A Growing Dependency

Information has been critical to the survival of nations and individuals throughout recorded history.


Information has a significant role in the survival of societies from Biblical times [bible] through to today, [Campen] and will likely continue to affect national survival for the indefinite future. [Cohen-IWAR]}

In the October, 1993 crisis in Russia, the members of the dissolved parliament escalated to military action by ordering their supporters to take over the mayor's office across the street, the television station across town, another major telecommunications center, and the Kremlin a few blocks away, in that order. The takeover of the mayor's office in downtown Moscow was essentially unopposed (only warning shots were fired), but when it came to the television station, the battle became fierce. The other targets were never even threatened. Can there be any question that the Russian leadership on both sides understood the import of information as the key to victory?

Technology Marches On

If information has played a crucial role throughout history, why is there a pressing need to reconsider this issue in a different light today? The answer lies in the fundamental changes in information systems and the new ways in which people have come to depend on them over the last several years. Just as the industrial age led to fundamental changes in the way the world worked, the information age is now leading to fundamental changes in the way the world works. [Tofler2]

If you were a tailor near the beginning of the industrial age, you might have gotten involved with technology when the first sewing machine came out, or you might have waited a while. If you waited a while, you might not have been on the leading edge of tailoring, but it wouldn't have hurt your business. But over time, almost all tailors came to use sewing machines because there was a definite advantage in terms of the time required to make a similar quality item. It eventually became necessary in order to compete. But some holdouts remain even today. In China, they still hand sew some goods, but even there, the machine is proving more cost-effective and the transition is underway.

Compare this to the information age. In the beginning, computers were exotic. Some companies had them, but very few companies were put out of business because they lacked computers. Over time, more and more companies found that the savings obtained in using a computer over people operating adding machines made computers cost-effective. Today, even many of the least technology-oriented businesses have fax machines, computerized telephone systems, answering machines, voice mail, and even PCs. I once stated that people really knew they were in the information age when most people used information systems at least once a day. Today, most people who work use some form of information system more than once per hour and millions of people use information systems almost all of their working day.

The information age is not just about computers. Consider the way cable television has changed your life. Although radio news has been almost instantaneous for a long time, as recently as the mid-1980s, much of the news was reported hours or even days after it happened and video from war zones were rarely available right away. By the 1990s, the people of the world saw the Gulf War live from Bagdad on their home television sets. In less than a decade, our country went from 4 network channels to 40 cable channels. And this is only the beginning. In the 1980s, going out to the movies was a major source of entertainment. In the 1990s, movies are watched on cable television more than in the movie theaters. Just as news reels were primarily seen in theaters in the 1940s and moved to network television news shows in the 1960s, the movies themselves are moving out of the theaters and into your home.

And how about telephones? By the 1980s, computer systems were commonly being sold with modems, those boxes that let you dial into on-line information services. It started with a few services, but by the 1990s, on-line information services were providing professional services to tens of thousands of doctors, lawyers, scientists, educators, and other professionals.

By the early 1990s, the small international business became a major force, primed to a large extent by the low-cost fax machine. The fax machine was a rarity in the mid-1980s, but by 1990, almost any business could have a fax machine. For the small international business, this meant that contracts could be closed and deals made via international telephone calls at low cost and in short time frames. Whereas the high cost of getting involved in international business was limiting in the early 1980s, by 1990, cost factors made it possible for even the smallest companies with unique products to communicate and do business with networks of people all around the world. In the mid-1990s, fax machines have become so common that many people have them in their homes and use them in place of the mail to send letters.

With the inclusion of fax-modems in computers, more and more documents are generated, transmitted, received, viewed, edited, and returned in purely information form.

In addition to reducing costs, emerging information technology is rapidly eliminating the drudgery of once routine tasks, such as data entry and hand calculation. Accountants don't add a lot of numbers any more. A data entry clerk enters the numbers into a computer and the accountant spends time figuring out different ways to use them. Some day soon, optical character recognition (OCR) systems and voice input systems will eliminate the data entry component. Even today, a lot of accounting uses direct data fed from computer to computer. Reading many pages of typed text into a computer is now faster, cheaper, and more accurate using OCR technology than using people for data entry.

