Johnstone Centre, Charles Sturt University. Albury. 2640
The "Information Superhighway" is revolutionising communications. It is creating new institutions and changing the way we work, learn and play. Its long-term influence is likely to be at least as great as the introduction of printing or television. Immediate effects have included the introduction for on-line publishing, on-line commercial activity, and cooperative activities based on information-sharing. An important new kind of institution is the "special interest network", which is a cooperative model for creating on-line, information "communities".
A number of issues surround the development of the information superhighway, both for rural industry and for Australia and the rest of the world generally. These issues include the provision of access, the development information content and the organisation of on-line activity.
WHAT IS THE INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY?
The name "Information Superhighway" refers to a suite of advanced communications technology. Most of the present hype and controversy concerns the prospects for widespread broad-band
communications - interactive TV, videophones and the like. However, the infrastructure to support these activities does not yet exist in Australia. At present most activity centres on developments in narrow-band technology.
The difference between narrow- and broad-band communications is simply channel capacity. Just like a water-pipe, the broader the pipe, the more information you pump through it. Live video and audio require broad-band links - greater than 10 megabits per second. On the other hand text demands far lower capacity. At present most channels are no more than 2 magabits per second; usually much less. Hence many of the exciting new services that broad-band can offer are not yet possible. For this reason it has been said that we do not yet have an information superhighway; just a goat track!
At present the information superhighway means the Internet (Krol, 1992). The Internet is a "network of networks" that connects over 3 million computers all over the world. The connection is achieved via the "Internet Protocol" (IP), which defines how different computers and networks should talk to each other. The Internet arose during the 1970s when the US military set up ARPANET as a way for its contractors to communicate and share information. Many facilities, such as electronic mail and public access to information, arose during that time. The utility of this computer network led to NFSNET for linking US academic institutions. The technology soon spread to other countries, giving rise to the Internet.
A goat track though it may be, the Internet is certainly the fast lane when it comes to growth and development. During the past three years both the number of users and the supply of information have been growing exponentially. In the space of a few years the Internet has been transformed from a playground for computer hackers to the world's main electronic forum for professional communication. The stimulus for this change has been the introduction of new protocols that make it possible to retrieve information from anywhere in the world at the touch of a button. Most important has been the development of the "World Wide Web".
The World Wide Web
The World Wide Web is the Internet's electronic publishing protocol. Publications on "the Web" are far richer than traditional paper. Not only does it provide formatted text and graphics, but also hypertext and multimedia ("hypermedia"). Items within a document can include links ("hypertext") to other documents or to audio or video material. Moreover the system has two great advantages over CD ROM multimedia. Firstly, the links can be made to information anywhere in the world, so the available content is both up-to-date and virtually infinite. Secondly, it can be fully interactive. For example, documents can include forms that the user fills in. Not only can these forms be used to query databases and to drive all manner of programs, but also they can be used to enter information into the system.
In practice, the Web is a "client-server" protocol. Each user runs a browser program ("client") on his or her computer. To provide a starting point, at start-up the browser automatically loads a "home page" from the Web. Usually this document is the entry page for the user's organisation, but it can be any accessible document, including one on the user's own machine. Subsequent items of information are requested by clicking on hypertext links within the home page or any other document that is displayed on the browser. Each time a document is requested the browser ("client") sends a message via the Internet to the appropriate "server", which is a program running on another machine. This server can be located anywhere on the network, anywhere in the world. When it receives the request the server retrieves the selected document and transmits back to the client.
FARMING AND THE INTERNET
How can farmers access the network?
At the time of writing, the means of access to the Internet is changing rapidly. Until recently access to the Internet in Australia via AARNET - the Australian Academic Research Network - was limited to universities and other large organisations that could afford to maintain a full Internet "gateway". Access for individual users is now widely available via commercial "Internet Service Providers" (ISP) who maintain a full link and sell access to individuals. Usually an individual user dials up the ISP via a modem/phone line. However, ISP access is mostly concentrated in the large cities and few people in remote areas have been able or are willing to bear the cost of long distance calls. This problem has been partly addressed in several ways. Many local councils have initiated public access services in libraries and schools. The Department of Primary Industry and Energy (DPIE) set up a network of "telecentres" in rural towns (e.g. Bega, Wangaratta). It is likely that within a year or two of writing, local dial-in network access will be available from anywhere in the country.
The minimum equipment needed for access would be a phone line, a modem, and (say) a PC running Windows. ISPs usually provide a start-up kit for their users. Browsing software for accessing the Internet is free for personal use. ISP usage charges are generally in the range $5-$10 per hour.
What does the network offer?
