The French call it telematique. We call it telecomputing or telematics. Whatever you call it, the marriage of computers and communications is changing the way we work, the way we live and the way we compete with others around the world.
Throughout history, competitive advantage among cities and states has been shaped by technology and infrastructure. As MIT Historian Warner Schilling has pointed out, the glory of Athens rested on silver mines; the might of Sparta on a process for making steel; the Romans ruled through roads; and the Assyrians overran Babylon and Egypt with the chariot. Europe’s colonization of much of the world depended on clocks, the compass, gunpowder and improvements in the design of sailing ships.
Today, it’s telecomputing.
Militarily, telecomputing technologies permit modern naval fleets, “smart” bombs and command and control systems ‹ radars, guidance systems, electronic locks ‹ for managing missiles and nuclear weapons. In the economic sphere, robotics and other so-called flexible manufacturing techniques are based on telecomputing.
In the broader social context, a steadily increasing number of telecomputing technologies affect family life, the workplace and the global marketplace ‹ including “smart” systems in homes, office buildings, automobiles and highways. For example, Automatic Vehicle Identifiers ‹ called AVI systems ‹ are essentially debit cards on the windows of vehicles. An AVI permits the vehicle to pass through toll booths at 55 mph, as a telecomputer reads and checks off the toll. These are systems and services that give managers, workers and consumers more choices, greater flexibility and, increasingly, lower prices.
Old economy infrastructure included canals, seaports, railroads and highways. Airports, multi-modal cargo terminals and telecommunications are the highways of the new economy.
Success in the private sector today requires both old and new economy infrastructure. Consider Federal Express. Before Federal Express can deliver a package, its customers use telephones to order a pick-up. Its trucks use public streets and highways. Its aircraft use airports and air traffic control services, part of the infrastructure provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
FedEx dispatchers keep track of a package all along its delivery path by using a “tracker,” a wireless communication device that registers pick-up, way-points and delivery times and locations. The customer’s bill is delivered via the postal service or fax.
At each stage of the process of delivering a proprietary service, a private company relies heavily on public and private infrastructure. But it is the new economy technology and infrastructure that makes Federal Express the great success it is.
The telecomputing revolution has been the subject of April cover stories by Newsweek(April 6) and Forbes (April 13). These were preceded by a major front page story in the Sunday New York Times on March 2.
Suddenly, a serious discussion of telecommunications as the dominant technology of the 1990s is emerging from technical journals into the mass media. This augers well for our future.
The new debate is about how creative people in computers, software, telecommunications, cable TV and consumer electronics can combine to provide new products and services that will create new industries, new jobs and help America gain a competitive edge in this decade. This is a debate worth having. Its outcome will affect our wealth and well-being for a long time to come.