Another information phenomena of the late 1980s was the automated telephone attendant. The early, and often obnoxious, high-tech telephone answering machines granted the caller the ability to select from many different options when a person was unavailable to take a call or when the information being provided could easily be summarized into a few hours of digitally recorded speech. For many people, this was going too far. Some backlash resulted and many companies chose to return to providing personal service to their customers rather than making them interact with a computer to get assistance. But after the short-lived backlash, automated attendants became widely used in place of individual answering machines and, as speech understanding technology improves, computers are taking on more and more telephone tasks for people.

The real turning point for speech input to computers probably came with the VCR Voice product that revolutionized speech interaction with information systems. This hand-held device took one of the most complex technical problems of our day (programming a VCR to record a program) and turned it into child's play. You simply say record - channel 2 - 9PM 10PM and the information system programs the VCR for you. The telephone companies rapidly followed with voice-activated telephone dialing, and the Japanese even developed an automated translation device for handling multilingual calls in real-time. The day may soon come when typing into a computer, pressing buttons on a telephone, and other similar information system interaction nearly disappears in favor of speech input and video output.

Another major information technology that has dramatically affected people is the optical disk. In the late 1980s, high-volume storage was primarily done with magnetic tape, which is slow to access but could typically handle hundreds of millions of bytes of digital information and several hours worth of analog video information. More recently, digital audio tape (DAT) has been used to store several thousand megabytes of digital information, but again, access time is relatively slow. In the early 1990s, optical disks came into their own with compact disks (CDs) replacing phonograph records throughout the audio industry. With computers as the controllers, CD-read-only-memories (CD-ROMs) and rewritable optical disks have dramatically changed the very nature of information systems.

One very good example of this change is in the on-line dictionaries and encyclopedias that have recently appeared. In these new forms of books, the user can literally watch and listen to famous speeches while reading the text and supporting information. The multimedia aspects of these new systems make learning a very different experience. It is likely that multimedia presentations will soon replace most written documents used for marketing purposes in the information industries.

It is even possible that within 10 to 15 years, the printed book will become widely replaced by digital books.

Consider this. Suppose you ask the library to provide you with all of the published works analyzing Shakespeare's tragedies in terms of character development, and the library transmits the information to you over the cable television system for a fee. The research results (some 10,000 articles) are loaded into a rewritable optical disk in your electronic book and you walk away with the book in your hands just like any other book you would buy off-the-shelf. As you sit under a tree in the park, you open the book and ask it to select an article of possible interest. If you like the article, you tell the book to keep it, otherwise, you tell the book to throw it away. In a few hours, you have done enough searching and selecting for your purposes, so you start to dictate your article into the book, automatically including citations to the other articles. After a few hours, you produce a draft of your multimedia report.

All of the elements of this technology are available today. Optical disks are small, store hundreds of books worth of information, are resilient relative to other storage technologies, and have the capacity to hold photographs, text, and voice for rapid recall. In a book-like technology, you could carry around a typical library of several thousand books in a package with the same size, weight, and shape as a paperback book now takes. Computerized speech understanding in limited domains has been available since the early 1970s, and today, there are commercially available speech understanding systems for taking dictation using personal computers. And all of this technology is still progressing at a rapid rate.

Every technology just described has a common component that produces great efficiency. That component is the computer. Information technology is not just about computers, but the core technology that allows modern information technology to be flexible and to automatically communicate is the computer.

As technology delivers more complex systems with more automation and smoother interfaces, people will become even more dependent on computers. When people no longer need to write or type because automated voice input has made that technology unnecessary, they may lose the ability to do those things. How much longer will handwriting remain a vital skill when our voice boxes provide the same information in typed form without the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome or the inconvenience of finding a keyboard? I for one will not miss the keyboard, and as soon as the voice-input replacement is cheap enough, I will be getting sore throats instead of finger aches.

As new technologies enable new processes, the new processes drive out old processes. The dependencies we once had on ourselves and other people shift toward dependencies on these new technologies.

Infrastructure has been a major military target at least since World War II, when the allies targeted German ball bearing factories. [Dupuy] This was not only because ball bearings were used in tanks, aircraft, and naval craft, but also because they were used in the machinery that made machinery.

Information and information systems are the ball bearings of the information age. Both military and civilian activities depend on this technology at almost all levels. [Hoffman82] Information technology is used to design information systems, to direct the transmissions used to implement the information infrastructure, and to control the manufacturing and delivery of new information systems that comprise the ever-changing infrastructure. We are now at the point where we cannot produce more advanced information systems without using existing information systems.

Survival Dependencies

Many people depend on information systems for their very lives. For example, every pacemaker today is a small piece of information technology that delivers electrical waves of the right shape to the right place at the right time. When that information technology fails, an individual may die.

