March of Humankind is largely the March of Folly." And yet we can hope. We can aspire to wisdom.

For a start we need such new educational and research institutions to help us shape better ways to cooperate between so-called advanced and developing economies and to carry out global educational reform on a global scale to realize not only increased global prosperity, but also more importantly to achieve the survival of the species. We have begun to shape not a Global Village, but a Global Brain to help us think more clearly and plan more synergistically

Let's explore the ambition of humanity to survive another billion years. Let's start with a jerk.

JERK !!!!

The pace of modern innovation and technological change has gone from swift to hyper-exponential. Let's pretend that the entirety of human civilization is only one Super Month in length where every second represents two years. In the speeded up world of the Super Month, we see a rather remarkable image of human development. The phase we would know as that of the hunter/gatherer would consume virtually the entire month. This stage would last 29 days and 22.5 hours. The last hour and half, the time of a movie, would represent the time of agriculture, towns and cities, and the birth of technology. The last four minutes of our artificial Super Month would be the Renaissance, while the last two minutes would be the Industrial Age. And what about the time of television, lasers, satellites, biotechnology, super computers, robotics, artificial intelligence and spandex? This "age of high technology" which consumed us so thoroughly in the late 20th century would occupy about 20 seconds.

Within the next few super minutes of time if we survive as a species we could achieve remarkable things. We could colonize and terra-form planets, convert to clean and limitless recyclable energy, create von Neumann machines to search the universe for other intelligent life and much, much more. Time in our age of technology is increasing as a third order exponential in the real world only explosions and other very short-lived phenomena reflect such rates of growth.

Just since the time of Ancient Greece, human population has increased about 57 times from 100 million to 5.7 billion, but during this same time period global information has increased some 10 to 100 million times. Information is mushrooming at least 200,000 times faster than our population growth. Picture an agile turtle trying to catch the Space Shuttle!

In trying to catch up, our education and information systems have tried to speed us up faster and faster on more and more specialized conveyor belts. The opportunity to become Renaissance People or solve complex problems in interdisciplinary teams has been increasingly lost. Ph.D. research has become so narrow and deep it has almost become invisible. The future challenge in telecommunications and information systems is not faster throughput. It is coping with information overload and creating new ways of learning and sharing information.

The survival of our species on the planet Earth for the long haul is actually in question in part because of our exploding technology and a Niagara of specialized and unconnected data. The ability of Homo sapiens to create not only an effective electronic global village, but to create humanized smart cities and ultimately a viable global brain will require better telecommunications, information and energy systems than today's experts are now planning.

The truth is that the 21st century can be one of two things. Either it can be a vital connecting link to the future in which we use our most advanced information, telecommunications and education tools to create a viable economic, industrial, political and ecological system for human survival or we don't make it as a species. Not only do we not realize the unimaginable achievements that one billion years of continuous human culture could bring we simply do not make it. We, in the next single century, have the potential to use our information and telecommunications technology and systems much too unwisely. We can indeed fail as a species. In the 22nd century our planet will still be here, but we humans may not make it or find ourselves a dying breed.

The challenge of the 21st century is not whether we will live better or worse than our forebears, but whether we can use our smart telecommunications, information, energy and transportation systems to create a viable econiche for Homo sapiens.

As we rise to meet this New Millennium Challenge we will increasingly recognize that information and communications technologies, artificial intelligence, space, transport and energy systems, and education and science programs are our keys to success or failure. Only these "smart" systems can allow us to think and act synoptically on a planetary scale and create the tools to establish the global cooperative behavior that I call the E-Sphere. These systems can give rise to TelePower but also to TeleShock. One of the true keys to the E-Sphere will be our educational systems, and thus the remainder of this article will be addressed to this subject.

Tele-Education and Tele-Health as Critical Steps

At the opening session of the International Programme for the Development of Communications, organized by UNESCO in the 1970s Sir Arthur C. Clarke explained that our emerging computer and communications technologies will eventually produce something he called the "electronic tutor." The tutor would be portable and very inexpensive and contain a vast encyclopedia of information that could be electronically updated or connected via satellite. When asked whether this electronic tutor was going to replace teachers he sensibly replied that we will always need teachers, but come to think about it: "Any teacher that can be replaced by a machine probably ought to be."

Today this technology seems less than a decade away. Tomorrow's developments are with us today. There are already "anytime, anywhere" satellite hand-held transceivers to be bought at under $1000, and soon these will be broadband and will support multimedia services. There will soon be 50 "smart" virtual reality arcades from Disney strewn about our globe. Even today we can buy Dragon software that lets the spoken word be transferred to written text. Info-technology is sweeping us quickly ahead. The latest developments in satellite communications promise us the ability to provide megabit/second messages to hand-held tele-computers that can tell us where we are, access any library and quickly do computations that would have taken hours on the ENIAC. Soon we can have almost unlimited communications to portable electronic tele-computer units with memories many times the Encyclopedia Britannica. Of course, in time, these might become even more portable as they shrink to the size of implanted chips, and we have "worn" phased array antennas.

Such technology can revolutionize our global educational and health care systems by making them universally available and certainly much lower in cost. Experiments carried out under the INTELSAT Global Satellite System's Project SHARE in 1986 and 1987 showed the potential of space-based tele-education and tele-health in many dozens of countries. The Chinese National Television University, started under the Project SHARE tests and demonstrations, now has over 4 million students and over 90,000 operational terminals. The so-called SITE experiments that started with the ATS-6 satellite in India have likewise stimulated the operational tele-education programs now carried on the INSAT satellites.