Once users have access to the network, most services are free. For example, they can "download" an enormous range of useful software from "anonymous FTP" sites. The Internet also provides an enormous range of useful information. Most of it consists of free services, especially those provided by government and research institutions. For example, the Gutenberg Project
had placed on-line hundreds of books in electronic form - from the Bible to the complete works of Shakespeare. Frustrated by the slow pace of traditional paper publication, many scientists, especially physicists, have taken to publishing preprints of their research on the Internet (e.g. http://xxx.lanl.gov/). Likewise, schools and universities have started placing large volumes of teaching materials on-line.
However, by far the greatest volume of on-line publishing is basic information, much of it necessary for professional purposes. This ranges from weather forecasts and current stock prices to databases on biotechnology (Bilofsky and Burks, 1988; Cameron, 1988), environment (Canhos et al. 1992; Green, 1994) and natural resources.
At the time of writing the Internet does not provide significant amounts of information that is of direct use to farmers. However, this situation is already changing rapidly as Internet access becomes more widely available in rural areas, so increasing demand. The range and volume of information services available on the Internet is growing at an exponential pace. Much of it is available free. There are several reasons for this:
the network provides an extremely cost-effective way for government and other agencies to disseminate public-good information;
universities and other research agencies are realising that being a major source for on-line information is having an important effect on the prestige and standing of institutions;
smart businesses understand that the most effective way to attract customers on the Internet is to publish free information that is useful and interesting. For this reason the distinction between publishing and advertising has become blurred.
Over a period of hundreds of years, many institutions have grown up to manage our traditional world of paper publishing. They include publishing houses, book stores, libraries, and professional societies. Because of the speed at which the Internet has grown in recent years, similar institutions have not yet appeared to deal with electronic information. As a result we can identify several urgent needs that must be addressed:
Organisation - Ensuring that users can obtain information easily and quickly. Indexing services, such as Archie, Veronica and Jughead, have been enormously useful, but are becoming increasingly difficult to use and maintain as the sheer volume of information grows. Subject indexes that point to sources of information on particular themes are becoming increasingly important in the organisation of network information.
Stability - Ensuring that sources remain available and that links do not go "stale". Rather than gathering information at a single centre, an important principle is that the site which maintains a piece of information should be the principal source. Copies of (say) a dataset can become out-of-date very quickly, so it is more efficient for other sites to make links to the site which maintains a dataset, rather than take copies of it.
Quality control - Ensuring that information is valid, that data are up-to-date and accurate, and that software works correctly.
Standardisation - Ensuring that the form and content of information make it easy to use.
Duplication of effort - perhaps the worst aspect of the current situation is that any sites create competing services. This is incredibly wasteful because much better services can only result from coordinating the work, rather than duplicating each other's work.
One promising solution to the above problems is the "special interest network" (SIN for short). A Special Interest Network (SIN) is a group of people and/or institutions who collaborate to provide information about a particular subject (Green, 1995). A SIN consists of a series of participating "nodes" that each contribute to the network's functions (Green and Croft, 1994). The main functions of a SIN fall into the following four headings:
Publication - the SIN publishes information on the specialist topic. Besides articles and books in the traditional sense, publications can also include datasets, images, audio, and software. SINs adopt the fundamental principle that the supplier of a piece of information is also the publisher. That is, rather than take (say) data from many different sites and place it all on a single server, each site runs its own server and publishes its own data. The logical end point of this trend would be a server on every computer, with every individual user being his/her own publisher!
Virtual Library - the SIN provides users with access to information on the specialist topic. Besides information stored on-site, there are links to relevant information elsewhere.
On-line Services - the SIN might provide relevant services, such as forecasting crop yields, to its users. More generally, almost all commercial activities fall under this heading.
Communications - the SIN provides a means for people in the field to keep in touch. This might include mailing lists, newsgroups, newsletters, and conferences.
At the time of writing, broad-band communications are not widely available. The advent of broad-band services is likely to enhance and accelerate the trends identified here, rather than produce entirely new directions. Multimedia information, for instance, will tend to include more video and sound than is practical under narrow-band. Most of the really fundamental changes being brought about by the information superhighway are already evident in narrow-band services. They include developments such as on-line shopping and other business activities, coordinated development of fundamental public-good information, on-line publishing, formation of information communities.
Significant changes that are likely to stem from the implementation of broad-band include:
merging of technologies such as telephone, television, computing, radio, fax, and printing. For instance the traditional phone call will be replaced by an audio broad-band service;
charging by volume rather than distance. Rather than contacting people via (say) an area code, we are likely to use a personal network address;
home publishing centres - it will be possible for each home to contribute substantial outputs of information to the network. Examples could include community news or video programming, business tele commuting and personal "home pages".
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