When my grandmother was a young woman of only 85 or so (she is now more than 100 and going strong), she started to feel tired one day, and told my uncle she didn't feel like getting up to come over and visit. My uncle, who is a doctor, went over to visit her (yes, he makes house calls) and found that her pacemaker was running at a rate of only four beats per minute. They rushed her to the hospital, replaced the battery, and she was back to her old self again. Now I must say that I would feel very tired indeed if my heart was only beating four times per minute, and I naturally wondered about what went wrong. When I found out, I was amazed. It turns out that the battery they put in when they installed the pacemaker was supposed to last about 12 years. Since the technique was fairly new at the time and the patients were all quite old, nobody figured that anyone would last long enough to need a battery replacement. She has had several replacements since that time, and the periodic replacement of pacemaker batteries is now part of the regular process.

Whereas the pacemaker constitutes a truly intimate individual dependency, other forms of information technology are less intimate, but just as vital to individual survival. One example is the air traffic control system that millions of people depend upon every day. The air traffic control system is an information technology that forms a vital component of our national transportation infrastructure. As an information system, the air traffic control system includes radio and wired communications equipment, a multitude of sensor arrays to detect everything from aircraft to weather conditions, a large number of widely distributed computer systems, and of course a lot of people.

In our air traffic control system, there are many examples where people have died because the system was unable to respond adequately to the circumstance. I don't mean to say that the system didn't respond as it was designed to respond (which it almost always does), but rather that the system was not designed to respond to circumstances that cause some of the fatal crashes.

One example of this sort of failure is when a pilot doesn't behave in strict accordance with the wording required to invoke emergency response. The air traffic control system basically ignores the circumstance. In one case, a commercial airliner crashed killing all aboard because the pilot stated that the fuel was almost empty and that it was extremely urgent that they have priority to land. He did not, however, declare an emergency in the proper wording because he was not a native English-speaking pilot and was apparently unable to recall the proper word sequence. Similarly, when the pilot of a plane loses bearings, which can easily happen in many weather conditions, one of the common modes of response is to ask air traffic control for help. A typical scenario is that the pilot says something like, I need a place to land, and the air traffic control response is something along the lines of, Please advise us what you are going to do. If you declare an emergency and properly ask the controller to vector you to the nearest airport for landing, you will probably get the advice you need, but, when you are confused by circumstances and overloaded by the burdens of keeping the plane flying, it is easy to fail to say the magic words that get you safely on the ground.

The point of this is not to critique the air traffic control system, but rather to point out a problem in the nature of interacting with a complex information system on which you depend for your survival. The problem is that, even though there are people in the loop, the system is designed to operate the way it operates and not to flex in emotive response to systems that don't interact properly with it. Thus, our survival needs force us to learn how to interact with the information systems on which we depend, and the better we are able to interact, the better our chances are for survival.

Our survival dependency goes a lot deeper than this, of course. For example, many of us now depend on information systems to work the brakes in our cars, to open up air bags in case of accidents, and to operate the traffic lights on our streets. People also use information systems to determine and deliver proper doses of medicine in hospitals, to control electrical power, and to connect us to emergency services. The use of the 911 telephone number to call for emergency services is a good example of an infrastructure-level survival dependency in the United States (different numbers are used for emergency services in other countries). Failures in any of these systems could cause death.

Personal and Business Dependency

On a personal level, dependency on automated information systems may seem to have begun fairly recently, but from an infrastructure standpoint, the United States and its population have depended on automated information systems to a high degree for some time. At first, the dependency was limited, and these systems were highly diverse, distributed, and independent. But over time, technology advanced, and designers began to consolidate and centralize for efficiency.

But efficiency is not always the best solution. For example, the Space Shuttle is dynamically unstable during reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. That means that if the computer fails for more than about one thousandth of a second, the shuttle will literally break up into thousands of pieces (or more). To assure that this does not happen, the shuttle has redundant computers. If one fails, another takes over. It would be more efficient to use a single computer, but the designers chose redundancy to provide added assurance. In today's NII, there is plenty of redundancy, but it is rarely used to enhance assurance.

Every individual, company, government agency, and other entity in the United States depends on information systems to one degree or another. For example, almost every entity in the United States today uses the telephone as a key communications device. If telephones no longer functioned, you and I would no longer be able to call 911 in an emergency, we could no longer use modems to communicate, our fax machines would be useless, we could not call our relatives and friends, or quickly do business at a distance. The economy would move back from a global one to a local one, centralized information systems would be useless because there would be no efficient way to gather or redistribute the information, and all of the companies that depend on these services would have a severe problem.

