Being Clicked

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, September 1995

Point and click. That’s the way the world works today. I’m getting so conditioned to this behavior that I’m often pointing at inert objects on my computer screen and getting disappointed when there is no response to my futile clicks. The fault is not with me, of course; some designer has obviously failed to anticipate my perfectly reasonable actions.

I can imagine a new generation of humans specially adapted to pointing and clicking. In the distant future archaeologists might unearth their bones and ponder the meaning of the vestigial left hand and the enlarged, cup-shaped right hand with a single, arched, muscular finger. The eye sockets would be large and curiously focused straight ahead, while the ears would project out from the head, better to receive sounds from the forward direction. The brain would have a design strangely reminiscent of a funnel. The academics would write research papers about how this species seemed to have been adapted to sucking up a great deal of sensory input from a nearby, frontal source, while emitting only a primal twitch of the single finger.

Given that this is where we are headed, there is a temptation in certain quarters to design a communications infrastructure around this point-and-click mentality. The clicks go upstream, and the stuff comes downstream. It’s an asymmetric world view in which a handful of bits flow upstream, representing “buys”, while megabytes of video material, representing expensive purchases of content, flow downstream.

This view of communications architecture is primarily a broadcast model. The video service providers are telling us that the only thing they want to hear from us is a “click.” The range of choices that the clicks represent is the range of material in their video servers. How fortunate for them that our needs can be defined so completely.

But now the World Wide Web has shown us a different point of view. What if -- instead of being the person who does the clicking -- you are the person who gets clicked?

So we have a new verb form. To be clicked -- indicating an urgent and immediate summons from the great networked beyond to awaken from computational slumber and provide requested material. For the aspiring army of home page creators it is the ultimate compliment. Oh, to be noticed! To be clicked! Among the millions of home pages clamoring for the precious attention of the browsers your site flares into prominence. You too are a video provider.

I recall with some shame debates that I had in years past at various conference sessions on the subject of video content provision. I felt at that time that the only known market for broadband material was entertainment video. One particular panelist challenged my position, and predicted that everyone would eventually become a video content provider. “Mitch,” I said, since that was his name, “There is no video that you can produce in your home that I would want to see.” There was a ripple of hesitant laughter from the audience. “Even that,” I added.

Looking back, however, I realize that I was wrong. Not about Mitch, of course. Although he is a most talented person himself, it is unlikely that any given individual can compete with Hollywood, sports, and the broadcast television industry. The point that I missed is that when you empower millions of people to create content, statistically you encounter some really creative ideas. These ideas come from people everywhere, not just the designated sources of pre-packaged content.

Frankly, I don’t expect to get clicked. You probably won’t get clicked either. It’s going to be a crowded world, teeming with competition for receiving clicks. Only the brightest ideas will survive and be seen. But in the history of the world, have so many people ever been empowered to create content before? Not by orders of magnitude. Thus it seems certain that some reader of this column is being clicked right now, and the world is coming to beat a footpath to that reader’s icon. Congratulations, whoever you are!

There is, however, one little problem. Being clicked implies something about the communications model. It implies symmetry, and that has become a religious argument in the telecommunications industry. If any user can become a potential source of video content, then all users must be enabled to transmit video bandwidth upstream. That isn’t possible today, and depending upon the investment and technology strategies of the industry, it may not be possible for a very long time.

Ideally, I would like a fiber into my home. Then, if I did get clicked, I’d be ready to pour stuff upstream. And if I didn’t, well at least I would have a plenitude of bandwidth for other people’s stuff. But what are the prospects for getting a fiber? Well, unless you are one of six well-advertised homes in Orlando, Florida, or some place like that, don’t hold your breath. It will be a while. Basically, that is because it costs a lot of money, in the aggregate, and there is no proven market for the bandwidth it provides.

Perhaps now the web has shown that there is such a market. Suddenly there is the glimmer of an on-coming freight train at the end of a long tunnel. You can feel the vibrations on the rails, and hear the rising noise level. But the communications infrastructure won’t support home video origination for some years. We aren’t ready for that train. As a friend recently characterized the web -- the “premature arrival of the future.” So the things you can do when you get clicked at home are limited.

I don’t mean to be too negative on this symmetry issue. Even though we won’t have fiber as soon as we’d like, the coax bus architectures from the cable and telephone industries support a certain amount of upstream bandwidth. The copper loops are generally capable of a megabit or so of data with the proper modems. ISDN should finally become ubiquitous, and I’m sure the wireless industry will find a way to get more bandwidth to us.

All so you can get clicked. As for me, well I’ll be looking for you out there somewhere. Find something really creative, and I’ll be there.

Robert W. Lucky