But the technology and the hardware are the easy part. Much more challenging than new fiber and satellite hardware are the content and software we need to meet social needs. The concept of a single global health care or educational system for the world is fatally flawed. The demands of language, culture and local economic and agricultural needs cannot be met from a single source. We need a diverse and complex source of programming that responds to local needs. It is here that space cooperative ventures can combine strength to strength. Project SHARE showed that space-based tele-education and tele-health succeed, not on the basis of sophisticated technology, but on the basis of locally initiated programming that responds to locally-defined needs. An outline of a program for 21 st century educational reform is provided in the Table 1.

Conclusion: Life in the E-Sphere

In the third millennium we can use space, telecommunications and information systems to deploy smart transportation systems, provide interdisciplinary urban planning, promote effective use of telecommuting and create new clean jobs in industry and service corporations. In 50 years we may be able to deploy huge space systems that can offer broadband communications to even the poorest countries at incredibly low prices. The equivalent of an entire textbook will be able to be sent at a cost of less than one cent.

Extensions of these new technologies will allow us to utilize global information systems in new and innovative ways. These can extend our educational and training systems, create effective disaster warning and recovery systems, provide effective search and rescue, and connections to electronic libraries and museums. In recognizing how basic and widespread space applications can be to key planetary needs of the general public, the political leaders and the public officials of Asia thus have a wonderful opportunity. The key is as simple as seeking a "win-win" approach that advances knowledge, improves the environment and creates an economic system that contributes to a "spiral of improvement" rather than to a spiral of blind growth and expansion within our evolving global brain.

Some believe that the key to future in the 21st century and beyond involves simply turning the crank of technological progress ever faster. This is almost certainly wrong!  We must call on a balanced approach to survive as long as an eon, let alone attempt to change the course of history on a galactic scale. Balance not speed is the answer. This philosophy of survival over growth, of wisdom and knowledge over information, and of global systems and quality over technology represents a fundamental change that is key to building a successful planetary culture in the 21 st century.

These are not changes that can be made in a year or even a decade. As the Third Millennium begins there are some 24 active armed conflicts occurring around the world, including the U.S. attack on terrorists in Afghanistan. These brutal struggles are occurring in parallel with a phenomenon we call the Internet. Both these forces of war and knowledge are shaping a global economic network. We humans are a complex group of beings at once magnificent and munificent but also monstrous and malignant. Building a global village and ultimately a planetary electronic culture seems to be our destiny. In short if our descendants evolve continuously on this planet and go on to settle other planets and star systems over the next billion years, this future will hinge on the steps we take in this new century of a new millennium. The first step will be to develop the potential and control the threats inherent in a global consciousness of an evolving "E-Sphere.

"Table 1: 21st Century Educational Reform

Implement the best of new networking, satellite and fiber technologies for tele-education. Technology by itself is only a start, but coupled with the right content it can be powerful.

Develop and employ self-paced and independent learning systems and databases. These independent learning sources would augment "fixed" course lectures and text materials. They might be video databases, Web articles or CD-ROMs that would allow students to explore their special interests and see and hear expert opinions on several sides of issues under research or still being explored. The problem would be to have such resources available in various languages and not to reflect a single societal, religious or cultural viewpoint.

Embrace experiential or "hands on" design exercises and problem solving assignments. The purpose of such learning systems and exercises would be to develop independent critical thinking and writing skills, especially within teams. The source of most systems of racial bigotry, cultural bias, religious zealotry and terrorist sects is the ability to control thought, discourage independent thinking and close off the ability to innovate. Humans can realize their highest goals through innovation, but they can sink to their lowest depths when marshaled into a "herd mentality."

Utilize interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary learning exercises. It is within interdisciplinary groups that renaissance thinking and synoptic review of problems and issues can be accomplished. This is another path to innovation, creativity and independent thinking.

Teach creative methods in order for students to acquire information and develop "screening" and critical analysis skills. In the age of the Internet it is important to learn ways to know when information may be incorrect, out-of-date or biased as well as different ways to seek out information from books, articles, databases, Internet websites and other sources.

Develop effective and affordable new mechanisms to distribute high quality information and educational programs through global satellite, fiber, Internet or other electronic networks. The key here is not the ability to navigate modern information systems or to have access to satellite or Internet information or education systems but to find ways to make such systems culturally and linguistically "transparent" to students.

Transform and make "high tech" distribution mechanisms now available for tele-education less culturally invasive and English dominant. Many tele-education systems today are highly effective and increasingly available to rural and remote areas. They and most major Web sites, however, are based on English or a few other languages and reflect a "Western-oriented" viewpoint. This dominance must be changed to achieve truly viable global educational reform.

Continue to update and modernize educational systems and professional skill sets on a periodic basis. It is not only doctors, nurses and engineers that need to be "re-certified" on a scheduled basis. Teachers, administrators and parents must be able to learn new skills.

Institutionalize lifelong learning and new skill acquisition. The problems engendered by the doubling of world information systems every four to five years are enormous. By 2005 information will have doubled again and by 2015 it may have increased by 16 times. The approach will be not only to update databases but to allow everyone to engage in lifelong learning. As human life spans increase to 150 years or more this may become society's greatest challenge.

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