This is the nature of a universal dependency. Everyone in our society depends on information in many of its forms, and without automated information systems, our society would revert, as did that of Iraq, back to the sort of society the United States had in the early half of this century. Along the way, many of us would die, and the United States would be so weakened as a nation that it would likely become susceptible to many forms of political and economic change.

Very Small Business

My definition of a very small business is a business with only a few employees or with gross sales of less than a million dollars per year. Another term would be a Ma and Pa business. To me and most other people I have talked to, this is what a small business is; but the U.S. government has a much broader definition, so I make the distinction here.

In very small businesses, computers are a rarity. There may be as many as two or three PCs in such a business, and these computers are usually run by the owner or one trusted employee. If a computer was stolen, these businesses would, for the most part, continue with at most a minor disruption. This is, of course, changing as younger people introduce more automation into these businesses, but the change is slow, and the computer is rarely the core of the business. The main exception is the small computer software firm; but then if you live by the computer, you die by the computer.

Many very small businesses depend on the post office more than any other information-processing facility, and many depend heavily on the telephone. Professional offices tend to depend on computers for billing, but they often send unpaid bills to collection agencies. Small collection agencies in turn use paper tracking systems, telephones, and the mail. Very small law offices use computers to produce letters, but for little else. They depend heavily on paper filing systems.

Very small businesses tend to depend on manual rather than automated information systems and, for that reason, they have little to lose from a business standpoint if the automated information systems of the world collapse. Of course, the big exception to this rule is that very small businesses tend to depend on other businesses for supplies, services, and the like.

Small Business

In stark contrast to the very small business, the average small business (by U.U. government standards) depends heavily on information systems for every aspect of its operation. These businesses

Physical proximity is important in that it tends to make communication efficient and reduces the dependency on long distance communications services. For example, many small businesses have one local area network and a simple internal telephone system that serve the entire corporation's internal automated information system requirement. The advantages of physical proximity do not usually extend to external information exchange, which remains highly dependent on telephone companies. For example, electronic data interchange (EDI) is playing an increasing role in gaining efficiencies in business-to-business order processing, and without external voice communications, many of these businesses would quickly go out of business.

Internally, most of these businesses use computers for tracking customers, employees, payroll, inventory, payables, receivables, and almost all other facets of business operations. The more automated information systems are exploited to run the business, the more likely the officers are to be able to make prudent decisions, and the more dependent they become. Annual reports, advertising, letters, memos, and all other corporate communications tend to depend on automated information systems.

In most cases, these companies cannot meet payroll, ship or receive goods, maintain accurate inventory, or otherwise operate efficiently without computers. However, in a pinch, they usually get by, even if the computers all fail for a week or more. Costs go up, but almost anything most of these businesses do in terms of office work can be done without a computer. Unfortunately, this is not all these companies tend to do.

Many successful small companies have automated more than office functions. In many small manufacturing plants, numerically controlled machines and assembly lines are vital to operation. Automation has replaced many workers in jobs where it is cost-effective due to economies of scale. The automation, in turn, tends to depend on information systems. Companies that have moved to just-in-time delivery schedules (delivery schedules where the goods required to do a job arrive just as the job requires them) have used information systems as a lever to reduce inventory costs and increase efficiency. When the lever fails, the company can no longer attain the efficiency, and collapse is almost always inevitable.

Big Business

Big businesses tend to be more physically distributed, have more managers and administrators, and use more specialization of job function than small businesses. As a result, the need to coordinate the efforts of many people is greatly increased, and the efficiency level of individuals tends to go down. In a typical dealing with a large corporation, no single individual can make a substantial decision, so more people get involved, and the same decision takes longer and costs more to make. Compare this to a very small business where every decision is made by an individual. On the other side of the coin, the redundancy provided by the corporate legal staff, the executive corps, the secretaries, the administrative assistants, and other staff members provide big business with a lot of checks on decisions that prevent many of the mistakes made in smaller companies. Yet with all of this redundancy, big companies still make mistakes and, quite often, they are big mistakes.

From an information technology standpoint, the physical distribution of big business, the specialization of staff, and the large number of employees leads to greater dependency on information technology and greater exploitation of its leverage. In most big businesses, information system failure translates directly into business failure. Payroll cannot be done without computers, receivables and payables cannot be tracked without computers, contracts cannot be generated without computers, sales people cannot get assignments or process orders without computers, the telephones don't work without computers, letters can't be sent without computers, and on and on. In a corporation with tens of thousands of employees, it is literally impossible to use an alternative manual system to get these things done. It's not just a matter of cost - there are simply too many things to do to get them all done in the time frame required in the space available. It would take months or years for most big businesses to adjust to life without information technology, and the costs of this sort of change would be so extreme that almost no big business could survive it.

Big business has also made the largest investment in automation of factories, of inventory control, in just-in-time delivery, in electronic data interchange, and in all the other leverages created by information technology. As a result, they depend even more heavily than smaller businesses on this leverage and collapse even more quickly when it is removed. A good example of the dependency on just-in-time delivery was the three day strike in August of 1994 by 3,500 employees of the General Motors plant that manufactured lights and bumpers. More than 46,000 workers were temporarily laid off as a side effect of this strike because the just-in-time delivery system makes every part of the operation highly dependent on all the other parts. [AP-GM] The same result could have been caused by computer problems. If you don't believe that, look at the case of the Denver airport, which, as of this writing, has been unable to open for more than six months because they can't get the computers that run the automated baggage handling system to work properly.

Big business tends to spend adequate resources on information technology (IT) and those who support the information technology function. In almost every big business today, there are hundreds of IT staff members who keep the systems running properly. Most big businesses also employ a substantial number of outside consultants in the IT area, and they can be called in on an emergency basis to help get through problem periods. Most big businesses have suffered through several substantial computer failures and have come to realize that their dependency on information technology is high. As a result, they have started to plan for many of the events they have seen in the past in order to mitigate future effects.

National Survival Dependencies

Nations need information systems in order to survive in much the same way as individuals and businesses. There are commonly two sides of government that operate very differently from an information dependency standpoint: the civilian side and the military side.

Civilian Government Dependency

Governments are some of the largest organizations found on this planet, and for the most part, they are extremely information-intensive. They gather more data, process more records, and produce more output than almost any other sort of organization. Storage requirements are enormous, because they tend to store a lot of historical data about a lot of people. Fetching any particular piece of data can be a mammoth task. Getting a single file commonly takes weeks and involves several hours of individual effort. A lot of information is lost or misplaced. If you are unlucky enough to be affected by such a thing, you may find that this enormous information system is very unforgiving.

In recent years, the U.S. government has made a substantial effort to reduce the complexity of this system by storing more and more information on computer systems, but the process of data entry is inherently error-prone, and the redundancy necessary to remove the errors is simply not there. As a result, errors are most often found by the people they affect.

The process of removing errors is an inherently difficult one for the affected individual. As automation has increased, so has the use of records for multiple purposes. The result has been fairly dramatic. In several recent cases, government computers have identified innocent people as criminals and the police have arrested and held them because they believed the computers, despite clear evidence to the contrary. [Risks] In some cases, correcting the error takes weeks or months and, by the time the problem is corrected in one computer, it has spread to other computers via information interchange. The victims of this kind of problem can wage a David and Goliath battle that takes years to resolve and results in the individual changing names rather than the government repairing the errors.

The U.S. government has become so dependent on information technology that all non-critical functions are shut down when information technology becomes unavailable. In the winter of 1993-4, the weather was so bad that rolling blackouts were necessary to control power usage in the Washington, D.C. area. The result was the total shutdown of the majority of the Federal government. The government simply could not operate. People may have been able to answer the telephones in some cases, but what would they tell the caller? My computer is down, so I can't help you.

If you look at the pattern, you will find that this high dependency is related to the highly distributed physical location of government sites, the large number of employees, and the enhanced efficiency provided by these information systems. The Hudson, Ohio government, for instance, is not substantially dependent on information systems, because it is small, physically in one building, and has very few employees. The national government of the United States is at the other extreme.

DoD Dependency

The Department of Defense (DoD) is dependent on information for all aspects of its operation. Historically, components of the DoD have implemented stovepiped information systems designed to fulfill special needs. These systems are called stovepiped because they perform all of the information requirements of a particular task by themselves, from sensors, to communications, to storage, to analysis, to presentation. They are special purpose because they are specially designed to the particular task.

This has resulted in a coordination problem in joint operations because integrating the diverse information stored in these stovepiped systems is difficult and time-consuming, and thus limits the tempo of operations. To fully exploit the advantages of information in warfare and to reduce the costs associated with information processing, duplicative systems, and redundant data entry, the DoD has made the doctrinal and policy decision to move toward a globally integrated Defense Information Infrastructure (the DII). [NMSD]

The complexity, scope, and timeliness requirements of DoD information processing are exemplified by some of the applications supported by the DoD. While some of these examples also provide insight into other organizations, it is important to realize that in the DoD, lives are at stake.


The accomplishment of military functions, both direct combat operations and support, depend to varying degrees upon the availability and accuracy of information. For example, most activities in modern warfare depend on the reliable communication of command and control and situational information. Many military activities rely on timely, assured access to accurate position, environment, logistics, medical, personnel, or financial information. This dependency is not static based on the content of the information. Rather, employment of particular military weapons or operational tactics at a particular operational tempo (i.e., rate) depends on the assured availability of a certain quantity and quality of information at a particular time.

By analogy, information requirements are equivalent to petroleum budgets required to maintain a particular operational tempo. If either the information or the petroleum is unavailable, the desired operational tempo will not be obtained. (This analogy is not perfect in that once petroleum is used, it is gone, while information is not consumed in its application.)

In short, nearly every component of the U.S. military and the infrastructure upon which it depends are highly dependent on information and information systems.

There are many publicly available examples of the U.S. dependency on both military and commercial information technology, including recently published examples from wartime military operations.

The U.S. Army's Chief of Staff called Desert Shield/Storm the knowledge war. \cite[p. ix]{Campen} The House Armed Services Committee said `` ...acquiring support systems consistent with high-tech weapons may be more important than buying the next generation plane or tank.'' \cite[p. xxi]{Campen} According to another author, `` ... it is very surprising that very extensive use had also to be made of the international commercial networks, Intelsat and Inmarsat''. [Ansen] Still another author wrote ``DISA and CENTCOM learned a valuable lesson: A viable information systems architecture requires the total integration of commercial and military communications systems ...''. [Slupik]

Logistics data passing over local and wide area computer networks also became vital. Regarding Marine Corps operations: ``Supply and maintenance information, \dots soon came to be seen as critical to the success of the operation. \dots these systems had to operate in the same environment as the systems that [performed command and control] functions.'' [Pierce]

Indirect Dependency

Suppose someone changed the computer-controlled temperature setting of the sterilization phase of the manufacturing process used to make meals ready to eat (MREs) for the U.S. military so that it was not hot enough to kill botulism. The end result could be military defeat, since many troops in the field might get sick.

I use this example to demonstrate how we all depend on each other. Any dependency any of us have, the rest of us may share through our interdependency. In some cases, extremely subtle dependencies can make an enormous difference. When commercial airliners crash, you may hear the term chain of events used to describe the improbable set of circumstances that combined to cause a crash. The same sorts of improbable chains of events can cause information systems to operate incorrectly.

I am not aware of this particular thing ever happening with MREs, but there certainly have been times when wells were poisoned in military conflicts to try to attain a similar effect. The rationality of the attack is quite compelling. For one thing, the risk is minimal because the MRE manufacturing plant doesn't have the same protections in place as a munitions factory. For another thing, MREs are distributed throughout the military and only widely used in real combat situations. This makes it unlikely to be detected before a real incident. Even though MREs are tested extensively in production and botulism might be detected in these tests, there are certainly other toxins that could have a similar effect that are not detected in standard testing, and which could be triggered by environmental conditions specific to a particular region where a conflict is taking place. This is a very effective information-based attack since the dependency on the information system is so subtle that even if the effect were noticed, it might be a long time before the root cause was discovered.

It turns out that almost every small business depends indirectly on some larger businesses, and vica versa. Consider how even the largest business gets its plumbing fixed when there is a leak. The vast majority of these cases are handled through very small businesses, even in companies with internal maintenance staffs. But those very small businesses in turn depend on not-so-small distributors for their parts, which depend on medium-sized and big businesses for the manufacturing of those parts, all of which depend on those small plumbing businesses for their plumbing.

So what does plumbing have to do with the information infrastructure? It's simple. Without properly working information infrastructure, the big businesses that make the parts the plumber uses would likely be unable to continue operating. The plumbers would not be able to get parts, and thus would not be able to fix the leaks. If no plumbing could be done, we would all be in (to quote a recent government official) deep doodoo. The leaks and plumbing problems would result in failures in electrical systems (due to short circuits), water damage, and eventually, air conditioning failures. Now this is key. Air conditioners depend heavily on plumbing, and the bigger the air conditioner, the more it needs to be plumbed regularly. The really big air conditioners are used to cool large office buildings, and without those cooling systems operating, the temperature increases inside those buildings by as much as 50 degrees in the summer. Now, in addition to the obvious side effect that it is uncomfortable to work in extreme heat, the effect of heat on computers is particularly devastating. At around 120 degrees, most computers will only run for a matter of an hour or two before breaking down with a hardware failure. So, as all of the computers fail, the phone system no longer works, the information infrastructure begins to fail, and as a result, operators can no longer call in a plumber to fix the air conditioners.

Now this may seem a little bit like a Rube Goldberg setup, and that's part of my point. We live in an age where we all depend on each other.

The Information Superhighway

In the great depression of the 1930s and 1940s, the government of the United States created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to employ jobless workers in the task of building up the national infrastructure. This government program not only kept millions of U.S. citizens working and eating, it also built a great deal of the transportation and recreation infrastructure our people now depend on. One of the results was greatly improved efficiency in transportation over the last 60 years, reducing the costs of goods, enabling many businesses to form and prosper that could not have existed without the infrastructure, and affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of people for the better. It is a legacy that has passed the test of time. It's not that highway development stopped when the WPA stopped. In fact, after World War II, many of the highways we use today were built over or near the sites used for the highways of the 1930s and 1940s. This infrastructure investment was the beginning of the replacement of the rail transportation system with the automotive transportation system that dominates today.

Perhaps as a part of the effort to help end the great recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the government of the United States has decided to support and encourage another infrastructure. This time, it is an information infrastructure.

\BOX{Just as transportation was a key component of success in the industrial age, communication is and will continue to be a key component of success in the information age.}

Just as the transportation capabilities built in the 1930s and 1940s made many things possible that would have been impossible without that infrastructure, the communication capabilities built in the 1990s and 2000s will make things possible that would be impossible without this infrastructure. The improved efficiency will be reflected in dramatic changes in the way our society operates.

Communication Replaces Transportation

Some speculate that the urbanization of the twentieth century will be replaced by a more and more rural economy in which people can live in beautiful country settings, own substantial amounts of land, and yet work for a large corporation whose nearest office is hundreds of miles away. If this seems hard to believe, consider that for the last eight months, I have worked most of my time from my home for a billion-dollar corporation whose nearest employee's office is more than 100 miles away from me. I have never been to that office, but I have visited offices all over the United States and in Europe for short periods for various reasons. Most of these visits would not have been needed if a good videoconferencing facility were available.

Some speculate that communication between people will replace transportation of people to a large extent. The almost universal availability of video conferencing and distributed computing that will begin in the second half of the 1990s will allow many, if not most information workers to work from home more of the time. The resulting effect on the environment, the reduced loading on the transportation infrastructure, the increased time available for workers with their families, and the increased flexibility in work schedule, will produce dramatic and fundamental changes in the way our society works.

Of course, transportation will not be completely eliminated. For example, it will still be necessary to transport food and other goods. Service-oriented jobs will require increased transportation to get to the customer base. People who want to go shopping will have further to travel, and regional stores will probably provide delivery services much as delivery services thrived in the earlier part of the century.

It is possible, likely, perhaps even closer to certain that this facet of this issue will have the most dramatic and vitally important effect on all of our lives of anything discussed so far. And yet the reason is so far afield that to even mention it may seem bizarre. Since the beginning of recorded history, there have been plagues that have wiped out on the order of 90 percent of the human race in a locality. These diseases have sprung up seemingly overnight, ravaged a society till near destruction, and then gone away as the population was so diminished that nobody susceptible was left to kill.

These plagues killed more than 90 percent of the American Indians when they first interacted with the Europeans, killed more than 90 percent of the citizens of some cities in the 1800s, and killed more than 90 percent of the people in the small villages they hit in the 1980s in Zaire. In the case of the Ebola Zaire virus, the difference between killing 90 percent of the people in a few cities and killing ninety percent of the people in the whole world, was very likely the remoteness of those populations relative to the rest of the world population at those times. [Alife]

But with modern transportation making the distance between people so short, an airborne disease in Australia may be carried to the United States on a 747 in a matter of a day. With the movement of those 400 passengers to other flights when they arrive in the United States, in a matter of 48 to 72 hours, such a disease may reach the vast majority of the population of the U.S.

So how does this relate to the information superhighway? As the world moves toward replacing transportation with communication, people will also be dramatically curtailing the spread of biological disease. If the airline steward who seeded so much of the AIDS epidemic in the United States had not been travelling, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved.

If the change is dramatic enough, information technology could prevent the next major plague from wiping out much of the population of our country. On the other side of this coin, increased exposure to diseases causes increased immunity for the survivors. The reason so many American Indians died when the Europeans came was, at least in part, because the Europeans had been exposed to such a high degree that they were all immune. In the cases of pneumonic plague and Ebola Zaire, immunity is not likely to play a very big factor, since each is so fatal so quickly.

Efficiency trades with Adaptability

In a technologically driven field under rapid change, there is a very heavy penalty for being unable to adapt quickly. Take for example the large mainframe users of today. Even six years ago, most of these organizations had few options to using a mainframe to perform their large scale computations, but today, they are stuck paying several million dollars per system and several hundred thousand dollars per year in maintenance to support computers that could be replaced for about $10,000 if it weren't for the software investment in the old computers. Over the last six years, the hardware cost has gone down by a factor of 64, while the software and maintenance costs have not substantially changed. Even going to a lower-cost mainframe only partially resolves this issue because mainframes still don't support many of the new applications and capabilities that have emerged in the last several years.

This problem is related to the astounding improvements in information technology over more than 20 years. Every two to three years, the cost of information technology has dropped by about a factor of 2, while the performance of that technology has multiplied by about a factor of 2. That comes to an effective increase in the bang-for-the-buck of about a factor of 2 per year. In terms of value for your dollar, performance that cost 1 million dollars six years ago now costs $1/64$ of that, or only about ten thousand dollars.

Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) still forces you to write off computer equipment as a capital expense over a five-year period even though two-year-old computers are obsolete in many business applications today. For example, in 1992, a PC with 500 megabytes of disk space cost about $5,000, and was a rarity. By 1994, most computers sold included more than 250 megabytes of disk space, cost less than $2,000, and systems with more than 1 gigabyte of disk space were common. Most of the systems sold in 1992 cannot support the disk requirements of the software sold for systems in 1994.

Investment with falling prices, rising performance, and rising capabilities must be shortened to reduce momentum and enable change to be handled more quickly and efficiently. To do this, I return to a law of physics, f=ma. To change more quickly, either more force must be applied, weight must be reduced, or both. When you increase force in organizations (e.g., by applying more money or pushing people to change), it puts more pressure on people. You can only push so far before the organization cracks under the strain of these pressures. The only alternative is to reduce the mass, or in other terms, reduce the dependency on the leverage provided by any specific technological element. In the process, you increase your adaptability, but reduce efficiency, and thus introduce inefficiency in exchange for the flexibility.

Dependency Effects of the Information Superhighway

The Achilles heel of building our society to run on the information superhighway is our increased dependency and our lack of adequate protection. It is likely that over time, the people who design information systems, schools, government agencies, businesses, military organizations, and infrastructure will build even more dependency on information infrastructure into our society. As we have seen, the people of the United States are so dependent today that in some cases, we literally cannot survive without information systems. As we follow this new road, we may soon reach the point of no return.

People have always had dependencies, but rarely have people depended so much on something so fragile as today's information systems. We must all take great pains to understand the nature of this fragility and to address it effectively, if we are to survive.

``The benefits of the NII for the nation are immense. An advanced information infrastructure will enable U.S. firms to compete and win in the global economy, generating good jobs for the American people and economic growth for the nation. As importantly, the NII can transform the lives of the American people - ameliorating the constraints of geography, disability, and economic status - giving all Americans a fair opportunity to go as far as their talents and ambitions will take them.'' [NII]

But this will only be true if the NII can get the right information to the right place at the right time. Recent studies have shown that U.S. industries lose billions of dollars per year because of disruptions in their information systems, [Ballou] [Crockett] and the loss is increasing year by year.

``In addition, it is essential that the FEDERAL government work with the communications industry to reduce the vulnerability of the nation's information infrastructure. The NII must be designed and managed in a way that minimizes the impact of accident or sabotage. The system must also continue to function in the event of attack or catastrophic natural disaster.'' [NII]

The U.S. economy now depends for its very survival on the information infrastructure. With the inclusion of new services including national health care, access to state and local government information, financial records, and health records, under the promise of the NII, that dependence will grow.

fred at all.net